One of the sure ways to make a story memorable is to introduce a great villain.
Obstacles push a story to its limits, make you worry about the hero/heroine, and ensure that success at the end is earned (if you’re going for a happy ending). The villain can be the ultimate obstacle because, unlike Nature or a personal challenge (like addiction), the villain can respond directly, cleverly, and surprisingly to every fresh move by the hero/heroine. Villains grow and mutate. And they also make the harms done personal.
Unfortunately, villains can also be cardboard (I see you there twirling your mustache) or too nice. Sometimes this happens because writers identify with the protagonist and may be unconsciously protecting him or her. Or they don’t work hard enough on the villain. Or they are uncomfortable with imagining bad behavior. Writers can be too nice for their stories’ good.
Allow me to nudge you if you have a lukewarm villain by addressing four points:
No one will fear for the main character if the villain is not at least his or her match. It’s even better if the villain has power that targets a vulnerability of the hero or heroine. Power can come from a variety of places. It can be big muscles or wealth or social stature. It can be a more flexible sense of values and fewer limits on behavior. It can be information (like a secret) or threats to the protagonists loved ones.
And be careful not to give an obvious vulnerability to the villain that readers can tell will assure the main character’s victory. Exaggeration is your friend. Ruthlessness is your friend. Take as a goal creating a villain who scares you, and he or she will be sure to frighten your readers. In a delightful way.
One more thing: Don’t reveal everything about the villain’s power in the beginning. Demonstrate it though conflict that escalates throughout the story. Save something for the last chapter.
The value of a villain is degraded if something makes him or her phony. If the reader believes — within the context of the story world — such a villain is inconsistent or his/her power doesn’t make sense or obvious elements are being ignored, you’ve give the reader an escape. Yes, readers want a story to provide a really cool villain. They are on your side. But they also protect themselves by looking for holes. Especially if the villain is scary. Don’t let readers get away with it. Design your villain to be bulletproof (not literally, but in terms of authenticity). Make the readers believe this could really happen. I recommend this by having the villain emerge through actions that ground him/her and prove him/her throughout the story.
The closer the villain is to readers, the more chilling his/her behaviors are. It’s not just could such a person be real, but are there people like this I know? A I like this? I think the best writers put a piece of themselves into their villains. Often a shameful piece. Minimally, they model villains on real people. And ideally, although that might mean celebrities or historical figures, some elements of the villains come from people writers know well and have deep relationships with.
This may seem odd. Do I want people to identify with the villains? That sounds monstrous, but it’s highly effective. Even when a villain is appalling, the horror grows if there are positive traits. Damon Knight said there were three ways to bring a protagonist closer to readers — humor, a great talent, and being wronged. That’s a good start for villains, too. When writers can connect with the villains, it helps to balance the story and makes it more unsettling for the reader.
Villains are, it has been said, the heroes of their own stories. Supplying motivations for engaging in conflict and justifying horrid behaviors pushes sympathy in the right direction. So do occasional good behaviors (save the cat, Mr. Villain) and doubt and empathy for victims. The closer the villain comes to being and almost hero for readers, the better.
Those four — Power, Believability, Familiarity, and Sympathy — are on my checklist for creating villains. They are effective in pushing me out of the nice zone. But it’s also important to do what you’d do for any character to be memorable. Make the character specific and special. Provide a variety of traits so they can be portrayed as complex and deep. Let readers know what they yearn for.
A villain that brings truth your story and behaves shockingly without become a caricature will raise your story — and reader engagement — to new heights.
Interested in learning how to write a really great villian? Peter is teaching a class on just that topic! Crazy Bad Villains with Peter Andrews ~ November 5 – December 2