Villains galore

After my post of October 27, 2010, Jenna Royal wrote, Is it important to make your villains likable? It is common that in a good book I will both enjoy a villain’s strategy and understand and relate to their desires. I never really thought about making my villains likable, though. They were just the bad guys, nothing more. Would it add more diversity to my writing to make my villains a little more human and easier to sympathize with?

And Silver the Wanderer wrote, I also realize I might have to do some work on my villain, for I fear his character is a tad underdeveloped. However, he doesn’t play a huge role in my book. He’s the instigator of events, but we don’t actually see him until the end of the book. From hearing about him, we know that he is smart, devious, and a traitor. He is also no coward. He might be evil, or he might just have some messed-up moral standards. But sometimes I wonder if his motives are enough to make his wrongdoings believable. He can’t just be evil for the sake of being evil. Does anyone have ideas on how to craft a believable villain?
And Mya wrote, I find balancing a villain’s ‘evilness’ rather hard sometimes. More frequently though, it’s the opposite. I make the villains too nice, and can’t help but forgive, or let them be humbled at the end. Are there ways I can be more awful to them? =)

There is no one way villains should be. The villain – or if not the villain, strictly speaking, certainly the antagonist – doesn’t even have to be a character; it can be a disease (as in my Two Princesses of Bamarre) or weather or a cosmological force. In Norse mythology, as I understand it from my ancient Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, by Edith Hamilton, evil is destined to win eventually – not a particular embodiment of evil, like Loki, but evil itself.

The antagonist can even be a belief. I once worked with a man who believed himself unlucky, although I didn’t see it; he had a good job, a fine mind, a sense of humor, a girlfriend. Whenever anything bad happened to him, he blamed it on his rotten luck. If he were a main character, there would be no human adversary, only an idea. Political theories can play the part of the villain. In Ayn Rand’s novels the underlying evil is Communism.

When your villain is a character, human or otherwise, it’s okay to make him – or her or it – entirely bad. The reader doesn’t have to like him in the slightest. Sometimes he operates in the background of the story, as in Silver the Wanderer’s example. The narrator can speculate about him from his actions, but the reader doesn’t encounter him directly. Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes series is this kind of villain. He never becomes a fleshed-out character like Holmes or Watson, and the reader certainly neither likes him nor sympathizes with him.

When the reader does come face to face with a villain, however, he should be interesting, not necessarily likable or sympathetic. In my Dave at Night, the main villain is the superintendent of the orphanage where Dave lives. He is simply a terrible man. His name is Mr. Bloom, but the orphans call him Mr. Doom. Here are snippets from his monologue before he beats Dave up:

“Mrs. Bloom and I love the finer things in life, the theater, concerts…. Mrs. Bloom’s little hobby is following the doings of high society…. So one might wonder at my choice of vocation. I admit it’s a sacrifice, but someone has to do the dirty work. Someone has to take in children like you…. Otherwise you’d have nowhere to go. However, it’s like putting a rattlesnake to your bosom.”

He’s awful, but he has a personality, and the reader hates him even more for knowing him. At the end when he’s fired, the reader feels no guilt for rejoicing at his downfall. (I haven’t given very much away; there’s a lot more to the resolution of the book.) Happiness at the demise of an all-out villain is fun. In movie theaters we cheer.

Of course, in order for Mr. Bloom to be understood as evil, Dave has to be sympathetic. If he’s a young arsonist who’s just burned down an old age home, Mr. Bloom’s sacrifice may seem real.

Although it’s fine to create villains who are simply evil, diversifying is always good. Try your hand at a sympathetic villain. Make her more than likable; make her lovable. Maybe she takes such delight in her dastardly deeds that we can’t help but chortle along. Maybe he’s his own worst enemy, and everyone else’s, but his remorse makes us forgive him again and again.

Believability may depend on genre. In a superhero story, for example, the reader checks her disbelief when she opens the book. If the hero can change from weak and mild-mannered to almost invincible just by changing his outfit in a phone booth, the villain doesn’t have to have much depth or motivation either. This kind of hero is born good and the bad guy is born bad. In some fantasies, evil needs no explanation either. In some thrillers too. As Kirk Douglas says chillingly in the wonderful old movie The List of Adrian Messenger, “Evil is.”

Complexity makes any character more believable, and I’m all for it. One way to craft a complex villain is through surprises. Your villain Monique is unlikely to be the main character, so you probably won’t have her thoughts to make her layered, but you do have all the other tools of character creation. If any of the story takes place at her house, the reader can discover that she collects Hummel figurines. If you want her to be sympathetic, she can bake cookies – not poisoned – for a homeless shelter. She can feed oatmeal cookie dough to her cocker spaniel.

In dialogue, Monique can be witty. She may be an American history buff or love puns. When your hero says something that puts him at a disadvantage she can astonish the reader by letting it slide  – although she may use the information later.

You can reveal her diary in which she writes only about her visits to the homeless shelter and nothing about her cruel impulses. Or maybe she alludes to them in a vague way, like, “Mother scolded me today. I have no idea what she was going on about, but she was very angry.”

Even description can make her more complicated – dark eye makeup with pink lipstick. Pudgy face, muscular body. Terrible posture. An unexplained bandage on her arm.

If you decide to make Monique sympathetic, which usually involves complexity, there is the danger that the reader won’t understand when she acts on her wickedness. He may think, “I identify with Monique, and I like her, I don’t believe she’d behave so despicably.” The solution is to introduce her badness as soon as the reader meets her. Show her being awful, or have a character the reader trusts talk about some vileness she’s committed. Establish right from the start that she isn’t good.

Mya, I tend to let my villains off the hook too. Even when Mr. Bloom gets fired, the information is conveyed in a single sentence in narration. I don’t show him coming before the orphanage board and being publicly disgraced. I don’t say what follows, whether Mrs. Bloom has to give up her concert and theater subscriptions or if she divorces him and he winds up sweeping a factory floor for a living. I’m not sure it matters. At this point the story is over and what happens to Mr. Bloom is an afterthought.

However, if you want to be tougher, try it just as an exercise. Imagine five ways your baddie can be punished. Imagine the scenes and write them down. What do you think? If you decide that one of the grimmer endings is better, use it. (This is a prompt for everyone.)

Villains can be more fun to write than other characters. They can be over the top, think the unthinkable, do the unmentionable. So I hope you go all out with these prompts:

∙    The scene is a social event, could be a child’s birthday party, a charity benefit, the annual fairy ball. The villain Sammy (male or female), one of the guests, makes trouble repeatedly in subtle ways. Show him or her in action.

∙    Estelle and Joe have been assigned a homework project together in magic school, and they hate each other. Each plans to make the other look bad. They meet at Joe’s house to work on the project. As the omniscient narrator, show how it goes, dipping freely into the thoughts of each one. They should connive differently. Both are villains, but they’re differently bad. For extra credit, make us like one and hate the other, although both are up to no good, and both are fundamentally flawed.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Ms. Levine, my favorite of your villains is Lord Peter of Frell, because he's not completely evil -just really selfish, and that makes him complicated. Ivi is another villain who isn't totally evil. She may be weak and loves flattery, but she does care about the king. In both cases, they come across as very complex characters. You can't predict what they're going to do because they're not just in it for the evil. That makes them a lot of fun to read about. 🙂

  2. Those prompts look fun..I'll have to try them later…
    I agree with Chicory, I loved reading about Ivi, she was a great villian!

    I think one of the most human but really good villians I have read about is Mr. Curtain from "The Mysterious Benedict Society" by Trenton Lee Stewart (great series by the way, if anyone wants to check them out). Mr. Curtain is a bad, bad man who is trying to brainwash the world, but he's also very conflicted about how evil he is towards people around him like his minions and he also has a very large weakness to boot (I don't want to ruin what that is though). By the end of the series we come to see Mr. Curtain as a confused, angry, spiteful, empty man and when there is nothing left of him the reader really comes to pity him. Stewart did an excellent job of making him very believable. 🙂

    This was a very good post. I was worried about my background working villian for my newest project but I guess I don't have to worry anymore 🙂 Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine, it was very…wicked…(In a good way 🙂

  3. I love villains. They are so tricky! Personally, I would love to get inside Hattie or Dame Olga's heads to see what goes on there. I haven't commented in a while, but I thought I would mention that these posts have kept me sane through finals and graduate school applications. Can't wait to start on these prompts!

  4. The beginning of your post reminds me of the 9 stories that are the only ones in existence (all stories are one of these, just told in different ways). I've posted about these before, but I think they're worth mentioning again because they're not only the only 9 plots, but also the only 9 antagonists (depending on how you look at it).

    Here are the 9 stories I'm referring to:
    Character vs. Character
    Character vs. Him/herself
    Character vs. Culture/society
    Character vs. Setting
    Character vs. Situation
    Character vs. God(s)
    Character vs. Fate
    Character vs. Unknown
    Character vs. Machine

  5. Another post that makes me rethink the book I am working on. It has more of an antagonist than a villain and at first it bothered me that readers didn't like her. Then I realized that was actually a good thing, since the main character didn't like her. 🙂

    This post made me realize that I need to make sure that the reason I admire her is evident to the readers (but maybe still not the main character.) Hmm….

  6. Do you have any suggestions for characterizing a villain when he's not in sight much, not terribly active, and the book's in first person POV? This is a problem in my NaNovel, my brother has said, and I'd appreciate help.

  7. @Rose My suggestions for characterizing a villain who is not terribly active or on sight, is to:
    Have other characters talk and wonder about the villain. Rumors are told in bars about this creepy witch in the forest, mothers tell their kids stories about not going to deep in the forest, and storekeepers reminisce on the time they met the villain before he was a villain ("She was a real sweet girl once. She used to help me sweep and boil tea everytime I was tired. What a shame. . . )
    Villains are always the character I love to write and think about the most. I always remember this quote when I write about them: in the beginning, villains never set out to do something wrong, they had good reasons or extraordinary circumstances that somehow warped them from the traditional way of looking at right and wrong. How did they get there? Why do they think they way they do? What methods do they chose to achieve their goals and what does that say about their character? How do they rationalize to themselves for doing something so evil, how can they live with themselves?

    It's nice to know that villains dont have to be complex all the time. However, I find that I want to write villains that are believable, human, and sympathetic. I dont really care about making them likable. But I do want to reader to be able to see a piece of the villain in themselves.

    Voldermort is perhaps one of the villains I despise because he isn't really a character. He is a symbol of evil itself. He doesn't seem to have much complexity. However, the one who acted Voldermort in the Harry Potter movies explains the fundamental human nature of voldermort. His words stay with me, even though its not verbatim: "He believes that love doesn't exist, that trust is for fools, and that ultimately good and evil are ideas that humans created but doesn't truly exist. And when you think about it haven't we all have a bit of Voldermort in us? That perhaps we once wondered the same things?"

    Making a villain do evil things makes the reader hate them. Make the villain seem human/complex and the reader is fascinated with the villain. But to make a villain scary. . . the reader has to see a bit of themselves in the villain. They have to think, "If such and such happened, would I not have behaved the same?" and have them be horrified by the conclusion.

    I like the ideas you wrote about in this post. It put things in perspective. Your prompt with estelle and joe is my favorite. I'm definetely going to try this one later, with a few variations.

    Thanks for posting!

  8. bluekiwii, we did kind of meet Voldemort before he became just a symbol of evil through Tom Riddle. That's so early in the series it's hard to remember, though.

  9. Bluekiwii–Excellent suggestions for Rose. A prompt along those lines might be to write an entire story in which the villain is known only by his or her effects and is defeated indirectly as well, with success achieved when the bad things stop happening.

    April and Susan Lee–April, thank you. Susan Lee, I agree that you may find WRITING MAGIC helpful. I'll try a general post about clarity as well.

  10. Thanks, BlueKiwii. The only problem is, you see, this is set in a fantasy world and communications aren't so fast…but maybe I'll have my heroes talking to someone who's met the villain, which means whee! I get to have a new secondary character! (I have tons, and I love them all.)

  11. Which actually leads to a question – how many secondaries is too many? And how does one keep them from all blurring together in the reader's head? I'd appreciate what you readers have to say about that.
    I'm sure there was a post on that somewhere, but I wanted to ask what folk thought.

  12. Rose- Try to give all the secondary characters a little quirk or something special about them. That way they hopefully won't all blur together. Maybe they have a lisp, or always play with their hair with they're nervous. Maybe the constantly fidget or when they stand they always sway. I don't know how many secondary characters are too many, but if you start to think there are too many maybe you can combine some. Give them a history that they like to keep secret, but are now showing.
    Just a thought 🙂

  13. Another very useful post, thanks again! I also love reading everyone's comments, I always glean quite a bit of insight from the conversations that occur naturally on here, so thanks to everyone else as well 🙂

    Again, I have a rather off-topic question. I am in the middle of a first draft, and at the beginning I felt like I put a great deal of time and thought into outlining and preparing my plot. Of course, being impatient, I hit a point where I just couldn't work out any more plot details and was itching to get started. Well, I am now probably 2/3rds through and although I am greatly enjoying the writing and think that everything is going to be worked out in the end, I'm getting worried that my story would definitely have benefited from more detailed organization and brainstorming at the very beginning.

    Ms. Levine (and anyone else with advice!), how much initial plot outlining/detailed brainstorming do you find to be necessary at the beginning of a project? Does it always work out best if everything that could possibly be planned out first IS planned before the writing, or does some for the best stuff develop organically?

  14. Angie- I've found that it's good to have a general idea where the story is going, but you don't need to know everything. I'm more of a figure it out as I go person. I rarely have been able to stay strictly to an outline. I always add and change things, and for me personally, it turns out better because of it. You don't want to tell the story where to go, that's your characters jobs. For me, when I let them lead, that's when it turns out best. Hope that helps 🙂

  15. bluewikii, yes it was Chamber of Secrets. I don't have the book in front of me right now, but if I remember right Tom Riddle was raised by a grandmother who resented him and made him feel like an outcast. When Tom Riddle found out he could control the basilisk he used power as a replacement for acceptance. He was still evil, but in a sad way (if that makes sense.) I guess your milege may vary about whether that actually makes him come across as more sympathetic, since the shade of Tom Riddle could have been lying to put Harry off guard.

  16. Love this discussion on how to write a good villain (is that a contradiction?) My novel is inspired by fairy tales, and my villain is a Good Fairy–complete with sparkles and little pink wings. Her villainy lies mostly in thoughtlessness and an inability to care about anyone who isn't royal–or to listen to anyone else's opinion about how they ought to be "helped." She'd be quite shocked to find out she's the villain of the piece! 🙂 She was fun to write, and different from any villain/antagonist I'd written in the past.

  17. @ Angie
    There is no real right or wrong answer to this question, since everyone writes differently, and so they would outline the story differently. I'll tell you about what I do and hopefully it'll help a bit. I tend to not plan out a plot, but instead have a few characters I will love to write about and an idea of what type of problem they have to solve. Usually I tend to give up in the middle because I run out of ideas or because I grow bored. To get started again, I have used a technique Ms. Levine recommended a long time ago in her posts: make lists of what could possibly come next. Don't judge the idea before it goes on the page, no matter how silly it is. Continue until you have a lot of ideas. And then you pick one and just write. You might be surprised with what you can create.

    @Chicory. I don't remember that part at all, but I'll take your word for it. I remember that he seemed to have a real rotten childhood. I dont feel it makes him more sympathetic. Harry has a rotten childhood too, he never known parental love either. Yet he was able to maintain so much strength of character. I also would have liked to see Voldie to do something good or show more characteristics then just pride and malice. Like in Spirited Away, Yubaba is greedy witch who turns humans into pigs and eats them. But Yubaba is also kind to her infant son. Somehow, this creates a sense of humanity to her. As if to say, no matter how wicked she may act, she is still capable of doing something good and love another person. It shows a sense of depth, it hints that there is more to her than meets the eye.

    @ Rose.
    It helps to make a list of characters in a piece of paper. Write their names and basic information and then consult the paper whenever you need to.

    @ marveloustales
    I love your villain already! I love villains which aren't evil. . . wait that does sound like an oxymoron? Maybe I'll call her an antagonist instead? I love to read about these types of antagonist the most. She reminds me a bit of Marie Antoinette. Much luck in your story!

  18. @ Rose – I find secondary characters hardest to remember when they are all introduced in the same scene. Like if the book opens with five or six friends talking I can never get them straight.

    One book I read recently (an adult fantasy) that gathered them all at once but almost (in my opinion) pulled it off had the characters arrive for a meeting one by one. But, I think it's best if you limit the number of characters introduced and then spend some time with them.

    Pay attention to how a book you like introduces characters and count the number of characters they have. I think Ella Enchanted has about 9 including Ella?

  19. Wow, Ms. Levine, thank you for this post. Extremely helpful. 🙂 It's funny that you mentioned the Norse Myths in one of your examples, because the most recent story I'm working on is set in a fantasy world in an area similar to Scandinavia, and the lore and myths are a big part of it. This has given me some great ideas for my villains as well . . . actually, a couple of them. 🙂

    @ Angie – About the plot . . . I personally find that I prefer working with only a general outline. It grows as I write it. My best stories, I think, have started as just a basic idea or picture that I wrote a small piece on and then worked off of that. The ideas just kind of happen, and it evolves over time. So, I would say that to start off with a basic idea of a plot and then grow and branch off of that works best for me, and I don't think a detailed plot is necessary. But I'd also say that that's a matter of opinion. 🙂

    @ Bluekiwii – Those quotes you posted earlier were really inspiring. They really made me stop and think about my characters. Thank you for that!

  20. I love villains, and I enjoy writing them. Some villains I've come across that are believable tend to have one belief or goal or cause, and they're trying to pursue it. Whether the cause itself is good or bad, they end up doing bad things in the process, and are established as a villain. Take Javert, from Les Miserables (the musical, I haven't read the book). He firmly believes in justice, which is a good thing, but he gets too caught up in the letter of the law rather than the spirit. As a result, he is portrayed as ruthless , but he doesn't understand or think he's bad. Even when he dies, I think we all feel sorry for him.

    When I write characters, I find it helpful to identify their greatest desire, need, or goal, and have all their actions revolve around that. This is especially good for villains. Explanations for a villain's actions could be selfishness/want for power or money, revenge, belief in one cause, or any number of things that happens to conflict with the protagonist.

    Thanks for the great post!

  21. Villains are fun to write. Here is a quote that is supposed to help us look inward, but it can also help us develop the characters we create.

    “Rules for Self Discovery:
    1. What we want most;
    2. What we think about most;
    3. How we use our money;
    4. What we do with our leisure time;
    5. The company we enjoy;
    6. Who and what we admire;
    7. What we laugh at.”
    — A.W. Tozer

  22. A book I really want to write, but am having difficulty with, is where the main character is the villain. The story would be from her (his?) perspective and the reader sympathizes with them, and it's only at the very end when the reader has the revelation that they've been siding with the wrong side. Really tough to pull off.

    @Angie: After much trial and error, I have found I need to have a pretty set outline in order to write. I may not end up following it, because sometimes the characters act on their own, but it helps me to keep writing even when I don't feel like it if I have a map to follow.

  23. Thanks everyone! Looks like the general consensus is that it's different for everyone and there is not a right way or a wrong way. I think I am someone who needs to be more in the outlining camp, but it is so much fun just so see where the story goes on its own 🙂 I enjoy discovering what works best!

    @April: That's a very interesting idea for a story, but I agree, it sounds terribly complicated to pull off! I've heard of stories that are from the villain's perspective, but it's an interesting twist to make it so the reader doesn't realize that till the end. Good luck 🙂

  24. I like villians. One author who I think is incredible about conflict/villians is Madeleine L'Engle. For example, in An Acceptable Time, the time threshold is an antagonist. Two supporting characters, for different reasons, may be sending the heroine to be sacrificed, but both are also attracted to her. L'Engle always demonstrates the many facets of each character, good or bad, in her writing, which I think is wonderful.

  25. Do you know what is really profound? I just found out that you can search how to be happy on the Internet. I don't get why people can't just accept the fact that some things can't be explained. This is one of the reasons I tend to hate scientists. I feel really bad about it, but for some reason I can't seem to help it. The reason I'm mentioning this is because it reminded me of this book where a scientist gives all his time to science-so much so that he becomes obsessed. He is assigned to a project where they are experimenting on humans. His mind becomes so demented and inhuman from his obsession that when his boss tells him to get off the project, he goes on a killing rampage. He accidentally kills the one woman on earth that he loves. Seeing how insane he had become, he commits suicide to keep his deformed mind from the rest of the world.
    Can you guess why he was experimenting on humans? It was to find a way to cure obsessions.

  26. @Alexa
    I know. Isn't literature wonderful? They makes me kind of crazy sometimes, but I still love books. I for some reason can always sympathise with villains. For example, not trying to make anyone upset, but Hitler actually wanted to be an artist. The academy he wanted into rejected him, and he decided that if he couldn't be an artist, art was evil. That is why he burned all the art he could find. He was insane, but as with most villains, his dreams were destroyed, and he took revenge.

  27. I pity villains. But the sad truth is that the good guys DON'T always win. Most of the time they are mistaken for villains. I know this will sound really weird, but sometimes I think that the villain just wants to be noticed. I mean, don't we all crave attention once in a while? The villain is just the guy that takes it to the extreme. Like by breaking into a house to impress your friends. You just wanted attention. You end up getting arrested.

  28. @Mysterygirl

    I think you're right. When I was in college, the boy's dorm was burned to the ground very early one morning (while it was still dark). The campus security officer on duty that night was a student, and at first he was lauded as a hero for ringing the alarm in time for everyone to get out.

    But the police quickly figured out that he had been the one to start the fire. Apparently he had planned on putting out a little fire and getting the glory with minimal harm done, but the fire had gotten out of hand.

    And, yup, he got arrested. His dreams of becoming a cop were ruined, too.

  29. I struggle with villains. I know they need sympathetic, human qualities because no one is one hundred percent evil. But I have difficulty making my villains round, dynamic, complex characters while still keeping them the antagonist and a character the reader dislikes.
    Take the story I’m working on now. Your book Writing Magic inspired me to write a book based loosely on Snow White. My MC is named Willow, and her end goal is to kill the ruler of the kingdom with which her kingdom is at war. I just don’t know how to make King Everest more than your typical flat Disney villain. He needs more dimension, and he needs motivation, and I am struggling to come up with ideas. Any advice?

  30. Fantasywriter6 says:

    Hello! I’m writing a story with a friend. Basically we both have our character and we alternate chapters writing from our character’s POV. My character is a villain, and she actually has some pretty good depth to her. She was neglected as a child, she worked her whole life to inherit a business that was given to her cousin, and you can tell that she’s not exactly right in the head…She wants to ruin her cousin’s life and then kill her because she’s also paranoid that if the cousin isn’t killed, she will be. I’m not sure how to end her. I don’t see her “changing her ways” or “seeing the error of her ways” because, again, kind of crazy. Not sure if I want her to die(I’m kind of attached) but that might be seen as abandoning the foreshadowing I used. Any suggestions?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      You might try it both ways, dead or alive.

      Welcome to the blog! In the future, you’re most likely to get responses from other writers if you ask your question on the latest post, even if it has nothing to do with your question.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.