Every protagonist needs a worthy opponent. When it comes to crafting the villain, it’s important to put just as much work into his backstory and motivations as you did for your hero. After all, blowout games are boring to watch, a weighted dice isn’t fun to play with, and a weak or cardboard villain is dull to read. Your hero needs a true challenge, and to be challenged, she needs an equal match in her antagonist.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing the villain.
An Antagonist is a Person, Not an Idea
This is my first tip because if you get this part wrong, your whole manuscript might fall apart. Believe me, I’ve been there. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, I was inspired to write a book about “greed.” All of the bank collapses and foreclosures got to me, and I wanted to explore this issue. But an issue isn’t a book. An issue might be an essay or an article, but an issue has no plot or character arcs. I found myself with an idea in want of a story, and let’s just say that novel went nowhere.
An antagonist has to be a person who acts, and in acting, keeps the hero from getting what she wants when she wants it. When an antagonist is a person doing things, you can have a plot. When you have an impersonal force creating market conditions or geopolitical conflicts, a lowly individual will never win that battle. It’s beyond the ability of one person to change a recession or a war.
A hero can fight against a greedy mortgage lender, though. A protagonist general can battle another from the opposing side. You can still be inspired and write about big ideas so long as you personify them with an actual person who’s a proxy for the idea.
Every Hero Needs a Worthy Opponent
Make sure your antagonist is as compelling as the protagonist. Remember, your villain is a person too, which means she needs to be as complex as the hero. A villain is the hero of his own story. A villain has motivations, flaws (and not just the evil part), a good side, a back story, and values. The villain’s values might be skewed or nuts, but she has them.
Let’s take Captain Hook as an example. Captain Hook is a bad guy who sends Peter Pan a bomb disguised as a gift, and that’s just for starters. He’s definitely the villain. However, Hook has beef with Pan because Pan cut off his hand during a duel and fed the hand to a crocodile, who’s been menacing Hook ever since. Under the circumstances, Hook has cause to be sore.
In this instance, Captain Hook has a backstory, motivation, and even a flaw. He’s so obsessed with getting Pan that it causes him to make mistakes. Ultimately Peter stays one step ahead of Hook, but just barely. Hook is such a compelling character that they made a movie about him from his perspective: 1991’s Hook with Robin Williams. Imagine your own villain as the star of his show. Make sure the character is meaty enough to carry the story, if need be.
A Note on the Beloved Antagonist
Comic books hit every mark with villains: they are the hero’s arch enemy: worthy, smart, capable, and often a step ahead of the hero. These villains share traits with the protagonist and in many ways are the hero’s mirror image. But what about different types of books? Think women’s fiction or literary stories, which wouldn’t have an evil character per se. How do villains function in those types of novels?
The answer is that these antagonists have the same function as they would in a graphic novel. They are there to stand in the way of the hero or heroine getting what they want. Sometimes the villain is also the love interest. A great example of that is from the movie, You’ve Got Mail. In the story, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’ characters are falling for each other, but in fact, they are business rivals. In their capacity as competitive bookstore owners, they are trying to stop each other from getting a leg up in the industry.
The villain isn’t evil or even nasty in this type of story. In fact, the villain might love the hero. However, the villain must truly believe that what the heroine wants isn’t good for her and therefore work hard to stop it. As an author, you’ll have to find a reason why the characters don’t just have a good chat about their issues and resolve them. In the case of the You’ve Got Mail, neither knows the other’s true identity because their love match takes place in the anonymity of a chat room.
My bottom line tip for writing the villain is to respect him. Respect him enough to create motivations, desires, and an origin story as compelling as the protagonist’s. The villain doesn’t have to be an equal star with the hero, but this character needs agency. The more people who make choices and respond to those choices, the more interesting your book will be.