Everyone knows that characters drive story. Our heroes and heroines and anti-heroes and comic reliefs give us a human or anthropomorphized experience. Sometimes the story is exciting– action, adventure, romance. Sometimes it is subtle and nuanced– family drama, unrequited love, finding purpose.
Either way, whether the plot is big or small, whether our main character is likable or irredeemable, creating unique, fully-rounded characters is a fundamental element of storytelling. These people are the lens through which a tale is told, and who they are–and how well the author knows them– directly influences that story. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who didn’t understand the importance of heroes and heroines.
The same can’t always be said of the villains, however.
For the purpose of simplicity and clarity, let’s agree on villains to mean the bad guy, the antagonist, the bully, the character standing in the way or directly attempting to sabotage our protagonist’s goals and happiness. This could be an international terrorist, a foreign leader, a drug dealer, a high-school mean girl, or a nagging mother. In psychological dramas or books with unreliable narrators, that character can even be the protagonist, themselves, but for this blog, that does not apply.
The problem with villains (aside from the obvious), is that they’re far easier to caricature. We spend months slaving over our heroes, their faults, their secrets, their catch-phrases. How do they react to bad situations? How do they react to good ones? Since a book or short story is so directly driven by character, we emphasize character, humanity, with its faults and foibles.
But God Bless the bad guy because that’s already been done. Sure, teenage girl with surprise superpowers has already been done. Sure, brooding noir detective with a drinking problem has already been done, but a good writer will knowingly work to upset the stereotype, to create something new and unique.
With villains, it’s a little easier to pretend that’s not important.
See, we all know the bad guy. We’ve all got our mean girl, we understand why international terrorists are people to be avoided. The bad guy has tropes, and rather than the enormous pitfalls that appear by falling into those tropes as a protagonist, bad guy tropes are molehills, divots, where you can sprain your ankle or twist your knee and not realize it for a hundred pages.
Despite the prevalence of bad guys in the world, of abstract evil and recurring villains in the grand drama of life, it is just as important for authors to get to know their villains as it is for them to know their protagonists. We must understand everything about this person– are they power hungry, money hungry or intent on causing destruction for the sake of destruction? What drove them to this path and will anything derail them from it? They can still be lethal and psychopathic, they can still be rough and dangerous and cruel. But it is important that they are real.
Because the minute an author introduces a weak villain, a villain who looks like a Stormtrooper or a hired gun from a Bond movie, the minute a villain resembles all the villains who’ve come before–all the mean high school girls, all the mafia bosses, is the minute your protagonist dies. It doesn’t matter how well you know them, it doesn’t matter how well you sculpted them from the depths of your mind.
A hero is only as good as his strongest villain.
If the challenge isn’t worth it, if the villain isn’t real, concrete and unique, then that special protagonist isn’t either. Instead, they are bested by this two-dimensional, cartoon bad guy that never came free of the page. Villains need to be good or they need to be gone.
Think of your favorite bad guys– Think of Voldemort, of Darth Vader, of Regina George. These characters are as deeply developed and rounded as the heroes whose story we are following. In Series of Unfortunate Events, Count Olaf is cunning, manipulative and persistent. In OutlanderBlack Jack Randall fakes decency and politeness before his men, hiding the monster below, the one that comes out when he is alone with Claire.
Good villains are what really makes for a good story, what makes for seemingly insurmountable challenges, obstacles, and journeys. As we watch Harry Potter grow, we are also witnessing the evolution of Lord Voldemort, his rise, and fall of power, the physical and emotional changes of a man who is no longer a man.
It is easy to let villains who’ve come before seep into your own. The bad guy is consistent, easy to imagine, a fill-in-the-blanks character, if you allow it to be. Don’t allow it to be. Make your villain ruthless, subtle, wicked, funny. Make your villain different from all the rest. But most importantly, make your villain someone worth fighting.
Because that’s how you get a book worth reading. ♦