Creating a Credible Villain

Today’s post is all about that character we love to hate: the antagonist, also known as the villain.

VV is for Villain

an•tag•o•nist noun \an-ˈta-gə-nist\: a person who opposes another person. Synonyms: adversary, enemy, foe, archenemy, nemesis, bane, competitor, rival, villain.

The antagonist can also be a group of characters (e.g., an institution) or a force (e.g., the weather), but for purposes of this discussion it will focus on the individual as the villain. Before we begin concocting our villain, we must understand the role the antagonist plays in the story.

What is the role of the antagonist?

The antagonist should serve as:
• An opposing force
• An obstacle for the hero’s goal
• A worthy opponent

The villain is one of the two most important characters in the story. Some believe it is more important than the hero. Without the villain, there is no opposing force to create conflict and tension, and no obstacle for the hero to overcome. It’s important to note that the villain should be more powerful than the hero. This is necessary for the hero to grow (character arc) in order to win and be truly heroic.

“The hero and the bad guy are a matched set and should be of equal skill and strength, with the bad guy being just slightly more powerful than the hero because he is willing to go to any lengths to win.” ~ Blake Snyder

What are the ingredients for a credible villain?

A Physical Description
We often start with a visual of our character, so what should a villain look like? When we were young, we probably had the stereotypical image of a villain similar to this one drawn by my son when he was six:

devils body{click on image to enlarge}

There are obvious physical features that draw attention to the evil within:
• Horns,
• Claws,
• Fangs,
• Soulless eyes,
• Menacing eyebrows,
• A “meen” face,
• Drool or spit, and
• That “unicspecded” thing (Heh. Heh. I love that one. My son’s going to kill me if he ever sees this.).

This image was most likely based on the bad guys my son saw in cartoons and movies, and included villains like Scar (The Lion King), Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), and Hades (Hercules).
Disney-cartoon-villains1While these physical characteristics may still ring true for some genres, often the devil inside is not so obvious. Let’s compare some famous literary villains in the following genres:

Fantasy: often an evil king or lord like Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) and Sauron (Lord of the Rings)
Science Fiction: often an alien race or supercomputer like Khan (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Hal (2001: A Space Odyssey), and Skynet (The Terminator)
Dystopian: often a corrupt government/ruler like Big Brother/O’Brien (1984) and The Capitol/President Snow (The Hunger Games)
Horror: often a demon or psychopath like Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), Annie Wilkes (Misery), and Norman Bates (Psycho)

Villains in fantasy fiction are generally the stereotypical villains we had nightmares about in our childhood. They look the part of the villain, but usually a villain is more interesting if he appears to be something he is not.

“I like grey characters; fantasy for too long has been focused on very stereotypical heroes and villains.” ~ George R. R. Martin

A villain’s deceptive façade can actually make him more lethal because the hero may trust him, let down his defenses and become vulnerable. You know the idiom: “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Look at it this way. Here’s a stereotypical image of Satan:

www.lcaid.com
http://www.lcaid.com

Pretty creepy, right? Immediately, you know to run like hell! Here is another image of Satan from the movie, The Passion of the Christ.

SatanPassion
villains.wikia.com

Okay, that’s still creepy, but you’re not quite sure at first. There are no horns, no fangs, no claws, and no spittle to clue you into the evil within. Crafting a credible villain requires more than just an evil look or the character will feel one-dimensional.

“Far too many writers—especially beginners—think that a physical description of a character is characterization [when] it is only one factor among many in getting to know a character.” ~ Orson Scott Card

A convincing villain doesn’t just look evil. That’s boring and unimaginative.

“I try to give both my heroes and villains an emotional dimensionality which provides the motivation for their actions.” ~ Sidney Sheldon

How do you make a villain multi-dimensional? What other ingredients do you add to the mix?

An Alter Ego

star wars palpatine
starwars.wikia.com

As mentioned above, a villain is more interesting if he (or she) has a charismatic alter ego that is viewed as good, but his true motivations are lurking under the surface. Chancellor Palpatine from Star Wars is a good example. His public persona is one of a well-intentioned public servant. He seems like such a nice guy until…

en.wikipedia.org
en.wikipedia.org

Yikes!

He reveals his true intentions when we see him as Darth Sidious, Lord of the Sith, with a lust for power, and a desire to rule the galaxy.

“Satan in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is the most erudite, charismatic villain ever. This is our biggest human weakness: how sexy we can find evil and oh, how dangerous that is. Every time I see a declaiming politician, all I can think of is Milton’s Satan, still wooing us 400 years later.” ~ Patrick Ness

A Back Story

A villain needs a back story that explains how he or she turned evil. What incident caused him or her to turn to the dark side?

“Knowing a person’s past revises our understanding of who he is today.” ~ Orson Scott Card

Even Satan has a back story. Before his fall, Satan was known as Lucifer (meaning “dawn of light” or “light bearer”), and he ranked highest among the angels in heaven. He was wise, beautiful, powerful, and righteous. All of this eventually went to his head, and he succumbed to one of the seven deadly sins: pride. He felt he was too superior to bow down to God. He thought he deserved praise and worship, too. He incited a rebellion, but God defeated him and cast him from Heaven to earth as a fallen angel.

A Treasure

A villain needs something (or someone) to treasure, something he cares about most in the world and will go to great lengths to protect, regardless of the cost to others.

Let’s consider Darth Vader. Before his turn to the dark side he was known as Anakin Skywalker, a jedi-in-training with a prideful arrogance about his powers and a thirst for more. He broke Jedi code and married Padme. She was the one thing he loved most in the world and when he had a premonition of her death he vowed to do anything to save her. His wish to save Padme caused him to turn to the power of the dark side, but Chancellor Palpatine (Darth Sidious) deceived him and she died anyway.

Actions

“People become, in our minds, what we see them do.” ~ Orson Scott Card

We need to see the villain in action. This is why “show, don’t tell” is so important. The author could simply tell the reader that the villain is a murderer, but if a scene shows him shooting someone, then we know he’s a murderer and we get a better sense of just how wicked he is. However, action alone isn’t enough to reveal a character’s true nature.

A Goal or Motive

A villain needs to be motivated by something or have a goal he is desperate to achieve. This goal should be in direct conflict with that of the hero.

“Motive is what gives moral value to a character’s acts. What a character does, no matter how awful or how good, is never morally absolute: What seemed to be murder may turn out to have been self-defense, madness, or illusion; what seemed to be a kiss may turn out to have been betrayal, deception, or irony.” ~ Orson Scott Card

Judas, anyone? When Judas Iscariot kissed Jesus, it was not an act of affection, but of betrayal. Greed motivated him to betray. He received thirty pieces of silver for turning Jesus over to the chief priests.

Gollum is another example. What was he desperate to find?

gollum my precious
His goal was in direct conflict with Frodo’s. They were both seeking the ring, one to destroy it and one to use it for selfish purposes.

A Phobia or Weakness

A villain needs something to fear, a weakness that can be exploited to the hero’s advantage. Let’s use Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter as an example. What did he fear? What was his weakness? He feared the prophecy that foretold of a wizard with the power to destroy him. He feared death so much he sought immortality. He split his soul several times when he created horcruxes to store “copies” of his soul. He didn’t realize, or didn’t care, that the process would leave him less than human.

Voldemort: “There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!”

Dumbledore: “You are quite wrong. Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.”

A Brain

A villain needs a brain. He must be intelligent to be a formidable opponent. If he’s an idiot and makes stupid decisions, then the hero doesn’t need to try very hard to win. We need the hero to fight. His struggle is what engages the reader and has the reader on pins and needles wondering how he will outsmart the villain.

Consider Khan from Star Trek. He was a member of an alien race, so superior in intellect that you wonder with growing angst how Captain Kirk can possibly defeat him.

A Twisted Psyche

A villain needs a distorted view of the world and his place in it. Villains are incredibly narcissistic and often view themselves as heroic. They are somehow able to justify despicable actions (oppression, torture, mass genocide) as necessary for some greater good. Twisted, yes, but most villains don’t realize their morality is skewed.

So there you have it, the recipe for a credible villain. Oh, and don’t forget to add in that “unicspecded” thing.  😉

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Definition source: http://www.merriam-webster.com

“Devil Inside”
Here comes the woman
With the look in her eye
Raised on leather
With flesh on her mind
Words as weapons sharper than knives
Makes you wonder how the other half die
Other half die

Here come the man
With the look in his eye
Fed on nothing
But full of pride
Look at them go
Look at them kick
Makes you wonder how the other half live

The devil inside
The devil inside
Every single one of us the devil inside

The devil inside
The devil inside
Every single one of us the devil inside

Here come the world
With the look in its eye
Future uncertain but certainly slight
Look at the faces
Listen to the bells
It’s hard to believe we need a place called hell

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9 thoughts on “Creating a Credible Villain”

  1. In regards to the ‘brain’, sometimes a villain is made to be too smart and arrogant. I’m not sure how popular the egotistical beyond a fault villain is today, but it’s definitely a classic. I’ve always wondered about that part of villainy. There’s usually some level of confidence in what they’re doing that borders on blind egotism.

  2. I love your points here about villains, and got to thinking about the alter ego. It’s great to have villains that aren’t obvious, but it can be a challenge to reveal their villainy in a way that the audience will believe. I had a bit of mental jarring with the villain in the Disney movie Frozen (not spoiling here in case someone hasn’t seen it). It just didn’t seem right to me (too abrupt). Maybe I have a bias where cartoon villains should be simpler. 😉

    1. I know exactly what you’re talking about with Frozen. It was mentally jarring. There have to be some hints if a character is going to change so dramatically.

      It reminds me of something JKR said about Snape. She planned his character arc from the outset of book one and made sure she dropped hints along the way (without being too obvious), so readers wouldn’t have a negative reaction to it (a character who seemed to be a villain, but turned out otherwise).

      1. Yes, it’s all about the hints! When I saw it the second time, I went through it with a watchful eye in case I had missed something. No hints that I could tell. Too bad, because otherwise it was a lot of fun to watch. I love how JKR draws characters – she handled Snape’s arc so well!

  3. The point on the complexity of the antagonist and that quote of George RR Martin are both so spot on. It makes a villain far more interesting if it’s not a simple case of black and white. One of things I liked about the Game of Thrones books is that there was often a conflict where you found yourself rooting for the villain for a bit because George RR Martin had managed to make them sympathetic despite being a villain.

    Likewise on the point of the villain being that little bit better than the hero – there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a story where the hero gets everything right and overcomes the villain like a walk in the park.

      1. Worse, I’ve read a book where the heroine came across as really annoying because she was always right, and did everything perfect! Struggling makes people likeable – we all struggle with something or another so we can empathise 🙂

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