I have a confession to make—one that some of you might share. My favorite characters are usually the awful ones. The ones who do terrible things without a shred of remorse. The ones that I'm dying to see get their comeuppance, but not before they push our beloved protagonist to the very edge and nearly destroy everything in the story we care about. Yes, I'm talking about the villains.
Think the viscerally creepy Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The icily elegant Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Elizabeth Wein's SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden in Code Name Verity, who we only meet second-hand but is terrifying nonetheless.
Villains can make or break a book. When they're boring or one-dimensional or clichéd, there's no tension and the plot deflates with that sad wheezing noise balloons make when you stick with them with a hatpin. But when they're done right, meaning that they are an actual character and not simply a clunky device to test the hero, they help keep the stakes of the story high and the reader turning pages late into the night.
In The Midnight Sea, King Artaxeros II is the obvious villain, but he's also a bit abstract—you don't meet him until more than halfway through, and then only briefly. So I needed another antagonist. One who you really get to know. One who has some admirable traits but, as the pressures of the plot slowly pile up, becomes something much darker. Without giving away too many spoilers, I'll just say that I spent as much or more time thinking about him as about my main characters, Nazafareen and Darius. If you're going to have a colossal betrayal, the reader had better care about everyone involved or it just won't have much emotional impact.
So here are a few tips on writing unforgettable villains.
First off, all this is very subjective. What gives me cold sweats might make you laugh yourself silly. So you might start by think about which villains in film, TV, books, wherever, have resonated the most and why. Is it the prosthetic hook? The creepy Malkovich-esque voice? The mask of sanity they wear with their family when they're not committing grisly deeds? Once you know what disturbs you in the deepest, most primal part of your monkey brain, channel that quality in your own bad guy.
Okay, this one I cannot emphasize enough: give the villain motivation that readers can relate to, even if it's totally twisted. So they're power-hungry. Why? Is it because they have a secret crush on someone they want to impress? Or maybe they're compensating for a horrible childhood, or their dog needs an expensive operation, or their ideas of right and wrong are simply skewed beyond repair? I like to think that even the worst villain has something they care about. Balthazar, a necromancer who gets a starring turn in the second book of my series, is madly in love with his wicked queen. Yes, he does terrible things. But everything he does, he does for her.
Rachel Aaron has an awesome blog post on character development where she breaks it down into the deceptively simple formula below. The key is to understand that what a character wants and why they want it are two separate things and as a writer, you need to be very clear on both.
What do you want? (Goal)
Why do you want it? (Motivation)
What's stopping you? (Conflict)
If you have trouble, you can also try flipping the story and imagining it from the villain's point of view. You might be surprised at what you discover. Setting aside hockey-masked killers and comic book arch-bad guys, a good villain could potentially be the protagonist if he or she weren't quite so extreme.
In my first book, the sci-fi thriller Some Fine Day, one of the most despicable characters is a military doctor who's deliberately infected innocent people with a super-nasty Level Four virus. But as she calmly explains to the main character, the project is simply a response to their enemies engineering a similar plague. From her point of view, it's a matter of self-defense.
Effective villains often embody an exaggerated version of the same things your hero is conflicted about. That's very much the case in The Midnight Sea, where both Nazafareen and her antagonist face a similar choice but react in opposite ways. This is where we dig down deep and see what our characters are made of. Often, it is the villain's inability to change and grow and face the truth (external or internal) that proves to be their undoing.
So now that you’ve got a fantastic, fully fleshed out villain that rivals Moriarty or Lecter, what's the best way to get them across to the reader? Well, if the story is third person, you can give your villain their own POV. Jack Torrance in The Shining is one of my all-time favorites because we get to watch him slide slowly into madness over the course of several hundred pages. But the scariest part comes just before he's lost it completely. We know he's probably going to do some very bad things, but there's still an unpredictable quality to him. In our hearts, we still vainly hope that his love for his wife and kid will somehow triumph over the evil ghosts running the Overlook Hotel, which makes it SO much worse when Jack finally, irretrievably snaps.
As King says, “This inhuman place makes human monsters.” And those are always the scariest kind.
Anyway, thanks for reading! For tons more on villains, I highly recommend Bullies, Bastards And Bitches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction by Jessica Morrell.
Next week we will definitely do Ghosts and how key they are to plot and character development. Happy reading and writing!