Writer’s Corner: Born Bad

What makes a “good” villain?

A lot of time is spent on writing your protagonist. They have a rich history, family, friends, flaws, and things that helped drive them to the moment your story begins all the way to the end. You’ve invested a lot of time to create a believable character that your audience can identify with and enjoy reading. How much time have you spent on the bad guy, though? A major failing of a lot of new writers is that while they spend all this time developing the protagonist only a fraction of time is spent on the antagonist of the story. I argue that the villain of the story can be even more important than the hero/heroine themselves. Today we’re going to discuss what it takes to make a primo villain that your readers will love to hate.

Make your antagonist three-dimensional.

It’s easy to make a villain that is bent on world domination with no purpose. It’s easy to make one that’s just batshit crazy for no reason other than being batshit crazy. Sometimes these characters can even be fun. What they will not do, however, is capture the reader’s attention for long. They make much better support characters for your main protagonist. The main big bad has to be something special, though. They have to be memorable and have a rich story themselves.

Give your protagonist compelling reasons for being bad.

If you want your bad guy/gal to really stick out in the mind of the reader then they need to have a compelling reason to do the horrid things they do. Did they come from a violent background? Did they lose someone they loved? Do they really believe they’re doing the right thing to help others? Remember that no one starts out either good or bad. Their environment affects them to a great degree and determines who they become. It’s just like real life only with really dramatic stuff happening on a large canvas.

No monologuing.

There will always be the temptation to have your protagonist stand around and pontificate about their plans. Stop it. Just staaaaaaaahp. This is not a bad comic book or Bond villain. (Yes, some of the Bond villains are shit.) Now, if you have a villain like Ozymandias from Watchmen by Alan Moore, be my guest. Don’t overuse it, though. Show us what the protagonist will do, not what they will talk about doing (show vs. tell.) It has more impact.

Your antagonist thinks they’re the hero of the story.

Rarely are memorable villains evil for the sake of being evil. They have the drive to do the things they do, as we discussed above. An interesting thing about people on the morally questionable side of life is that they are often predisposed to think that whatever evil act they do is for the greater good. Genocide may seem horrible but they understand that if we don’t kill over half the population of the planet then we will all surely die due to limited resources. They’re the hero! (At least in their mind.)

Make sure there is some quality the antagonist displays with which the reader can identify.

Show us the protagonist’s weakness. Maybe it’s their family…or their love of cream filled pastries…or cute kitten pics. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something ordinary. People can identify with flaws in human nature. Yes, this bad Empress is hell-bent on universal dominion but she also has to have her morning coffee before doing the domination dance. The easiest way to get someone to identify with a character is to make them, well…human.

An infinite shade of gray.

God, that’s a shitty reference but it’ll do pig, it’ll do.

Good and bad are subjective viewpoints of any universe, even one you made up. In an objective universe, where vagabonds and marauders wander, there is no such concept. It simply is the way it is and that’s an immutable fact. It’s a lot more interesting to make your protagonist a tad bit antagonistic as well.

On the flip side, remember that a bad guy can do heroic things as well. That’s another good way to show that, deep down, they still possess a soul.

In the end, just make the antagonist human.

Yup, they may be able to lift a truck with magic or warp reality but they can’t be a god.

Maybe demi-god. Yeah, a demi-god is okay.

Yeah, a demi-god is okay.

Check ya later tater. Fly safe out there. o7


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Also published on Medium.

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