How to write a villain

From Jane Friedman’s blog: How to Write a Killer Villain

You can’t have a good thriller without a nasty and formidable opponent for your hero. But it isn’t enough to just write a character and call him “the bad guy.” Just as it’s important to create a well-rounded, three-dimensional hero, you must create a villain who is well-developed and not just your standard killer, robber, or kidnapper.

I actually disagree!

Sometimes the emphasis is on the, call it the relationship even if they never or seldom meet till the end, so, yeah — the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist may be central. In those cases, the antagonist is super important and having a complicated, well-developed villain with a complex, fleshed-out backstory is also probably important. But sometimes the emphasis is somewhere else, and in those cases it can work fine for the author to just handwave the villain.

Take Point of Hopes, for a great example I read recently. The villain was absolutely unimportant. He just barely steps on stage long enough to be defeated at the end. The important things in this book are the worldbuilding and the various non-villain characters. The villain, nope. Is this a flaw in the book? Could be seen that way, sure, depends on what you like in a story. If you’re interested primarily in the development of the relationships between the non-villain characters and in the worldbuilding, then a flat, undeveloped villain may well work for you. Often that works for me. Often, in fact, it’s what I prefer.

Let’s think of some of the stories I’ve most loved and admired this past decade. These are in no order, just tossed on the list in the order they occur to me.

The Freedom’s Gate trilogy by Naomi Kritzer — I don’t remember anything about the villain. Well, that’s overstating the case, but very little. The focus is so much on Lauria and Tamar and a variety of secondary characters, not on the villain(s).

Hild by Nicola Griffith — there’s no villain as such, though there are people who are dangerous and difficult and powerful.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison — the villain is trivial. I mean, unpleasant, sure, but trivial. The person who sabotaged the airship in the first place, setting everything in motion, is interesting and complex, but we only see him for the space of one conversation. It’s an unsettling conversation for Maia, but I don’t think you could possibly describe this person as well-rounded or well-developed as a character. His role is important for setting the plot in motion, but he is not a strong presence as a character.

The Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland — here, the ultimate villain is interesting and well-developed. Sympathetic, even! This is probably the best example of a well-developed villain with a backstory in this set of selections. This is true even though the main focus is on relationships among the protagonists.

That was just a random selection of books I’ve loved, but yes, I would say that well-rounded, well-developed, complicated villains are not very important to me.

In fact, one of the things I hate most in almost every case is chapters from the villain’s point of view. I detest those and often skip them. When I don’t skip them, I would like to and I’m on the edge of doing it.

Of course you can see that in my own books, where I usually go for creepy and evocative villains rather than villains who are actual fleshed-out characters. Lilienne, for example. The Wyvern King. I’m not interested in developing those villains as people, I’m interested in developing the protagonists and the worlds, with the villains as the problem and the foil, not really as characters in their own right.

Of course, that’s me. Maybe some of you are most pleased by stories in which the villain is much more central as a character, even if that means that the worldbuilding takes a bit of a back seat. How about it? On a scale of one to ten, where one is a completely unimportant antagonist as in Point of Hopes and ten is the villain getting as much screen time as the protagonist, where do you come down?

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7 thoughts on “How to write a villain”

  1. I don’t like spending time with unpleasant people, even in fiction—and particularly when you’re inside their head! So I loathe most villain POV chapters and prefer books with villains as the problem and foil, as you said, not as characters.

    In my own writing I tend to veer more towards villains who spend most of the time off-stage or are otherwise less significant. My current WIP has a couple of Bad Guys, one of whom may never appear on-screen at all, one of whom only has two scenes so far. (Though I guess the main villain is Late-Stage Capitalism, which shows up a lot….)

  2. There can be real problems with showing the villain as a fully fleshed out character. For instance, in Madeleine and the Mists, none of the point-of-view characters know what the king is thinking, thus making it more difficult for them to plan to counter him, but greatly limiting anyone’s chances of figuring out his motives.

    Main characters who are criminals can be fun, but I’m not sure about full-blown villains. (Supervillains, sometimes, because sometimes the name is nominal.)

  3. Pillars of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear has an excellent villain. A Super villain, one might say. We do occasionally get a quick villain’s viewpoint.

  4. The Teen and I recently have been discussing villains recently, so I perked up when I saw this headline. The article was disappointing. As far as we can tell, based on books, anime, and movies, what makes a villain satisfying to us is intelligence. We’ve been watching the anime One Piece which has lots of villains, some who might be more antagonists than villains, and they’re all different, almost all satisfying in their challenge for the main characters. So we were poking at what made them so good and decided all the good ones are smart: One runs a large organization and has plans, backup plans, and just-in-case-Murphy-strikes plans. Beaten by assorted characters not giving up and by the hero coming after him at the last in a battleground where his primary combat capabilities were useless. We have no idea of his past, there is almost no backstory for him, and what tidbits come out come up long after his starring role. We do know his present day motivation – he wants something hidden in the country he tried to take over.

    You admire his capability but want to see him fall.

    Another is an engineer and master of electricity, goes, again, for redundancy, and thinks very fast. Almost beaten by cleverness, but reacted too fast before dying. beaten by something he never knew existed – a perfect insulator – so couldn’t plan around. To the place he took over, he came out of nowhere like the thunder he controlled. What he wanted, in the end, was a resource they were abundant in. Material to build his spaceship – it’s a long story and it doesn’t make sense outside his head. He’s a lunatic with a god complex and power to back it up.

    We see his followers first, his ‘priests’ and we meet them hounding a man to death. Sets the tone for him and his followers, especially when he vaporizes their fugitive, and they complain about him spoiling their fun. The nature of his subordinates says a great deal about their ‘god.’

    You admire his ability to recognize and adapt to threats, and satisfied when he gets his due at last.

    A third and one the Teen says is magnificent in his villainy: tortured by mob at age 8 and promised death to everyone involved in it; commits patricide (while his father is kneeling and holding his younger brother) at age 10 in retribution for what his father had inflicted on the family as he sees it. Upon his former peers throwing him out when he brought them his father’s severed head (still at age 10), he didn’t sit quietly, he escaped with blackmail material so he could get something like the status he used to have from them anyway, and declared his intention to destroy the world that his former peers ruled. And set out to do exactly that. Now adult, he murdered his brother when his brother betrayed him – love between them went only so far. And proceeded to take over the nation his ancestors had ruled, by enslaving everyone who’d ever opposed him, and removed them from the memories of all who ever knew them. With the memory of them went the grudges relating to him. His country is considered a beautiful place – until you learn the truth. Almost a fairy tale kingdom. He takes in children – those who are like he was.

    By the time he is toppled, he is pulling the strings behind most of the powerbrokers in the world and has his fingers in every single pie. By toppling him a power vaccuum has been created and the world is thrown into chaos. As more and more unfolded about him, past and present, two things became clear:

    1) his past excused nothing, but where he learned some of what he learned and how held the power he now has was all too clear.

    2) he’s irredeemably evil now in a glorious depravity, magnificent, hated and admired in equal measure. you want
    to see him toppled, but you don’t because that would mean it’s over. His envy is unsurpassable, his arrogance knows no bounds, his fury is the fury of the wronged. in a complicated ball of motivations, grudges, and flamboyance. Willing to commit genocide to keep word from getting out when at last a linchpin of his plans comes undone. In his introduction he waltzed into the place that had once been his home, and is seen with glee and amusement laughing as he forces people to fight to the death for his amusement. With extra relish as they realize they can’t control their own bodies. You hate him, you know he’s evil, you want to see him fall. But (Teen says) you can’t help but admire his style as he flaunts everything in the faces of those he hates.

    3) even chained imobile in prison he’s still pulling strings and considering when and how to spill his blackmail.

    So – intelligence, planning, pro-activity, – I guess that sums up to be a worthy opponent – oh, and…

    I remember a historical series where we finally got the villain’s backstory, and the general reaction among those I know who were reading it, was “that’s it? That’s garbage!” Everything implied about the character in the backstory contradicted what we saw every time he was on stage. And there was no way he could have plausibly gone from what was claimed of him to what we saw.

    Lastly, character coherence. If the backstory undercuts the on-the -page presentation, there goes the killer villain. But you don’t need a backstory, just smarts.

  5. Elaine, your comment is more interesting than the original article. I’m going to pull it out and make it a post.

    Pete, I agree, the Pillars trilogy by Elizabeth Bear pulls this off by (a) keeping the villain pov sections short, and (b) embedding them in a whole bunch of different points of view.

  6. Rachel–one of the secondary villains in Pillars of the Sky was an even better character: the ambitious queen of the China-based land, who lets demons (and what demons!) into her land by making a bargain with the evil sorceror. She’s a character straight out of Greek tragedy, and is certainly more complex than villain #1.

  7. Pete, I actually liked her a LOT. She might have been my favorite character in the book. She was indeed a whole lot more complex than the overall Big Bad Guy, and I stopped thinking of her as a villain part way through, which may be why she didn’t come to mind when you referred to this trilogy.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever had my feelings about a character change more over the course of a book. She is certainly a fabulous example of a beautifully developed complex “villain” — also a fabulous example of a redemptive plot arc, which is why she appealed to me so much. What a terrible mistake! And how hard she tried to make up for it!

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