Beyond Dr. Evil: Writing a Memorable Villain
Writers spend a lot of time thinking about their main character. We may have whole notebooks devoted to the protagonist’s backstory. We have family trees, charts, and Pinterest boards of photos that serve as inspiration for how the character looks and dresses.
But often, the antagonist is an afterthought. Movies are filled with evil villains that have become caricatures of themselves. From the evil stepmother in “Cinderella” to Ronan the Accuser in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (the movies, not the comics), the “bad guy” is often a character with a single-minded obsession (and not a lot else). Sure, they can be fun to hate. But at the end of the story, do we really want to know more about the character? Or are we just glad they got what they deserved?
How does a writer go beyond stereotypes and create a memorable “bad guy”?
One answer is that a writer should spend as much time developing the villain (antagonist) as she does developing the protagonist. What if the writer approaches the antagonist as if she was a main character? What if the villain has as rich of a backstory as the protagonist? When developing the bad guy/girl, get inside their head. Why are they doing what they’re doing? The writer should know the villain’s motivation just as she knows the protagonist’s.
Often, from the antagonist’s perspective, she’s doing the right thing. She doesn’t consider herself bad or evil. She may even have a noble goal or agenda. The villain may even be after the same thing as the protagonist. The two characters could have many parallels. But what sets the villain apart is that she goes about achieving her goal it in a way that is unethical, illegal or prone to hurting those that stand in her way. Sometimes it’s the method, not the motivation that makes the character as villain as opposed to a hero.
Another way to ensure that the “baddie” goes beyond stereotype is to stay away from the pure evil caricature. If a writer allows for shades of grey with the antagonist, the character will feel more real and less like an archetype. Find ways to show your antagonist being human. What if the villain just bombed a building full of people to hide incriminating evidence then goes home and gets down on the floor and plays with his baby? If the writer works these types of humanizing scenes into the story, the villain will be more well rounded and interesting to the reader.
What are some examples of successful villains? Many fans love to hate Loki from the successful Thor movies. Loki, as played by Tom Hiddleston, is one of the more complex “villains” in the Marvel franchise. Is he a good guy or bad guy? He vexes Thor yet genuinely grieves the loss of his mother. He loves and respects his father yet schemes to take the throne from him. Loki both loves and hates Thor. These dualities – these shades of grey within the character – keep fans wondering what he’ll do next. We’re never quite certain about Loki and that keeps him from being a stereotypical, pure evil villain.
Another fabulous “villain” is Cersei Lannister from the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Cersei is a nasty bitch that we love to hate but she never feels like a caricature. How does GRRM achieve this? One way is that Cersei isn’t solely evil. Sure, she does her share of heinous things to many people. But she also expresses love and caring for her children. And from time-to-time the author shows her battling within herself over her choices. It’s not that she has no conscience. It’s just that her lust for power and position means that she’ll override her conscience. That makes her far more interesting than the stereotypical psychopath.
At least that’s my reading of Cersei and why I love to hate her. Make no mistake, I would like to see a dragon set her on fire for all she’s done to people in the epic saga! But GRRM’s deft handling of the character is what makes readers feel so passionately about her (hopefully) ultimate demise.
Do you have a favorite villain/antagonist/baddie in a story? Who is your favorite? If you’re a writer, how do you breathe life into your antagonists?
Natalie is the author of H.A.L.F., a young adult science fiction series, and The Akasha Chronicles, a young adult fantasy trilogy. She lives in the high desert of Tucson, Arizona with her husband, tween daughter, and two young cats.
Natalie spends her time writing, reading, hanging out on social media, and meeting readers and fans at festivals and comic cons throughout the western United States. She likes to walk in the high desert, snorkel in warm waters, travel, and share excellent food and conversation with family and friends. She was raised an Ohio farm girl, lives in the desert Southwest, and dreams of living in a big city high rise.
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