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Wonderfully Wicked: Writing Villains

Clever, cunning, merciless--who doesn't love a good villain? Especially in the fantasy genre, villains are often over-the-top and bigger than life, driving the story's excitement and danger. Whether they're charming, chilling, or the perfect combination, something about them just makes them a favorite of most readers.

But they're not so easy to write. It's harder than it seems to craft an antagonist who can challenge your hero, threaten their loved ones or home, and still resonate with readers and stay memorable after they've turned the last page. I struggle with it as much as any other writer, so I'm here to break down all the many factors I take into account when creating my villains.

Motivation and Backstory

Every villain needs a motivation--their why, as you may have seen me refer to it in the past. Every character has a goal within a story--what they're trying to accomplish--and that usually isn't too hard to pin down. Most villains want one of a handful of typical things; power and revenge tend to top the list. But a motivation goes deeper and digs into why they want to gain that thing. What in their past, personality, or world drives them to seek out their not-so-nice goal? Were they hurt by someone they loved and trusted? Did they lose something or someone important to them? Did they suffer some injustice at the hands of society? This is tied very closely to a villain's backstory--their life leading up to the book's beginning--and the two often influence one another. By giving attention to these two elements and making sure you understand them fully, your villain comes to life and becomes more than just a blank evil slate. A motivation adds depth and shades of gray to your character.

Which leads me straight into...

Shades of gray

Cue the 50 Shades of Gray jokes. I know, I know, but there's a reason the book got its title. One of my personal favorite terms for describing characters is "morally gray"--which you'll find me use for characters of mine like Raeth from Tide or Maize from The Otherworld Trilogy, who may take the more questionable road for what at heart may be a good cause. Many villains are similar if you look deep into them; at heart, they often have a core intention that's not so bad, even if it only started out that way. Finding your villain's shade of gray is a great way to build up what kind of character and villain they are and how they act through the story.

So how do you do that? Consider not only your villain's motivation but their personality, flaws, and virtues. I'm a big believer that no character is entirely black or white, even if they're just a shade off either way--even the most evil of villains have some good points to them. By taking into account what led them to the dark side, whether they believe--or care--that they're on that side at all, and how far they're willing to go to accomplish their goals, you'll find where on the spectrum the character falls. There's no right or wrong shade, and don't be afraid to let your villain jump around as they develop and learn.

Another thing I love to look at? A villain's relationship with other characters. Whether it's your protagonist or their trusty goon, villains are people just like everybody else, and in most cases aren't isolated. Consider who they interact with and how those interactions go, even "off-screen". Despite their wicked ways, are there people they still care about or trust? Are they protective of or have a soft spot for anybody? Or do they prefer to keep all vulnerabilities to themselves?

Villains and Heroes

Probably an obvious fact: your villain and hero need to somehow go together. So using your hero, if they're already created, can be an invaluable tool for creating your villain. Keep in mind that any good story has rising and falling waves of tension, and you have to strike a delicate balance in that. Too easy to defeat the villain, and what's the point of telling the story? Too difficult, and your reader sees no hope and no reason to root for your hero. It isn't always easy to find their respective strengths that fit together, but it's necessary. Stuck on where to start? Take a look at your protagonist's strengths and consider what would stand against them. Or flip it: look at their weaknesses and consider how they could be taken advantage of. Once you've done that, do the same from the villain's side. It may be helpful to make a list of ideas and pick out ones that create a balance of power between the two characters. Remember, it's okay for it not to be exactly equal--especially if you plan to make your protagonist stronger throughout the story, or you're planning a tragic ending--but too much of an imbalance throws the story off.

Another great way to figure out what strengths or abilities your villain should have? Look at why they're against the protagonist in the first place. Why, of all people, are these two enemies? Is it by chance, or do they have some connection? Did one wrong the other? Determining why this character is the villain of this story can give you a lot of answers about who they are and what they can or want to do.

On this note, however, be cautious of the Chosen One or prophecies. While there's nothing wrong with them and I'll never say not to write something, they're popular tropes that can make a writer lazy with character development. If you choose to go this direction, make sure to include more reasoning for both characters than just that they're "chosen" or "destined". There are a lot of fun twists you can put on these tropes, so let your imagination run wild with it and create a new, unique version of a well-known story.

Redemption arcs

I love a good redemption arc. I really do. I love seeing a villain I hated to the core turn around into one of my favorite characters. But as fantastic as they can be to read (and as fun as they can be to write), think carefully before you jump into giving your villain one.

The big question here: Is your villain redeemable? Take into account what they've done up until this point in the story and who they are as a person. Some people just don't want to be redeemed, and if it's out of character for your villain to care about that, a redemption arc may come off as forced and sudden. Additionally, some acts just aren't redeemable. Not all villains are built for redemption, and it can be nice to leave them just where they are. But if you feel they have the potential and want to give them a second chance, go for it. A character's motivation and backstory may play a big part in deciding this; if they have a motivation that, at the core, isn't so bad, but went down the wrong path for it, you'll probably have a lot of material to use to redeem the character. Smaller villains who have a history of being manipulated or controlled by a "big bad" are also prime candidates for redemption.

If you're going for it, carefully think about what it will take to redeem this character. What have they done in the past? What would they need to do to make up for it? Will they seek out the forgiveness of the characters they've hurt or wrong, and if so, how? Remember to take it slow--it's not a race, and it wouldn't make sense for your protagonist's would-be killer to be their buddy two days later. Be sure to also look at these things from the perspective of your now-former villain; if they've come to see the error of their ways, are they plagued by guilt for what they did? Do they become a shining beacon of kindness to make up for it, or does it eat away at them and affect their mood and actions further? How do they come to terms with it, or do they not at all? Your character may no longer be a villain, but their time as one remains a part of their history and who they are.

True Evil

As much as I like to talk about shades of gray and virtuous villains, sometimes a story calls for someone who's just plain bad. Sometimes you need a truly terrible, irredeemable act, and if that's what your story needs don't shy away from it. But it can be daunting to tackle. Keep a few things in mind:

1. Do your research. Whatever kind of terrible plot point you're planning, look into it beforehand. You may think you know just what you want to write, but sometimes a little research not only boosts up the scene in general, but can save you from potentially dangerous consequences. These kinds of topics are usually ones that you want to handle carefully, and it's important to learn how to write them accurately but sensitively, so you don't cause any trouble for readers who may have personal experiences or triggers. Sensitivity readers or those with firsthand experience (who are willing and comfortable to help, of course) can be very valuable for knowing you're on the right track. If you don't know anybody who may be willing or able to help, writing groups or communities on social media can often point you in the right direction.

2. Know your reasoning. Substance vs shock value can be a problem in writing--you want to make sure anything you include in your story serves a purpose, or it'll bog down your writing. Make sure you have a solid reason for including what you're planning, whether it drives forward the plot, a character's development, or a relationship. Shocking your readers rarely plays out well.

A Final Note: Antiheroes vs Villains

I've seen people who confuse these two, so I thought I should include a little bit about them. Antiheroes are not villains, and villains are not antiheroes, but they share quite a few similarities. An antihero is a protagonist--a "good guy"--who doesn't necessarily have heroic traits. They often come from a rough or dark background and are willing to take a more violent or otherwise "bad" approach to achieving their goals, but still ultimately do it for something good, or at least the reader is meant to believe so. A villain, on the other hand, may have similar personality traits or methods of doing things, but are obviously a "bad guy". A villain may become an antihero, or an antihero may become a villain, and it can be surprisingly easy (and fun!) for characters to walk the line in between.

But to put it simply, if you're wondering which your character is, look at what side of your conflict they're on. Good = antihero, bad = villain.

Who's your favorite villain?

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