On Writing Villains Who Don’t Suck Ass

Sometimes the villain of a story is a force of nature, a la Jack London’s famous story, To Build a Fire. Hypothermia makes for an excellent baddie, even lacking motive or a personality. However, if your story’s villain is a human (or sentient being of some kind), they’re gonna need both.

Think of history’s most despicable villains.

Now, I’m no expert, but you more than likely didn’t recall a single one who sat around stroking a fluffy white cat, throwing back his head and cackling maniacally. Probably not even many who did evil things just for the sake of being evil. Most real life villains thought what they were doing was the right thing, even if it took some extreme mental gymnastics to arrive at that decision. That or they were severely mentally ill.

The point I’m trying to make is: maybe it’s time to stop writing a villain who strides boldly with a long, dark cloak trailing behind him. One who is ominous and mysterious, who came to power by being almost invincibly powerful himself.

Perhaps the villain does what he does (kill a buncha defenseless younglings) to protect someone or something he cares about (Padme Amidala).

Maybe she’s deluded herself into believing she’s saving the world rather than trying to destroy it. Maybe she truly thinks she is the only person fit to be the benevolent dictator of the entire world in order to achieve peace and prosperity. She surely can’t be all bad, can she?

And, by the same token, your protagonists probably aren’t saints, either. Maybe their affiliation has done some highly questionable shit, too. Perhaps inadvertently caused some great distress to the future villain?

Some of the best villains are the ones we can almost sympathize with. The ones we understand a little better once we hear the full story.

And don’t forget to give your villain a personality! Most people have those. People are witty, charming, awkward, egocentric, ponderous, reckless, cowardly, polite, etcetera. We are many things outside of good and evil.

Readers need to care about the characters, and that includes your villain. She needs to be just as interesting and just as human as your protagonist. Your reader needs to feel something when she gets her just desserts.

4 thoughts on “On Writing Villains Who Don’t Suck Ass

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. I was directing a student in a devised drama in which he played a paedophile, but we were struggling to find a truthful way of playing the role. The turning point came when I heard a comment in a documentary that 99% of people in prison consider themselves a good person. I realised we had been judging the character because we were horrified by his actions. The next day, the character became truthful; like Macbeth, he had many good characteristics but one terrible, fatal flaw. He was able to sleep at night. That understanding was key to finding the truth of that villain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that is a perfect example. It’s so hard for us to get past abhorrent character flaws, and pedophilia is about as extreme as it gets as far as warranting people’s disdain.

      But underneath every horrible, terrible person’s exterior is a human being, after all. Sounds like the drama was a valuable lesson to all involved!

      Liked by 1 person

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