Oh, for the good old days when villains wore black (Stetsons, if appropriate), twirled their handlebar mustaches, and revealed their evil ways in every word and deed. Think Uriah Heep from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Dr. Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Scoundrels we love to hate.
But while we can still appreciate the all-out, no-holds-barred malevolence of these anti-heroes, most modern readers expect a more nuanced approach to their (well, your) villains.
Villains are needed
You write the story from the protagonist’s point of view. It’s a challenge enough to show this character as real and sympathetic. The antagonist/villain is there but frequently only as foil to demonstrate the hero’s sterling qualities.
Now, you need this kind of a dynamic to make the novel work. For interesting reading, the leading character cannot sail smoothly to his promised land. Wants to be an Olympic athlete? Gets the gold. Wants to write a famous opera? The new Mozart. Not only is this progression boring but it doesn’t do anything for how we feel about the protagonist. You like people whose success comes easily? No, we like people who struggle and then conquer.
Enter, the villain. He can be the personification of the world blocking or thwarting the hero’s objectives. But if that is the only role he plays in the novel, the villain can also become boring or at least repetitive and unidimensional. And, not particularly believable. Or only in the style of the mustache-twirling from above.
So, you need the villain to be as believable as your hero. And if you can, you have a great opportunity to deepen the story.
How do I make my villain believable?
So, the big thing is to make your heavy as human as possible. What he needs is:
- To be well-motivated. It is not enough for him to say, “I’ve always hated Harry [your main character] and I’m going to stop him.” Show, show, show. Why does he hate Harry? What did Harry do to him? Is he perhaps justified in his wish for revenge?
- To care about something or someone. And getting Harry doesn’t count. It could be a dog. Or a place. Could be a lost love. Whatever. But he needs to have more in his life than retribution. (Unless of course you want to make him a psychopath but that has its own writing challenges.) Showing him with loving emotions both humanizes and makes the reader reassess him.
- His own agenda. He cannot just act in reaction to the hero’s goals. He needs his own ends and desires. He has a plan. He will walk all over Harry to get them. But necessary in his mind to reach his destination.
Playing with antiheroes
In fact, if you make both the villain and the hero very human, and dare I say, sympathetic, you may be able to do the coolest thing: you may make it hard for the reader to decide which is which. Is the villain the tyrannical father who refuses to let his daughter take art lessons? Or is it the well-meaning teacher who tries to help a young girl be free? The ‘easy’ villain is the father. The ‘interesting’ villain is the schoolteacher who is imposing her morality on a situation she doesn’t understand.
This is one time when it’s okay to confuse the reader. She’ll love it.
Next post: the unreliable narrator. Also a winner with readers.