Author: A.R Reinhardt
THEY SAY THAT THE HERO’S JOURNEY IS NEVER AN EASY ONE. When the fate of the world is in your hands, there are sacrifices that must be made. Destiny, magical or not, is a great honor and a terrible burden. The path to victory is treacherous and only those with a pure heart can go the distance and slay the –
Let’s face it. Heroism has been done to death. You can’t throw a rock without hitting some listicle discussing what makes a perfect protagonist. But all the three-dimensional characterization in the world won’t save you if the Big Bad is dull. Let that bespectacled kid go to class for a change and leave that furry-toed man to both of his breakfasts in peace. It’s time to switch it up and talk about the VILLAIN for a change.
Your antagonist may be homicidal.
They may be genocidal.
They may even be adenoidal. (That’s a fancy word for nasal.)
But no matter what “idal” you can label them with, one thing is for sure. That’s not all that they are. And that’s okay! A good villain, just like a good hero, is complex. As nice as it is to believe that the world is black and white with good and evil being separate entities that fit into their respective boxes without every spilling over or mixing, nothing is ever really that simple.
Nothing kills a story faster than having a well-rounded protagonist face off against a cardboard cutout of a villain.
From a reader’s perspective, it’s like being served a dinner where the first course is a perfectly cooked pasta dish and the second is boiled, unseasoned chicken. One bite of that and you’re probably not sticking around for what comes after no matter how good you’re told it will be.
So, just how DO you cook up a villain that keeps readers coming back for seconds? You could stuff them into an air fryer and cook them for 15 minutes at 400 degrees OR you could add these simple ingredients.
Some people say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Other people say that the road to hell is paved with asphalt because that’s more practical. Whatever your stance is, we can all admit that we’ve done some not-nice things in our lives when we believed that the end justifies the means.
That’s exactly why a good villain isn’t just several evil deeds standing on each other’s shoulders in a trench coat. There needs to be more to them than that. Everyone, no matter who they are, has been shaped by the events of their lives. From the big, unforgettable injustice like the loss of a loved one to the smaller, repeated offenses of being belittled by a boss or primary caregiver, everyone has a list of reasons as to WHY they are the way that they are.
The villain’s motivation is just as important as the hero’s, if not more so. If the villain never snapped and made world domination his New Year’s resolution, then the hero would still be working their 9-5 and living a perfectly average, perfectly boring life.
Don’t be afraid to dive in deep and maybe even make the villain seem sympathetic. This all makes for a richer character experience. Life is complicated, people are complicated, and your villain should be too.
Have you ever noticed how many villains seem to have a PowerPoint presentation ready for the hero after they’ve been captured? They put a lot of thought and effort into explaining why they’ve decided to put all of New York underwater or give everyone’s toaster sentience. The least you can do is put that same effort into their narrative!
Once you have the “why”, you need to elaborate on the “how” because evil might have been planted in the antagonist when they watched the love of their life die because of an avoidable error, but how it blossoms is just as important as how it got there.
They have a goal, now how are they going to reach it?
What measures do they take? How far are they willing to go?
Do they succeed by using newly gained bad habits or have the traits that made them so good suddenly help them excel at being bad?
And, most importantly, how do their actions impact the hero? Make it personal. Does the villain hate the antagonist for perceived wrongdoing, like being the son of the woman whose friend-zoned them over a decade ago? Will capturing them restore their lost honor? The more important the hero (and their demise) is to the villain, the more interesting it gets.
The devil is in the details. Let him out to cause chaos for your protagonist.
Once you’ve pried the “why” from the subconscious of your villain and plotted out the “how” that will rock the foundation of your hero’s world, it’s time to discuss what might be the single most important aspect of a great villain.
That’s right. Brand recognition.
As tempted as you might be to use the word “smirk” until those four letters are worn out on your keyboard, a sinister smile and cocky attitude aren’t always enough to distinguish good from evil, especially in the age of brooding male love interests.
But don’t start despairing yet because there are plenty of ways to distinguish your villain and help them stand out from the crowd of unimportant background characters.
Ask yourself simple questions.
How does the villain talk? What’s their inflection like? Are they quiet but confident enough that their voice seems to carry over every other person in a crowded room? Do they speak softly but with barely controlled rage simmering under the surface, made evident by the way that their lips tighten and the tip of their tongue presses against the roof of their mouth to hiss out their every “s”?
How do they carry themselves? Are they a master of incognito, able to blend into the crowd? Do they carry themselves with purpose and self-assurance? Or are they guarded and shifty, slinking in and out of places with the air of someone up to no good?
Putting thought into these actions will make your villain less two-dimensional. Just be careful not to go overboard and remember that most people don’t stand in front of a mirror and narrate their appearance to themselves.
Once you’ve added the pizzazz, it’s time to focus on the pain. That is, the pain your villain will cause your hero.
No one wants to read about a hero who destroys their opponent within minutes of finally coming face-to-face with them. A hero who always lands on their feet isn’t as likely to keep a reader on the edge of their seat as a hero who stumbles from time to time.
And the best way to make sure that they trip up is to make sure that your villain is larger-than-life… or at least large enough to make the hero think that this insurmountable task might cost them THEIR life.
The simplest way to do that? Make your villain intelligent. Make them powerful. Let them be an expert at something, whether that’s fighting, magic, or just being social enough to build an army. Your hero should always be at least 5% weaker than the villain because it’s in that margin for error where one slip up could mean doom for the protagonist and the world they’re trying to save and THAT is what keeps readers hooked.
Failure isn’t really an option for the hero, but that doesn’t mean the villain can’t ensure that they cut it as close as possible.
And there you have it! A few simple ingredients later and you have a super villain souffle that any reader would be dying to get a second helping of. Remember, as important as your hero is to the story, they would be nothing without their nemesis so don’t be afraid to spice your antagonist up.
WEBSITE NOTE: WordPress may display this post as being ‘written by Jeff Mach’. In actuality, it was ‘written by A.R Reinhardt, copy/pasted into WordPress by Jeff Mach.