To be clear, when I say “villain” I do not exclusively mean “the antagonist”. Most stories have only one antagonist, but many stories have several villains. In classical literary terms, the Antagonist is generally the primary character (or thing) that gets in the way of what the Protagonist wants most in the story. If the most important thing to the Protagonist is his family, the Antagonist will be someone threatening his family. If the Protagonist wants to win a competition, the Antagonist will be his final opponent. But in a story where the Protagonist has several obstacles to face, the Antagonist will be the one most directly responsible for those obstacles. For example, if the hero is fighting a terrorist group, there will be several villains to face off against, but not all of them are ‘the Antagonist’, the Antagonist will be the one leading the group. In some competition stories, the Antagonist may not necessarily be the final opponent, but the one coaching the opposing side.
I’m gonna talk about a few different types of villains over the next few posts. But I wanted to start off by addressing one of the most central elements to writing believable villains in the first place – the difference between Personal Villains and Obstacle Villains.
Personal Villains and Obstacle Villains
The Antagonist is there to create tension. The hero wants something, and the Antagonist gets in the way or causes a disruption. This is a normal part of story-telling. Where I see writers stumble in this area is when villains are written purely as obstacles and not as people, and I’ll explain why this is troublesome. In stories, obstacles exist for one reason – to be overcome. People exist for countless reasons. The reader knows this, so whenever a character is written as little more than an obstacle, a thing to be hated and overthrown, the reader quickly gets a sense of where the story is going and how it will end up. But when the villain is written as a person, meaning when the character feels like a living, breathing human being with emotions and history and dreams, then suddenly the possibilities become a lot more complex, and the reader has a greater sense of wonder for how things will turn out. There’s more tension.
I’m not saying that every villain needs to be sympathetic (as in, they’re only villains because life circumstances brought them to that), which is a different issue that I’ll address in the next post. I’m just saying that the villain needs to at least seem like they have some kind of conscience, even if it’s a messed up conscience.
I find it difficult to put into words, because if I simply say “no one wants to be a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk” then a lot of people would say “I’ve met people like that” or “I used to date that” or “I am that”. And if I simply say “in their own mind, everyone is the hero of their own story”, then it will leave some people asking “then is there such a thing as intentional evil?”
So far, the best way that I know how to put it into words is this: Nobody wants to hate themselves.
There are plenty of people who hate themselves, but they all have a desire to change without knowing how. (Those are Sympathetic Villains, which I’ll get to in the next post.) And people very often do things that cause them to hate themselves, but they usually find themselves in that place because of an oversight. They know something is wrong, but they do it anyway believing they can handle the outcome, underestimating the depth of self-loathing their actions will eventually lead to. But nobody wakes up in the morning, looks themselves in the mirror and says “I hate what I am – precisely as planned. (maniacal laugh) Let’s try and do even worse things today so that I’ll hate myself even more.”
And this is what most Obstacle Villains sound like in my head. They don’t even bother to justify their actions by thinking “This is ugly, but it’s for the greater good.” It’s like they know they’re in a story and that their whole purpose for existence is to make the audience hate them, so they only do things that they know will cause the audience to hate them so that it feels so much better when the hero finally takes them down. This is the kind of writing that pulls audiences out of the feeling of immersion, because it reminds them that they’re looking at a work of fiction focused on getting an emotion out of them. The villains do not feel like real people. Nobody intentionally lives their life that way, so neither should your villains.
Personal Villains justify their actions. They need to, because they’re people and they have a conscience. Even if the justification makes no sense to the audience, it should at least seem like it makes sense to the villain. It can be partly because of the way they were raised, depending on the message you want to communicate. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be that they think they’re doing what’s best for others. As I’ve had to correct myself, some people are in fact jerks just for the sake of being a jerk. But they love themselves for it rather than hate themselves. Why? Because they have reached a point of reasoning that says “The most honourable thing I can do for myself is just take care of my own needs and my own happiness. I owe it to myself to accumulate as much happiness as I can, regardless of how it makes others feel. Others should do the same, but those who are not capable will suffer, but that’s not my problem. Everyone should look out for themselves.” They are able to justify it in their own mind as ‘every man for himself’ mentality. They know they’re jerks, but they believe it is the ‘right’ way to approach life so they don’t look down on themselves for it.
You can definitely write your villain that way. Just don’t write your villain so that he actually goes out of his way to do things just for the sake of being hated by the audience. A question you need to ask yourself as the writer is “What is this character’s focus?” What is their goal? What is their dream? What do they care about? What is their motivation? Whatever it is, it needs to somehow connect with what they’re doing. They need to believe that their actions lead toward that goal, and are related to their focus. That’s the difference between a villain who is personal and a villain who is just an obstacle to be hated and overcome.
For more on these and other writing topics, The Storyteller’s Handbook is available for purchase now.