On writing three-dimensional villains
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Disclaimer: (as experience suggests that I need one) This resource consists of opinions. There may be better ways to write, and my advice may not fit your type of story. Please use common sense when applying the ideas expressed below. Thanks for reading!
Do you remember the Big Bad Wolf? He destroyed the Three Little Pigs' houses
and ate them (or only chased them, depending on the rendition). He ran to Little Red Riding Hood's home
and devoured her grandmother. The Big Bad Wolf appears in countless fairy tales to eat and terrorize the general populace.
In many children's stories, the Big Bad Wolf is symbolic for the negative consequences that can follow bad choices. Two of the Three Little Pigs failed to work hard on their houses, allowing the wolf to blow them over with his tremendous breath. Little Red Riding Hood stopped to chat with a stranger (the wolf), causing him to find her home. It's a simple picture for young minds: Misbehave and bad consequences follow.
The stories we typically write, however, are a little less black and white. The world is a complex place, so we reflect that in our stories with dilemmas and moral ambiguities. When we try to teach a lesson through our writings, it's usually more sophisticated than "don't talk to strangers."
As children, we tend to make our villains pure evil when we write and play. Eventually we realize this is unrealistic and try to write a new type of bad guy—only to learn that real villains may be more complex than we thought. Here, I hope to outline different types of villain and antagonist
development to help with writing realistic characters.
I've got the world on a string, mine to take over
Taking over the world is a tricky business these days. First of all, there's the pesky UN that can gather troops from all around the globe. Secondly, the world population is in the billions. It takes a ridiculous amount of troops to subdue seven billion people! Then you have to motivate the troops so they love and fear you, or they'll desert and engineer coups. Next there's feeding them, clothing them, paying them... Robotic soldiers only need electricity, but you have to pay so
much up front. And the time it takes to conquer the globe! Even worse, swarms of other villains are competing for the same throne, while all the heroes, superheroes, and Mary Sues are trying to kill you or throw you in jail!
Unless they have some mind-blowingly powerful resource, any reasonable villain is not going to attempt to take over the world. What would you even do
with the world? Buy a mansion full of servants? Laugh at ex-politicians? Build a personal amusement park? You could do all that just by taking over a big business, and that's not even a country!
If you have a power-hungry villain trying to conquer a place, you'll need to be knowledgeable about politics, history, psychology and sociology. Don't like politics? That's all right—there are plenty of other ways to get your villain into your protagonist's hair, and in many cases more effectively.Don't worry; we'll get back to political takeovers later...
What's my motivation?
This is not just the actor's question to the director, but your villain's question to you. Why is your villain being mean to the protagonist? Why not just stay home and watch TV? Every action of your antagonist's has to have a reason.
Basing the action off of a basic human need or desire makes this villain easy to understand. No, I'm not saying likable—if your villain is mean to everyone and acts like a bully, readers will hate him or her no matter what. They will, however, understand the villain's reasoning, which makes your story seem all the more realistic.
Here are some things that may turn people towards evil...
Power and GreedBoth these wants originate in the desire for status, resources, and security.
Some villains, especially those dictator wannabes, just want power. They may gravitate towards politics or finance. People with a desire for control will attempt to rise in position and respect as quickly as possible. Sometimes they abandon conventional morals to achieve this end. Politicians (including aspiring monarchs
) need to gain followers and campaign donors, while corrupt businesspeople need money and control over the company. Power to some people is like wine to an alcoholic: once they get some, it's never enough.
A villain may also be seeking to regain lost power. Perhaps the protagonist directly or indirectly caused the antagonist to lose power, and the antagonist is now desperate to get it back. This leads me to the next section...
The desire for revenge is a dangerous thing. People who can't deal with strong negative emotions in a healthy manner can transform these emotions into an overpowering thirst for retribution, even if the hated person or entity isn't actually responsible for the person's pain. Perhaps the protagonist humiliated the villain, or maybe her father killed his father.
Revenge can spiral into an obsession, where the villain focuses entirely on the target and the plan or moment of retribution. Sometimes villains are desensitized to the damage they cause on their path to revenge, causing considerable misfortune to others. Revenge can be a powerful motivator for your antagonist, since he or she will come after your protagonist with, well, a vengeance.
Desire for Acceptance
Sometimes people do bad things to gain the acceptance or avoid the rejection of a group or person. This one is rare as a villain's motivation, and when causing negative events, it typically exhibits itself in two forms:
- Little things an ordinary person could do: for example, playing a prank or doing something mean to join a clique or win someone's approval
- Terrible things: You know, like the weirdo who tries to shoot the president because he thinks it'll impress a famous actress.
The first instance isn't usually very villainous, and would likely be a subplot. The second instance will either result in a dark story (if we follow dangerous precipitating events) or a quick event of heroism or failure.
Similarly, sometimes people (especially those whose frontal cortexes* are still developing) will do drastic things for attention if they feel neglected.*The frontal cortex is an area of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, planning, and higher reasoning. It finishes developing sometime after a person turns 20. The incomplete development is one of the reasons why children and teenagers may make unintelligent or unrealistic decisions.
Sense of Righteousness
Some villains may believe that their acts are actually helping people. This is a rare case, and most commonly shows up when the villain works for a government or institution that has an element of corruption. The villain assumes that his/her actions are for the good of the people instead of actually checking
with the people (or reality in general) to see if this is true.
Danger stemming from fear shows up in many forms. Hatred of minorities stems from the fear of displacement from work or home. An angry father threatens to shoot his daughter's gangster boyfriend for fear that he won't be able to stop her from getting hurt. People will lash out at a perceived threat, and if your villain feels that your protagonist puts him/her or a loved one at risk, then action to prevent that danger needs to be taken right away.
This has a multitude of uses. A threat to the villain's safety or the safety of the villain's friends or family is especially potent, as the villain may stop at nothing to prevent the cause of harm—and probably won't regret it. Remember, your protagonist may or may not intentionally pose a threat to the antagonist...
A Plea for InsanityContains frightening statistics about violence and ableism. People with anxiety disorders may want to skip to the next section.
On behalf of everyone who has ever been diagnosed with mental illness, please don't make your villains "*****."
The media frequently implies that mental illness equates to evil and danger. What you don't hear is that most people with mental illnesses are perfectly good people, who want to find a good job (if they can), enjoy healthy relationships with friends and family, and overall lead happy and ordinary lives. Each of these things may be a bit harder, and pills and therapy often get added into the equation, but in the end there is little difference between the mentally ill and the neurotypical.
I am mentally ill and autistic. I write free resources for authors online, and I try my hardest to make people's lives happier. One mentally ill woman I know has worked in the upper echelons of a company for years, fighting to end pay discrimination and keeping workers' health insurance premiums low. Robin Williams was mentally ill, and he starred in hilarious movies to entertain people around the globe.
These are stories that do not get told. The words "*****" and "psycho" have come to describe unreasonable or violent behavior, when in fact mentally ill people are no more violent
than neurotypical people. Furthermore, mentally ill people are often the targets of violence
because of this stereotype, and are five times more likely
to be a victim of homicide.
If you write an "******" villain, you contribute to the view that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and must be avoided—or murdered. This is why I, along with many other mentally ill people, will fight to keep my disorders a secret offline. I have no desire to be singled out, ostracized, fired, or abused. If I tell my friends, professors, or employers the real reason I suffered from a panic attack or carry pills, they may suddenly think I am violent and unpredictable.
No. I'm not. I'm here for the same reasons you are: to get on with my day. And every time you contribute to the stereotypes against people who suffer from mental illness, you make my life and many other good people's lives harder and unsafe.
So please. Keep your villain neurotypical. You can still write a horrifyingly dangerous character without endangering part of your audience.
WARNING: The first two paragraphs contain spoilers.
I watched this movie once that you might know. It's called The Phantom of the Opera.
The Phantom is an artistic young man who wears a mask to cover a facial deformity. Living in the shadows, he teaches a girl named Christine to sing and eventually falls deeply in love with her. Christine, however, falls for her seemingly perfect childhood friend Raoul, shattering the Phantom's dreams. The Phantom kills several people (and tries to kill Raoul) in an attempt to have Christine be his. Eventually he breaks down, realizing that Christine will never love him, and Christine and Raoul live happily ever after.
The Phantom is clearly the villain of the story: he kills several people, initiates swordfights with Raoul, and threatens to kill Raoul in an attempt to manipulate Christine into staying with him forever. Yet as he shouts "Go now and leave me!" and runs away from the two lovers, many viewers feel sorry for him or even wish that Christine could have somehow ended up with the Phantom after all.
Why this Phantom-favoritism? First, Raoul is an underdeveloped character: we know little about him besides his bravery and devotion to Christine. The Phantom is characterized much more. Additionally, viewers pity the Phantom. His disfigured face causes him to be unfairly abused and cast off by society, and his sensitivity and emotional pain are evident throughout the film. He loves Christine more than anyone or anything. His emotions have incredible depth.
You can add an interesting dynamic to your story by making your villain or antagonist sympathetic: as in, writing an antagonist with whom the reader can sympathize. Be aware of these distinctions:Protagonist: Main character
Antagonist: Person or entity that opposes the main character (think anti-protagonist)
Villain: The "bad guy" who is morally wrong
So if I wrote a story about a villain, the hero would technically be the antagonist.
There are two ways to make sympathetic antagonists.
The Non-Villain Antagonist
Non-villain antagonists are people who oppose the protagonist without being evil. Would you like to hear a story? No, you wouldn't? Well, too bad.
Once upon a time, there was an amateurish fourteen-year-old author named Miss Luna Rose. She wrote a story that included an antagonist who was an evil genius with control issues. He made a mistake and couldn't handle it, so he lashed out by trying to control every aspect of his error, including the protagonists. His desperately violent actions endangered their lives.
Eventually Luna realized that her villain stank. While her idea was somewhat workable, her villain was too underdeveloped and twisted to serve her story well. After editing and revising her objections, she finally replaced the evil scientist with a boy named Athryl Deallen.
Readers who know Athryl will be going "WHAT!?"**Unless my memory is bad and I already told this story.
Why the surprise? Athryl is an antagonist, but he's no villain. He's far
too kind to want to harm the protagonists. Instead, Athryl is a confused character whose abilities far surpass his judgment, resulting in a lot of mistakes and accidents. Now the story is powered a bit more by his villainous "friends," and Athryl's easily misguided genius only makes things worse. He's so non-villainous that he cries uncontrollably after seeing a "friend" fight the protagonists and realizing that he caused problems for them.
Athryl causes a lot
of trouble, yet most of my readers love him. He is often described as cute, and one reader, after reading about the history behind his unfortunate situation, angrily demanded that he receive a "happy ending." Despite his terrible mistakes, he is dear to many readers' hearts (which surprised me at first, but stories often do that).
Think about your story: Do you need a villain? Could you work your story with a sympathetic antagonist? Would your book be better
with a sympathetic antagonist? It's something to consider.
Sympathetic antagonists can be difficult for young writers and audiences, especially because they are in an ethical gray zone. Every reader has a different set of morals, so every reader will respond differently upon seeing your antagonist do something bad. As you write, keep in mind that readers may have different opinions than yours (and that's okay!) and see if you can get feedback about that character during the editing process. It may surprise you how varied the responses are!
A good example of a (initially) sympathetic antagonist is Fernando, the orphan boy from Rio
The Likable Villain
Sometimes people cheer for the bad guys! Remember the Phantom of the Opera? A friend of mine once confessed that she would be totally on Team Phantom if only the Phantom didn't murder people. Many readers can grow to like the villains, even if they wish that they weren't so evil.
If you want a villain who isn't pure evil, then let the readers see the villain's good side. Maybe the villain loves someone. ("I did it all for you!") Maybe he dotes on his dog or little sister. Perhaps she helps a lost little boy find his mommy. You can also give a few details about the villain's backstory and why he or she turned evil. As long as you don't overdo it and fall into Mary Sue
territory, readers may come to pity your villain.
If you want readers to like your villain, then develop the character. Show him or her doing things and making choices (without wrecking the suspense). You don't need a tragic past; readers can also like cheerful or non-emo villains—those are my personal favorites. Maybe your villain views himself as a regular guy who thinks your hero is a jerk.
Characterization is the major part. Do you remember the rule, "Show, don't tell?" If you say that Disastra is a lonely villain, that's telling.
If Disastra is looking out the window, watching a group of young women about her age passing by and wondering what it would be like to have friends like them, then you are showing
the reader that she is lonely. The reader can relate to feeling lonely, so your audience can sympathize with her a little. In the end, if Disastra is punished for her evil acts and ostracized, the reader will feel a bit bad for her. Even though she was mean, it's sad that she has to be lonely again.
Charisma can also make villains enjoyable to read. If your villain is egotistical and makes snappy comebacks to your heroes, readers will admire his/her spunk. This type of villain has appeared most frequently in popular entertainment, and sometimes they are the most memorable characters in a work.
Readers sympathize with sympathetic villains (as, ahem, suggested by the definition). Make sure to take that into consideration when planning your ending. If you kill a sympathetic villain, you may break a few readers' hearts.
And now for research: If you are writing a sympathetic villain, you must watch Megamind
and Despicable Me
. Along with being super-cute movies, they feature wonderful sympathetic villains. And if everyone gives you any weird looks for watching kids' movies, just tell them you're doing book research.
Takeovers: The Villain's HandbookAnd now presenting a how-to guide on conquering counties, countries, and planets! Villains, tune in for a tutorial suited perfectly for you!Special thanks go to my father, who is very knowledgeable about history.
Invasions are not socially complex. The government of the invading country simply needs enough popular support (which can be gained easily: just villify the other country and blame them for some offense). Then the invading country must have a stronger military and a sound invasion strategy. If so, then success is probable. Maintaining control over the conquered people can be more difficult. Keep reading; possibilities lie in the next sections.
Dictators from Popular Uprisings
The Empire Begins: Gaining Followers
Dictators in history usually begin as young, charismatic
men or women with an idea. They see some form of injustice or corruption in the government and decide that it should be changed. Then they begin speaking about this change, and their charisma gains them followers. Chances are, your dictator is a very
The prevalence of followers builds the potential dictators' egos. Soon these revolutionaries not only decide that the government is wrong, but that they can and must do better. Taking power, they believe, will help the country. For example, Hitler took power when Germany was faltering after the heavy burdens placed on it by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler wasn't thinking, "I want to take over the world and kill all the Jews! Mwa ha ha!" Hitler saw the fact that Germany was failing economically, and he wanted to rebuild it into the strong nation it could be. His more evil designs took significant form later on.
People need a reason
to follow this leader. Is there stark inequality? (Look at Cuba, 1959.) Do the country and economy seem hopeless? (Look at Germany, 1933.) If the current leaders aren't addressing or repairing the issue, your new leader can sweep in with promises and strategies to fix everything, and the nation will be behind them.
Rebels view themselves not as national enemies, but as patriots: they are helping
the country by taking it over so they can do a better job of running it.
New leaders need a core group of followers to assist them when they seize power. This is why many coups are military. High-ranking military officials already have lots of friends in the army. (Take Napoleon Bonaparte.) They can then use the army and all its resources to overthrow the old regime.
Another important question is this: do the common people own weapons? If so, then the downtrodden may run out with their rifles to help the leader overthrow the old, entrenched government. (Take the French Revolution
.) However, after the dictator assumes power, angry citizens with guns might storm the building. An armed populace is a double-edged sword, and the dictator must act accordingly.
If you have a pretty technologically developed setting, your dictator will need to seize the media right away. If the media sends the news first, reporters may be saying, "The government has been overthrown by a hostile rebel group! The Prime Minister and some 150 others have been murdered during the new autocrat's violent ascension to power!" If the dictator and his/her friends control the message, they can make it sound much better: "Finally, after decades of oppression, the people have risen to take back control of their government! I am Regina Evildictatorpants, your new leader who is dedicated to serving you. We shall immediately introduce reforms to..."
A successful takeover requires people to acquiesce. The poorer and less educated people are, the more likely they are to accept the new regime. They're less likely to understand what's going on or realize that the dictator's words shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value.
The next order of business is to make sure that the powerful people are behind the dictator or dead. Hitler, for example, appealed to the rich because he was strongly anti-Communist. (Communists in that time had a habit of taking away rich people's property.) He was also elected, which meant he had popular and military support. Communists during the Bolshevik Revolution killed the rich elite because there was no way that they would support Communism. The Stalinist purges took this idea further, eliminating any powerful or skilled people who posed a threat to Stalin.
Finances come from rich people who support the dictator, the government treasury, taxes, or assets confiscated from the rich (see Castro's takeover of American companies).
Many autocrats launch propaganda to support their ideas and create something known as a cult of personality.
A cult of personality is basically trying to create a propaganda (or brainwashing) system that makes it seem like the new ruler is God's perfect gift to humanity. The dictator is always right. Always. To err is human, but the dictator is obviously better than that. Furthermore, everyone knows that the dictator is the most intelligent, kind, benevolent person in the history of the Earth. That's
a cult of personality.For fun, try looking at Nazi or Stalinist propaganda posters
. It's good research. Lenin had a terrific cult of personality going on.
All this cult of personality propaganda will get to your dictator too. Eventually he or she is likely to believe that what everyone says is true. (Underlings, if asked, will vehemently agree.) Paranoia and believing oneself to be nearly divine are common side effects. Try researching Saddam Hussein and Stalin for some good paranoia examples.
Taking Things Up a Notch
Is your dictator worried that his or her power may slip? Simply reinforce control with a nice touch of eeeevil.
Scapegoats are an excellent way to unite a people. The scapegoat may be an internal "enemy." The most famous of this is Hitler's treatment of the Jews. The enemy could also be outside the country's borders: maybe the second country off to the west is the spawn of the Devil.
Internal scapegoats are usually focused on religious minorities. People don't actually hate the fact that the other group has a different religion. I mean, would anyone really care if you worshiped God or your kitchen toaster? (Although in the second instance, they may raise concerns about your health.) Targeting religious groups is simply a way to channel other people's xenophobia
and harness the power of othering. It's also handy to say "They believe in something very different from what we believe in! Clearly they are terrible people!"
External scapegoats tend to be less effective, since they're farther away, but vilifying the opposition is a great way to garner public support for a war. (Check out American WWI propaganda. No, America is not a dictatorship, but it has some good vilification examples.)
Secret police can also keep things under control. Say that one day Fred says, "I don't like this new dictator lady. She still hasn't made any reforms to help us poor people." The next day, Fred appears to have vanished off the face of the Earth. He never comes back. Pretty soon, people make the connection and quickly begin to sing the government's praises. While this doesn't make people like the government more, it makes them pretend to do so. Anyone could be a spy. They never know when they are being watched, and the environment turns very oppressive. Free speech is crushed, and people live in a paranoid haze. Nobody dares to speak of resistance. Examples of secret police include the Stasi (East Germany and Berlin), the KGB (USSR) and the Gestapo (Nazi Germany).
Conversely, a dictator who is very good (or "good") will garner a lot of support. Hitler, for example, brought the German economy from utter devastation to prosperity in a startlingly short amount of time. That's why he was able to become so popular: at first, he did something good
for Germany. People loved him so much for saving their country that it took them a long time to see the monster emerging from underneath.
How does this connect to your story?
Now you know the general steps your dictator-to-be will take in order to secure his or her regime. Say that your villain is the dictator. But why should the hero fight the dictator? The hero needs to have some investment in the old government (or perhaps (s)he wants to form a different government entirely). The investment can be simple: maybe this is the hero's home, which should be safeguarded for the hero's friends and family, as well as the benefit of all citizens. Perhaps the hero is in the military, and stopping this is his/her job. Maybe the dictator is threatening the hero's home country.
The hero also needs a reason to believe that the dictator will do a bad job. Maybe the two are of opposite political ideologies (for example, capitalist vs. communist, a recipe for bitter enemies). Maybe the hero knows or knew the antagonist personally and sees a personality flaw. The antagonist, according to the hero, could be too inept or unkind to rule. Maybe the hero also wants revenge for something the antagonist did. Or perhaps the dictator is already in total control, and the hero wants to follow the above steps to engineer a coup.
You have your general outline and research basis. Takeovers don't always follow this pattern, but in history they often do. For more research, try the following autocrats and empire-builders: Alexander the Great, Ghenghis Khan, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Hugo Chavez, and Saddam Hussein.
Puppies and Kittens"From the villain's perspective, he is the hero of his story." ~MrHuxley
Most importantly, remember that nobody is pure evil. Think of puppies and kittens. Everyone
loves to pet soft, furry animals (unless they're zoophobic
So don't be afraid to let your bad guy pet a dog! Think: what makes your antagonist happy? No, it shouldn't be limited to blood and pain; even totally evil people have other interests. Everyone needs to feel loved, so apply that knowledge to your antagonist. Maybe he loves his little sister more than anyone in the world. Maybe she's funny and outgoing when those irksome heroes aren't crossing her path. Most people want to make and keep friends.
Who wants to feel like a monster? Maybe a few villains are so evil that they have no conscience. (That... often tends to feel flat and overused, though.) Most people believe that they are good at heart, even if they mess up here and there. Your baddie wants to be able to sleep at night. Perhaps your villain is unaware of the effects of his/her evil deeds, or your villain tries to rationalize (or simply is tormented by guilt and feels like a terrible person).
So don't be afraid to show your villain's good side! That doesn't make the bad side any weaker or less poignant. If Jake smiles at one of his friends and is nice to her, we'll still hate him when he terrorizes and threatens the protagonists. We simply see Jake as a more believable character. Bad people aren't demonic all the time, just like how good people aren't always angelic.**Except for me.
So let your villain have a few non-evil moments along the way! If this results in two-faced-ness, we'll just hate the villain even more for the deception. If the villain is consistent, he or she can still be hated. Multi-faceted personalities display maturity in writing. So chances are, we'll believe a lot more in your mostly-evil villain, and your story will have taken one more step from "just cute" to complex.