Friday, May 13, 2016

6 Tips for Writing an Imposing and Complex Villain

You want to know something weird? I've had this blog for almost two years and I've never written a post about villains. Why? I have absolutely no idea. It is a problem I will fix today.

Villains are more than just obstacles for your hero to overcome. They are characters who deserve just as much attention as the heroes. Why? Because without a villain, your book would have little to no tension. Chances are, your book wouldn't even need a hero. So don't ignore your bad guy. We all know that that ends with you getting cursed with eternal sleep on your birthday. Not fun.
1. Give your villain a personality. Before you do anything with your villain, sit down and get to know him/her. What's his favorite color? Does he have a sense of humor? What does he like to do when he's not burning down villages? What is his backstory? I've said this in almost all of my 'how-to-write-characters' posts, but I'm going to keep saying it until people catch on: Your character should be a person first, and then a character with a specific role. If you do not do this, your character will be as flat as Voldemort's nose. You do not want this. So, to recap: your villain needs to be a person before she can be a bad person. Got it? Okay. Good.

2. Give your villain motivation. Why is your villain doing all of these bad things? Generally speaking, "Because he's evil" isn't a super great answer if you want to create a complex bad guy. Your villain needs a reason. Most kids don't have "Villain" in mind as their answer to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Think about what made your character fall. Perhaps your villain was a decent person, but was thrust into power and is now too afraid of loosing said power that she's willing to do whatever it takes to keep it. Maybe he's protecting somebody (or somebodies). Or here's a scary idea: Maybe he thinks he's in the right. Oh, here's a good one: Maybe somebody broke her heart and now she's going to spend the rest of her life brewing in hatred. Yeah. That's a great one! Everyone should use it. Clearly, bad breakups make women start murdering people while wearing black leather and low-cut dresses.

3. Give them rules to live by, no matter how small. There's nothing more interesting than a villain with morals, even if those morals are very skewed. President Snow has no problem slaughtering innocents, but he is not wasteful and will not kill without what he sees as a good reason. Loki is willing to lie and cheat and toy with people, but he doesn't want any of his family members to die. Bellatrix Lestrange may be completely insane, but nothing will make her betray her loyalty to You Know Who. While extremely messed up, The Joker does have a very thin set of rules, that being that he believes everyone to be crazy deep down and thus will not bow to worthless societal rules.
So find out where your villain draws the line. Everybody has one. In the case of villains, they're just extremely skewed and often not what non-villains would recognize as morality.

4. Connect your villain to your hero. "No, I am your father!" This is the epitome of villain creation: Make your villain similar to your hero. Give them a similar background, a similar personal struggle, or even a similar goal. This can raise the tension in the story quickly while also making your readers sympathize with both the hero and villain. It can also lead to a lot of interesting questions. Harry and Tom Riddle have similar backgrounds: Raised in loveless homes, both powerful wizards, both students of Hogwarts. The difference? Harry's mom loved him and Tom's mother abandoned him. How much of that contributed to the different paths they chose later in life? In The Patriot, both the villain and the hero fight their wars in similar ways: with cruel efficiency and a certain lack of morals, the difference being that the hero realizes the error of his ways while the villain takes pride in it. Batman often sees himself reflected in the villains he fights: In one comic he tries to save Two-Face because he sees that he could have been pushed over the edge just like Harvey was. Similarities between villain and hero can be heart wrenching and add insane depth to a story.

5. Do your research. If you are choosing to go with a psychotic villain, read up on psychosis and personality disorders. If you want to write about a villain who is using religion as their reason for doing evil, then make sure you understand that religion. Watch movies with great villains, study the villains in books, and don't forget to look up the different kinds of villains out there: Anti-villains, vigilante villains, extremist villains, religious villains, remorseful villains, vengeful villains, psychotic villains, pawn villains. There are many kinds out there, so take some time to sit down and figure out which one will flow the best with your chosen storyline and hero.

6. Go for the grey zone. Some of the best villains are the ones that have a bit of good in them. They are bad guys, yes, but they have a human side. Their reasons for doing what they do are understandable. Not only is this a more realistic take on life, but it will also increase your reader's interest in the story. Will the villain die? Be redeemed? The villain has a point, so what happens when the hero wins? However, be careful: you can create understanding for a villain, but don't justify or glamorize their bad deeds. For example, Magneto is killing tons of people to protect mutants. Do I understand and sympathize with this goal? Yes. Does that make his actions okay? No. Enter the grey zone, but make sure you don't accidentally wind up promoting the black.

In a way, writing a villain is almost identical to writing any other character: give the character a personality, a back story, and a motivation. That's it. You just have to be willing to go deep, think hard, and write thoughtfully.

What are some of your favorite complex villains? How do you like to approach writing your bad guys? Did I miss any tips? Please let me know! I am planning a post on different antagonist archetypes, so stay tuned and feel free to let me know some of your favorites.

Related articles: 
10 Ways to Make the Most Out of a Character Death
Writing Awesome Male Characters: What You're Doing Wrong
Writing Strong Female Characters: What You're Doing Wrong

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28 comments:

  1. I love this!! Favorite quote: "If you do not do this, your character will be as flat as Voldemort's nose." Heh heh.

    My personal favorite version of #4 is Sherlock and Moriarty, especially in the BBC show. Those two characters understand each other. They are the same, and yet opposite. They respect each other, and want to destroy each other. It makes for such delicious hero/villain dynamics. ^_^

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    1. Lol! Thanks. I was going to write "As flat as a pancake" but the nerd reference side of me rebelled.

      Sherlock and Moriarty are a perfect example of #4. I think those two and their similarities are what make the stories so interesting.

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  2. "Your villain needs to be a person before she can be a bad person." So true. I think I'm going to put that on a poster and hang it over my desk.

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    1. That's so cool! If you do it, don't forget to send me a picture. =) I'm glad you find it helpful.

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  3. Great post, as always! Your posts are always so insightful, and I look forward to them. Keep up the good work.

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    1. I'm so happy to hear this, Molly! It's always nice to know when people enjoy my work. Thank you.

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  4. Hi, Hannah!

    I've enjoyed posts (and your insight and your sarcasm) ever since I stumbled across your "Strong Female Characters" post a few weeks ago. Love this blog (and I just followed it!) keep up the good work!

    #2--those last few sentences made me laugh. Sure, it's not like some of us have emotional stability and can just cry it out and then move on. :-)

    #5--Love, love, love this point, especially about researching the motivating religion in question. And quite frankly, I wish *Christians* would do this when they write atheist characters. If Christian writers believe the Bible is absolute truth, then that truth isn't going to be threatened by a well-developed, layered atheist character questioning the Christian faith (and what's really sad is that many Christians today don't know how to defend their faith. Perhaps that's the reason for the two-dimensional atheist characters :-/). And for the record, I am a Christian--one who is very tired of lazy writing and reasoning. :-)

    Great post!

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    1. I love your last point, Christine. As a Christian writer, I've noticed the exact same problem. We should not be threatened by writing characters with different points of view. In fact, I think this can work to strengthen our beliefs. Also, if people could learn to write atheists as human beings, I feel like that could open up so many doors of communication that have thus far been closed by shallow writing. It would lead to atheists being more open to reading and listening to Christian fiction, and it would lead to Christians being more be open-minded and loving towards people who don't hold our same beliefs. That's a dream of mine. =)

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Christine! I'm glad to connect with another Christian writer who thinks deeply about stories and their impact. I'm so glad to hear that you are enjoying me blog. Happy writing!

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  5. As usual, you are right on spot, Hannah. Of course villains are important, sometimes even the most important characters in stories. Writing a complex villain, and writing him/her well, is one of the pinnacles of literary achievements. Very good pointers, and a well-structured article - as always, your posts are a joy to read :) Enjoy your Sunday!

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    1. Aw. Thank you, Ramona! You are too kind. =) And I agree: a complex villain is a sign of a thoughtful writer capable of producing a great story.

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  6. As always Hannah, spot on with your post! I loved the points you brought up about making the villain relatable to the hero. I truly agree that what makes the hero truly see the villain as a threat are the similarities the two have, not the differences. It's a personal struggle for the hero, a sort of test of strength to overcome, through this outside physical obstacle. I always love what you post! Well done, girl!

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    1. Thanks, Rae! I've always loved stories where the hero struggles with being similar to the villain (or vice versa). It adds so much depth. I'm glad you enjoyed reading. Thanks for the sweet comment!

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  8. ''Grey Zone thingy'' is the reason I always thought Claude Frollo from Notre Dame de Paris was a great villan. He was good at the beguining and you could see he was intelligent and really cared for Quasimodo but his obcession for Esmeralda turned him into a horrible (and very much insane) person.
    Great article as always!

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    1. I had never thought about Claude that way, but that's a great point! He did have a lot of different points that made him both moral and horrible. It always confused me as a kid, but now I see how brilliant it was. =)

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  9. Thanks Hannah this is so helpful to me, as I have trouble with writing my villains into my story's! I tend to make them barely even there,or there but not very detailed. This article has helped me a lot. :)

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    1. I'm so glad this helped you! Writing villains can get tricky, but I'm sure you can do it. Happy writing and thanks for the comment!

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  10. I would share this but it is a poorly designed website as I have to scroll up every two to five lines to read because your bar of sharing icons is in the way.

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    1. Wow! Once I published, it centered and now I can read it. So strange.

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  11. I appreciate your ideas and recommendations about writing villains. Thanks for sharing.

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  12. Loved this post, and have bookmarked it. :)

    One of my favourite ever villains is Sor Loreta, the deranged Peruvian nun in Michelle Lovric's 'The Book of Human Skin.' She's a riveting study of how narcissism combined with religious zeal can create a monster of a person, and even though I hated and feared her I was compelled to keep reading simply to find out if ANYONE was EVER going to see through her deception and stop her reign of terror.

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    1. I have never read this book, but now I'm intrigued! I love me a complex villain. Thanks for the comment!

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  13. I really liked this article, it actually gave me a few ideas... BUT - and this may just be my Potterhead side id me talking, sorry! - Tom Riddle's mother didn't abandon him. She died right after his birth, the last words she spoke being "Tom Riddle," which is why the orphanage lady gave him that name to begin with.

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    1. Great point! You're right: She did die upon childbirth. I had always thought that, after being left by Tom, she kind of gave up on life, thus dying of heartbreak/exhaustion/depression/giving up and left her son alone. But I could be absolutely interpreting that incorrectly. =D

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  14. I like my villian. I'm not sure if this is right but he is a complex character. He could turn out to be more interesting than my main character so maybe she needs to be rethought. Hmm

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    1. Yeah, I had that problem in an old story of mine. It just meant that I needed to give the character some more flaws and conflicts. =D

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  15. I love two of my villains. The original because he believes he's right and is a terrifying creature. The main character agrees with him on some points, even though there's absolutely no love lost between them. He becomes sympathetic enough that you begin to root for his redemption. This becomes the main character's job, even though he absolutely hates him.

    And the female villain, because she's terrifying even to the first villain, and the eventual dynamic between her and the main character is terrifying to me. He lays down all and chooses to love her. It costs him everything, even being cursed, but he's a determined one.

    I spent a lot of that outline sketch with my head reeling, wondering what the heck he thought he was doing, but it ended up being very much like him and I went along for the ride.

    It's one of those things I wish I had more time to play with, but you know. Life.

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  16. Thank you so much for your help! I love the idea of a villain believing they are right. It makes them scarier because they believe that the protagonist is evil and will fight back just as hard. I love it! Thank you.��

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