Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.
I'll admit I'm probably the last person who should be writing about how to write a good villain, but screwing up provides a lot of wisdom, and let's suffice it to say . . . I am very wise.
Not only have I failed spectacularly, I have also read books about this stuff. Armed with this knowledge, perhaps my next villain will be a glorious bastard that my audience loves to hate.
In the mean time, allow me to share my mistakes with you and how you can avoid them.
Make Your Villain Three Dimensional
This is a trap a lot of novice writers fall into. It's very easy to make a villain who just wants to watch the world burn. While this kinda sorta worked for Batman's nemesis, the Joker, most of the time it makes the villain come off cartoony. The best villains are realistic because knowing you could meet this psycho in real life (or even become them) is supposed to be terrifying.
The best way to graduate your villain from cartoony and mustache twirly to three dimensional is to give them proper motivation. This usually involves giving them a backstory. Why are they doing all this crap? How did they become the person they are now?
One of the biggest mistakes I made with my science fiction series The Prince of Qorlec was not giving my antagonist a backstory. He did not have much in the way of motivation aside from an irrational hatred for the people of Qorlec. I didn't really develop him well as a character because I suppose I got carried away by world-building or something. The end result was that the audience probably didn't care about him much, which made the final showdown in the fifth book something many readers didn't even see.
Because of Phorott, a lot of readers don't make it past the fourth book—that is, the few who bother to read the third one. And I kinda can't blame them. It's my opinion that the first three books are fine, but it's book four where the series starts to go downhill. The flat villain was just one of many reasons for this.
Ironically enough, Dr. Zorgone, a minor villain in the second book, was a better-written antagonist because his past with the late empress of Qorlec was heavily implied throughout the books: He hated Quinn because he loved her mother and was spurned by her.
Make Your Villain Competent
I was drawn to Jessica Page Morrell's book Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction when I was a young(er) writer standing in a book store one far-gone day. Due to the hilariously intriguing title alone, I took the book home, and while I still haven't managed to read it cover-to-cover, I've found its contents ultimately helpful.
One of Morrell's chapters cautions writers to give their villains a skill that will make them formidable and an actual threat to the protagonist (you'd be surprised how easy it is to fail at this. But then, no one ever said writing was easy.). Morrell then lists a bunch of "weapons" the villain might wield, like an army of lawyers, poisons, or being some kind of escape artist, all of it good advice.
There is nothing that will piss off your audience more than a villain who is an incompetent boob and yet is played up by the self-indulgent writer as some kind of ultra badass.
Your antagonist should have some kind of power, trait, or skill that gives them an advantage over the protagonist, and they should be shown to live up to the hype.
Give your villain a weapon and have them use it to best the protagonist at least once. Keep in mind that the villain should win because they are actually badass and not because the plot demands it.
Plot armor is bad. Really bad. And by this, I mean that the villain winning should make perfect sense and should not contradict or undermine anything you have established about your protagonist. If your protagonist has been established as a badass knitter, having them lose a knitting contest to someone who can hardly knit a hat just because you needed them to lose is going to be ridiculous (and piss off many a knitting enthusiast).
Have your villain win and have it make sense.
Also, your protagonist at this point should have a weakness the villain can exploit.
Not only does winning make your villain look capable, it also gives the protagonist a chance to learn from the failure and grow as a person. What's more, it reveals more about their character. There is nothing so character-defining as how a character responds to defeat.
This is classic Hero's Journey, but the formula became a formula for a reason. A believable villain has to win some of the damn time.
Ideally, a villain should be a worthy adversary of the protagonist and should have abilities and personality traits that almost mirror-reflect them.
If your protagonist is a baker, the villain should be someone who
a) hates cookies or
b) loves cookies and wants the protagonist to come work for them or
c) is a fellow baker who wants the protagonist's secret recipe.
There should be some common ground that brings the protagonist and the antagonist together. They should each have traits and abilities, weaknesses and strengths that they can use against each other.
An example of this would be Disney's Aladdin. The protagonist, Aladdin, is a street-smart kid who relies on his trickery and agility to survive. The antagonist, Jafar, is a book-smart older man who relies on magic and trickery to survive.
Aladdin's advantage over Jafar is his youth and agility, which is stated a few times throughout the film. Meanwhile, Jafar's advantage over Aladdin is his access to education, secret knowledge, and powerful magic.
The two have a lot of similarities and mirror each other almost perfectly. Jafar is pretty much what Aladdin would be like if he went full throttle evil. We see what both of them do when they have the lamp: They both make wishes to help themselves gain wealth and power and they both attempt to use the genie to woo and marry Princess Jasmine.
Neither of them gave a damn about those kids eating out of the garbage down in Agrabah. Maybe this wasn't the best example.
Aladdin is actually kinda an asshole.
© 2018 Lee