Ciao, SEers! I’ve been talking to you about some of my favorite character types the last couple of times I was with you. We’ve already gone over sidekicks and red herrings (if you missed them). Today, I’m sure it’s no surprise that I, the writer who delights in killing so many of her characters in so many different ways, is talking to you about the villain.
I feel like I could write a book on the subject. Many writers already have. Today, however, I want to focus on three points: power, motivation, and success.
A villain needs to be a worth adversary for your hero. By worthy, I mean he needs to be slightly more powerful. Yes, more powerful. Not equal, not less. More.
If he’s too strong, he’ll never be beaten. Too weak, it’s no challenge for the hero. Equal in every way doesn’t make the stakes feel high enough. To make the conflict worthy of your reader’s time and the stakes high enough for their attention, the villain needs to be slightly more powerful than the hero.
And by power, I don’t mean he has more troops or more strength or more magic, though those are all possibilities. In 300, the Spartans are outnumbered 1000 to 1, but their fight is so epic, they inspire Greece to rise up against the Persians. In Rocky IV, Drago is clearly stronger, but Rocky still manages to beat him. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort is the most feared wizard alive. He obviously knows more magic than Harry. Yet he loses to him. These villains all have more power. But to be truly epic villains, they also have to be smarter. Elevating physical misdeeds with mental villainy will take your antagonist to the next level.
Giving your villain a goal beyond “power” is another way to elevate him. Sure, wanting to rule the world is a lofty goal. And it’s pretty egotistical. But it’s also stereotypical.
Think about the villains that we’ve come to really love… for example, Loki. Yes, he craves power. But look deeper. It’s not that he wants to rule. What he really wants is his father’s approval, especially over Thor. That extra level to his obsession with Earth—because he can hurt his brother and look good to Odin, all while ruling a planet—elevates him from a run-of-the-mill power-hungry villain to something more. And it’s because of his motivation.
The last two points I think we all agree with and probably do, at least to some degree, fairly naturally. This last point, however, is one many authors either forget or never consider. Sometimes the villain needs to win.
I know, I know. It goes against your grain. But he does.
If your villain’s plans are always foiled, the readers are lulled into a sense of complacency. The stakes never feel dire. They never fear for the hero’s life.
But if the villain wins once in a while? Then all bets are off.
Look at The Empire Strikes Back. Would the Star Wars franchise ever have been what it is today if Darth Vader didn’t take Luke Skywalker’s hand and freeze Han Solo in carbonite at the end of the second movie? Our heroes were beaten and separated and had barely gotten away at the end of that film. If they had beaten the empire again and were sitting pretty going into film three, I suspect the franchise wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is today. It’s because the stakes were so high that the trilogy was so strong and has grown into the franchise it is today.
A lot of actors say they’d rather play villains because they’re a lot more fun than heroes. I think that’s only the case if they’re well written. Do you have any tips for how to craft a good one? Let’s talk about it.