What makes a good villain?
I was talking with a friend recently about what makes a protagonist interesting and engaging, and the conversation soon turned to the other end of the spectrum. What makes a good villain? It’s a harder question that you might think. So much of what used to be common wisdom regarding a story’s antagonist is now being used to flesh out the good guy. In today’s media, we are inundated with anti-heroes, men and women with dark pasts and questionable morals that seem to always carry the story with grim expressions and leave a horde of expendable innocents in their wake.
There’s even been a minor trend among the glut of reboots recently wherein a former villain is now the “hero”. This is normally accomplished by focusing on a new, tragic backstory designed to give the character a sympathetic motivation. The goal with this sort of character is for the audience to say “Well, of course, they turned out evil, look what happened to them!” On the surface, it seems like a creative and interesting idea.
I call these type of stories Concept Plots.
I can imagine the writer (or producer, director, etc.) sitting around and thinking “How can I be different? This story has been told a million times already. I know! I’ll make the villain the hero!” The problem is, no matter how clever this idea may seem, it’s the execution of that idea that will determine whether the end-product is any good or not. Stories don’t succeed on good concepts. They succeed on good implementation.
Think of how many books and movies have plots that sound merely average when described in a single sentence. Often, those simple premises turn out to be amazingly creative stories. On the other hand, think of how many plots with imaginative twists result in yet another formulaic drone. I suspect this is a result of the entertainment industry focusing too much on a simplified pitch or logline. Projects are greenlit and books accepted based on how clever it sounds when boiled down to almost nothing. And nowhere is this more apparent than in a story’s villain.
There’s an old saying that a hero is only as good as his villain, and another that says that the villain is what makes the story. Personally, I think both of these statements are an oversimplification, but I get the idea. Villains are very important in certain types of stories. But just as writers should be wary of concept plots, they should be careful of writing concept villains. Rather than fretting over whether the villain’s motivation has ever been seen before (which it has, trust me) the writer should focus on making the villain resonate with the target audience.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
I’ve been playing a story-driven video game called Dragon Age: Origins which is a fairly typical epic fantasy tale of knights, swords, dragons, and all the other predictable tropes of the genre. But what sets this game apart is its characters, dialogue, and atmosphere, and the villain is a perfect example. From the first time the protagonist met him I disliked him, and my hatred grew throughout the game. While his motivation wasn’t particularly complex, it was the way his character interacted with everyone around him that pushed my buttons. Rather than laughing manically or rubbing his hands together in the shadows, he used misinformation like a weapon to turn other people against the protagonist. My frustration and powerlessness to beat him psychologically made me want to challenge him physically, adding real emotional weight to the final boss battle. It was direct, effective, and very powerful storytelling, and I can’t remember that last time I felt that much satisfaction at the end of a climactic video game encounter.
Of course, I’m not trying to start an anti-pitch revolution. It’s important for both traditional and indie authors to be able to sum up their novel into a short statement for the benefit of their potential audience. But just like an agent, editor, or reader shouldn’t start making sweeping judgments on a story (or a villain) based on a single short statement, a writer shouldn’t disregard their own work because the concept doesn’t sound creative enough. Remember that anyone can come up with interesting concepts, but it’s a writer that turns those concepts into art and entertainment.
Lindsay is offering a wonderful new series in 2018 The Complete Creative Writing Webinar Series starting April 3- June 7. Join Lindsay and learn everything you need to know to get started in your craft, including how to structure a story, how to show a scene instead of telling it, and how to avoid writer’s block.
Lindsay Schopfer is the author of The Adventures of Keltin Moore, a series of steampunk-flavored fantasy novels about a professional monster hunter. He also wrote the sci-fi survivalist novel Lost Under Two Moons and the fantasy short story collection Magic, Mystery and Mirth.
Lindsay’s workshops and seminars on the craft of writing have been featured in a variety of Cons and writing conferences across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Currently, he teaches creative writing for South Puget Sound Community College’s continuing education program.
Professional beast hunter Keltin Moore is returning home a changed man. With a new apprentice and a lifetime of experience gained in faraway Krendaria, he prepares to settle into his old life of being a small town hero. But when gold is discovered in the far north, Keltin must again leave his home in order to protect the prospectors from the beasts ravaging the gold fields. Arriving in the boom town of Lost Trap, Keltin soon discovers that there are dangers beyond beasts in the frozen north. A local gang has established themselves as the resident Hunters Guild and will not tolerate any competition. Meanwhile, a specter haunts the gold fields. A legendary creature known as the Ghost of Lost Trap stalks the snowy countryside, testing Keltin and his friends to their very limits as they try to hunt their most dangerous beast yet.