Creating a villain is more than a key part of the conflict in a story.
It is almost a science, mixing in actions, motivations, and pain to get a mixture of character pieces that make the villain not only believable, but also understandable. I don’t want to see mindless bad deeds, I want to know why they became the person they are.
Let’s look at a commonly loved comic book and movie villain, Loki. I think it is safe to say he has just as many fans as the heroes, if not more. It’s not just because Tom Hiddleston is incredibly good looking, or reported to be a true gentleman, which is rare in modern times. These things help, yes. But Loki is loved because you can understand how he came to be so angry. He had a rough relationship with his parents and brother. He had a desire for the power that was so close, yet still out of reach. He knows he could do so much more, have so much more, and just plain be so much more, if only someone would let him. He became a villain because he felt unloved. No one believed in him, the place in the world he thought he should have was going to someone else. His pain and anger build until he can no longer hold them in, and then, he goes to get what he feels should be his.
Loki is loved because people can see themselves in his pain. They know how it is to be the one who is overlooked. Sibling, coworkers, friends; there is always someone who seems to have something we want and can’t seem to have. We want to lash out. Maybe we don’t want to go on a murderous rampage, but we at least would like to throw a good, old fashioned tantrum.
This is how a villain should be. The villain in a story is not just some shadowy black hat, doing bad things simply because they are bad. The villain should have a backstory and motivation that is understandable. If you don’t want your hero to be a cardboard cutout of the typical good guy, don’t make your villain that way either. Think through the many elements of your character. You may have to start with the big things, such as what you need him to do, but you need to fill in the small details as well.
1) Determine what kind of bad guy your villain is.
Not all villains are the same, or at least they shouldn’t be. To determine what kind of villain you have, you can begin with three broad categories; those who are tough, those who are cruel, and those who are evil.
The tough guys are the strong villain. They are the bad guys who will cause you physical damage personally. They may work with their fists or with weapons, but either way they are in the middle of the fight personally. This villain is not usually the brains of the operation. They are a foot soldier, or a thug. Even when they rise to the top, there is a part of them that loves the chance to get right back in the middle of the action. You can dress them up in a nice suit, but they will always look more natural covered in dirt and blood.
The cruel villain likes to make a point. They are not just exerting their power over you, even though they love that, they are teaching you how you are supposed to be. Violence is not their preference, but they will do anything to make you understand. Power is usually not their goal. They know the world is wrong, and feel they are the only one who can fix it. They might have a soft spot for family or friends. These are the people who help to motivate them to make the world a better place. That does not make their loved ones safe; their goal comes first, and they will only give so many warnings before someone will be taken out, no matter who they are.
The evil villain is capable of almost anything. Sometimes the evil villain can do anything because they honestly don’t care who they hurt. Other times, they do things because they enjoy it. They get off on the pain they cause others. Maybe it’s the mind games they enjoy, maybe it’s the torture. This makes them unpredictable because you might not be able to see their motivation. They might not even have a master plan so much as a desire to cause a little mayhem.
Of course there are other kinds of villains. Some of them will fall into one of these three categories; others might need a slightly different classification. But the cruel villain will never torture for fun, the tough guy won’t let an insult pass without retaliation, and the evil villain will not spare someone simply because they look weak. It is not in their nature, and will undermine the character.
2) Give them motivation.
It has been said before, but it is worth saying again; everyone has a reason to fight, and everyone has a reason to live.
Your tough guy might have once been a small child, beaten by those who were bigger. Now he fights because he enjoys the feeling; he will not let anyone have that kind of power over him again.
The cruel villain may have seen the pain of war. They want to fix the world because they see the cruelty others do to each other; causing a little pain to a few hundred to save millions is a small price to pay.
There is only one clear memory from the evil villain’s childhood. The darkness of the box they were in, the smell of the urine staining their pants, and the certainty they would pay for their inability to contain their bladder when the box was opened.
The villain needs motivation to become the person who is a problem from the hero, and the motivation to keep fighting when someone tries to stop them. If your villain causes trouble only because the story needs a bad guy, they have no reason to fight and may has well walk away at the first sign of trouble.
3) Let them do the right thing.
Even a villain is a person. Once there was something they cared about, something they loved. They are not a mindless killing machine; they are a human being, capable of thinking and feeling. Let them cause pain without mercy, let them steal, cheat, and lie. And then have them let someone go. Let them release the person who reminds them of their little sister, or the woman they loved and lost. Let them save the heroes girlfriend at the last minute, even when they aren’t sure why they did it.
There are already the people who made them a villain. Let them do the right thing and let them become a real person.
4) Give them brains.
It’s easy to foil their plan when there is a large self-destruct button, well labeled, and brightly colored on the middle of the evil machine. But really, what villain outside of a Disney cartoon, is smart enough to create the evil machine, but not smart enough to know how it can be easily destroyed? Yes, creating a good evil plot will make it harder for you to find a way to let the hero defeat the villain and give a happily ever after. But that is your problem, not the villains. Don’t sell your character short in order to make your job easier. Your job is not supposed to be easy. If good writing was easy everyone would do it. Don’t go for lazy writing, make your story amazing.
5) Let them win.
I’m not saying you should let your villain achieve world domination in the end. Sure, it might be nice for them, but it’s not exactly a satisfying conclusion to a battle to have everything end evilly ever after.
Let your villain win a few small battles. Let him kick the hero down a few times. Whether the villain is a person or a conflict, the happy ending doesn’t come right away. If good wins immediately, what is the point of the rest of the book? A villain who loses every time is not a challenge; they are an annoyance. Letting the villain win makes them a more formidable opponent, and makes the final win for the hero that much more impressive.
What can I say, just like so many other woman in the world, I really do love the bad boy. You know in the end they are not going to win, but you still want them to. You want something good to happen for them, because maybe, just maybe, it will change them.
So tell me, Who is your favorite villain?