In my first-year English class at the University of Western Ontario, we dissected John Milton’s Paradise Lost—an epic poem set in heaven, hell, and the Garden of Eden during the creation and fall of man. I didn’t keep many of my English “textbooks,” but I kept that one. It was the start of my love affair with villains.
As a Christian, I knew how Paradise Lost would end before I started reading, but Milton’s Satan still managed to plant that tiny seed of doubt. Here was a truly frightening villain. One with believable motivation, smart, charismatic, deceptive. Was I really sure that he wasn’t going to win?
That’s what you want your reader to ask themselves. Nothing will keep them more riveted to your book.
For all you fiction writers out there, here’s what my (potentially abnormal) fascination with villains has taught me.
Often the first thing that jumps to mind when we hear “villain” is murderer, kidnapper, terrorist, or crooked cop. Technically, though, a villain can be anyone who has the potential to do serious harm to your hero. That can mean the husband stealer or the slanderer too. How much your reader wants to see them fail and get their comeuppance all depends on you. Just remember that sometimes the best villains are the ones we least expect.
(Unfortunately, even I have to admit that not every story needs a villain. If your story doesn’t need one, don’t add one in. He’ll end up more like Wile E. Coyote or the Prince from Shrek. Your readers will laugh at him, not fear him.)
Make Him Formidable . . .
The stronger your hero, the stronger your villain needs to be. Introduce doubt that your hero is going to win this one by showing how smart, resourceful, charismatic, or sneaky your villain is. Better yet, give him strengths that match your hero’s weaknesses. Your readers should develop a grudging respect for his abilities even if they can’t respect how he uses them.
Let your villain win as few rounds as well, forcing your hero to adapt and grow if she’s going to survive. A stupid villain who’s easily caught isn’t scary. Or memorable.
. . . Yet Also Relatable
No one is pure evil. Maybe she’s kind to animals or maybe he volunteers at a homeless shelter. Figure out your villain’s soft underbelly and you’ve not only added a new dimension to his character but also have something that the hero can possibly use to defeat him. Lisa wrote a disturbing short story where her villain kept his step-daughter alive while murdering other girls. He felt that doing that proved he wasn’t a bad man. His kindness to her also led to be his downfall, allowing her to eventually escape.
Aside from this, a really good villain should act like a darkened mirror, reflecting back the worst in ourselves and forcing us to face it. That selfishness, that jealousy, that desire to hurt . . . we’re all only a few steps away from it. We should relate to a good villain in the same way that we relate to a good hero. Both should make us want to be better than we are.
Give Him Strong Motivation
Despite what you see on Criminal Minds, most killers aren’t psychopaths, sociopaths, or suffering from a dissociative break. Criminal Minds has one hour in which to scare you, disgust you, and make you feel relief. A random killer who could target you next if he’s not caught works well within those restrictions.
In real life, most people are killed by someone they know. The killer has a good reason (in their minds at least) for why they committed their crime. To them, their actions are logical, perhaps even noble. Even if your villain isn’t going to be murdering or kidnapping, you need to know why she’s standing in the hero’s way. It shouldn’t be random.
Ask yourself some questions: Why is she causing trouble? What has brought him to this point? How does he justify what he’s doing? Why does she keep going even when she faces opposition?
(For an example of what I mean about motivation, check out “A Purple Elephant.”)
The Anti-Hero: Taking the Villain’s Side
When we pick up a story, most of us have certain expectations about the main character/protagonist/hero. We expect him to be likeable and good. And instead, with the anti-hero, we step into the twisted mind of someone who could be the villain if we weren’t telling his story. For a classic example, think Victor Frankenstein. (Check out “The Replacements” to see my anti-hero. Please be warned that it does contain some violence and was not written for the Christian market.)
You take a risk writing an anti-hero. Your readers might pity them, but they’ll never like them. If they see anything of themselves in him, they’ll be loath to admit it. For novels, it can sometimes be difficult to stay in the head of someone so disagreeable for hundreds of pages. But when they’re done well, they’re fascinating to read.