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?