Nail Your Villain

via Sam Lavy, Flickr

Who doesn’t love a good — er, bad villain? Some excellent examples are Prince Regal in The Farseer Trilogy, Norman Bates from Psycho, Commodus* in Gladiator, Professor Umbrage from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Eremus from Mordant’s Need, Arienrhod in The Snow Queen.

What makes them so bad we love ‘em and can’t wait to see them brought low?
Humanity.
Yup, you read right. A villain—or antagonist, adversary—is so much more believable and so much more frightening when he’s not simply evil for the sake of being evil. As author Ben Bova noted, “No one actually sets out to do evil.” (12 Things I Wish I had Known When I Started Writing) From his point of view he’s not the bad guy at all. He has goals, feelings, regrets, dreams, wants, and needs just like the protagonist. They just happen to get in the way of our leading character, whose sterling qualities would look a lot different from the other side of the tale.
So what makes this chill-producing, nightmare-inducing opponent work?
  1. He’s trying to accomplish something achievable. “Conquering the world” is usually a little over the top, but conquering a city, country, person, culture, belief, or behavior is perfectly credible.
  2. He has motivation. “I’m just evil that way” ain’t it. He needs to right a wrong, seek justice, prevent what he believes is disaster.
  3. He has feelings about what he’s doing. Does he believe he’s superior to his opponent or the situation he’s in? Is he bitter? Humiliated? Vengeful?
  4. He has depth. While his purpose may drive him (and may drive him around the bend a bit), there are other things going on in his life. Normal things. He enjoys the opera, collects chess sets, is an avid rider, and a smashing yachtsman. There are things about him that people like or respect besides his fearsome temper, ninja skillz, or deadly aim.
These are all things I’m keeping in mind as I’m circling around the villain in my current WIP and getting to know him better. He’s a tough cookie, both for my protagonist and for me, but I’m enjoying the challenge, and I can’t wait for you to meet him!
*Does anyone else see “commode” when they read the name “Commodus”?

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Who are some of your favorite villains or antagonists?

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