Villains are, quite literally, the embodiment of a love-hate relationship. We hate the way they terrorize our favorite main characters, but we also love how dramatic and indulgently evil they are. Villains are also crucial to the plot, because without them, there wouldn’t likely be any conflict. And without conflict, there’s no story. Sleeping beauty wouldn’t have needed a rescuer if Maleficent didn’t drug her.
But there’s still an art form to this – like everything in writing, you don’t want to create villains merely for the sake of having a villain. They have to do something for the story. In this week’s article, I’m exploring what it is about villains that makes readers take notice. They gotta do more than just fly away on a broomstick and cackle while your protagonist angrily shakes their fist in the air. Great villains make you hate them, but the best villains make you question your sanity when you start to love them.
The best villains make you switch teams.
No – not like that – get your head back in the game! I meant, you’re rooting for the protagonist the whole time. Then you find yourself quietly sympathizing with the villain’s sob-worthy backstory. What’s with that? That, my friend, is called a fantastic villain. When they infect your brain with their not-so-flawed logic and it takes root, you question the entire book’s premise. Villains like this give you a new worldview to look through. Sometimes a walk on the wild side wearing dark-lensed glasses brings a new layer to the story that you never saw coming.
They make you redefine what a villain is.
Maybe they’re not actually evil. They’re just the only one brave enough to call out the protagonist on their fairytale bull. Great examples of this would be Sharpay Evans from the High School Musical franchise. She was always my favorite because of her sparkly, pink aesthetic despite her caustic attitude – but some new fan theories made some very valid points. She wasn’t evil – she just worked hard her whole life to get the lead role, and was pissed when a rookie jumped in to steal it from her. Anything nefarious she did in the movies was an attempt to level the playing field. In this way, villains aren’t always evil – sometimes, they’re just victims righting a wrong. Really makes you question everything, doesn’t it?
Great villains create darkness so the light can shine.
How do they do this? Well, take a note from Jade West as seen in Nickelodeon’s Victorious franchise. She’s an indulgently creepy goth chick, who somehow dates the hottest guy in school (who’s perpetually afraid of her – and for good reason). Although her exterior is off-putting and she’s hilariously aggressive with a taste for the macabre, she doesn’t usually do anything that bad. Her villainous nature merely provides an oppositional context for the protagonist – Tori Vega – to make it shine. Yes, she does occasionally complicate the plotline a little, but her villainous status is really just highlighting the brightness of other characters. And somehow, she’s still part of their friend group. This gives the unique effect of her not actually being hated at all – rather, she’s beloved by viewers. I even plan to loosely base one of my upcoming main characters off of her general vibe! So take what she offers, and add that to your next villain. Maybe it’s not so much that they do bad things, but rather that they hold an air of instability that makes readers question when they’ll snap.
The best villains make your main character fight to be their best.
Growth comes out of conflict – that’s obvious in any book you read. So the best villains push your character to face their fears, obliterate their weaknesses, and choose grace over bitterness. A tragic backstory may also serve as a cautionary tale, warning your main character about what can happen if they deviate from their conscience. The keyword here is layers – because you can’t have a story that’s all pastels and cotton candy. You need some gray, blue, and burgundy to keep it interesting and multi-faceted. Plus fight scenes in these conditions add a lot to your story. For more help with those, read this recent article HERE.
With all these in mind, it’s still true that villains do forward the plot. But my hope is that this post has inspired you to view them as so much more than just that. Treat your villains as their own characters with complex motives, and you’ll have your readers questioning their own sanity in no time.