It’s always nice when the planets align and a big blog does an article on villains, 6 Ways to Write Better Bad Guys by Brian Klems, the exact same week I had planned a writing exercise centering on making your villain stronger.
Villains have many names: adversary, antagonist, villain, bully, menace, evil genius, and so on. I enjoy books that have a character who plays the worthy adversary to the protagonist. If that adversary has redeeming qualities or reasons for doing bad that I can identify with, the enjoyment I get from the book increases tenfold. Why? Because I can sympathize with the villain. It doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with their evil deeds, but if I understand how they came to be, my investment in the story deepens.
So what happens when an author fails to give their antagonist their due? The story suffers because that characterization doesn’t stand up to the protagonist and often times feels like a cardboard cutout to suit the needs of the author for a plot device that adds tension to the story without any real substance. Characters, both good and bad, are more believable if they are based in reality. In other words, people are not all good or all bad. They have varying degrees of good and bad in them. And maybe good and bad are the wrong terms to use here. People have strengths and weaknesses, and how they use them and interact with those around them largely determines how society will label them. The same holds true for the villain.
A villain who hates brunettes who remind him of his mother but volunteers three times a week at the local boys club is much more interesting than the villain who simply hates women. Readers will see the good in a character that does bad things and will wonder how they came to be the way they are. If the author gives insight into this character’s past or shows his interactions with the boys in a way that gives the reader a glimpse into the villain’s mind, the story becomes richer and fuller because the villain has substance and has earned a little of the reader’s sympathy. Some of my favorite “bad” characters come to mind: Darth Vader, Gollum, Jack Torrance, Hannibal Lecter, and Inspector Javert, to name a few. Even Jane Austen does a fine job casting John Willoughby as the villain in Sense and Sensibility.
The writing exercise this week centers around your antagonist who is a real character and not the all-powerful entity, such as a corrupt government. List the characteristics of your antagonist, both good and bad. Then do the same for your protagonist. Next select one of the best traits that belongs to your protagonist and give it to your antagonist. Now, rewrite a crucial scene involving the antagonist. How does the new trait change the motivations and actions of your antagonist? Does it change the way other characters view or interact with the antagonist? What did you learn about your villain and did it improve their characterization?
If you’re up to taking this a step further, do this same exercise again but give your protagonist one of your antagonist’s worst traits and repeat the exercise.