I’m starting a series of blog posts on the importance of the inclusion of character tropes in a story—from villains to heroes, from sidekicks to love interests. This article is about the most controversial yet fun of all characters: the villain.
The villain drives the story. The villain is the story.
The hero is defined by the villain and the villain's actions. The hero's elevated status is because of the villain's twisted morals and vicious tendencies.
Yet most modern villains in fiction are boring and, therefore, make the story boring. Why? We don't fear them. The scariest villains are the ones we can relate to. Even if we don't condone his or her actions, we understand the logic behind them.
The most successful villains are the ones that have motives behind their actions that are a result of their past and the need for the future to be different. Part of the reason Thanos from the Marvel Avengers series is such a successful, hated villain is because his motives connected back to a childhood of hardship and his drive for a better future. He was feared because his goal was achievable.
People fear others who are willing to go to great lengths to achieve what they believe is the truth.
In order to write a good villain, you need a logical backstory that relates to the antagonist's goal. If their parents are brutally killed and they are thrust into a life of poverty and hardship, stuck in a situation they are powerless to get out of...that's a storyline that could inspire evil. Their crave for power could be because of the situation they were in when they were younger. Their drive for control is because of what they lacked when they were younger. A villain's trauma needs to come from deep within.
Mentally unstable villains are also interesting, simply because they are unreliable. You can't tell what they are about to do because you have no idea what's going on in their mind. If you're trying to garner sympathy for your villain, switching to their POV is fine, but if the villain is supposed to be hated, then keeping it from the (biased, angry) hero's POV will do the trick.
An incompetent villain is a boring one. Villains should be cunning; they wouldn't get very far by making small errors in their plan, or throwing something together after a short period of anger. A villain should be smart, capable, and overall able to do challenging things. If you had a short burst of anger and planned world destruction, you would be shot down within seconds. A combination of cunning and anger should build up over several years. The tension plays an important role in the development of the villain.
*The next two paragraphs have spoilers pertaining to A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. Skip to the paragraph after if you haven't finished/are planning to read the ACOTAR series!*
If you let the villain win a few battles, you increase the stakes. Both sides are in it to win. Make it a somewhat even playing field. I don't mean having a basic retreat in a war—I mean the capture of a necessary character, or the death of another by the hands of the villain or the villain's soldiers. One of the best examples of this I can think of is the ending of A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. Feyre and Rhys are stuck when the King of Hybern releases an arsenal of ability they didn't know he had. Feyre has to improvise—and the consequences land her deep in the heart of the enemy.
Turn the villain's power to the hero's advantage. Despite the shock of Feyre's turn back to the Spring Court, she can use it to her advantage. In A Court of Wings and Ruin, she is able to feed information back to the Inner Circle about Hybern's plans. She manipulates Tamlin, Ianthe, Jurian, and the twins into thinking she just wants to return "home," but strikes when they give her the perfect opening, leaving Tamlin scrambling to pick up the pieces.
When both the villain and the hero have tricks up their sleeves, it can get complicated. Leaving a book on a cliffhanger is one of the most effective ways to build anticipation. It also builds a hatred for the villain.
Both sides have flaws. But the villain's flaw almost always ends up being his downfall. When the hero finds a tiny loophole in the villain's abilities, they find a way to end the war against their enemy. It's that simple.
1. Give the villain a feasible motive
2. Make the villain realistic
3. Make the villain smart
4. Make the villain scary
5. Give the villain a small-but-deadly fatal flaw
All in all, villains drive the story and give the hero a purpose. If you don't have a villain, you probably don't have an interesting storyline. Keep it fun! A hero has to have a connection with the villain that makes it somewhat difficult to defeat them, like a similarity in character they have that shocks the hero to their core.
Villains are some of the best characters. If you can't make the villain, you can't make the book!
In the second article in my series of tropes, I'll talk about the villain's opponent, the hero, and how, for some reason, they're some of the most underrated characters in their own novel.
Keep reading (and writing)! There are so many worlds to discover if you only take the time to do so!