I thought it would be cool today to explore the characteristics of a fun and intriguing villain. A good “baddie” can be one of the best and most memorable of any characters–think Darth Vader, or Saruman the White, or (one of my favs) Captain Barbossa from “Pirates of the Caribbean”–but for writers, developing a workable antagonist can be tricky, and if you get it wrong things can go downhill really fast. So, what are some things to consider when it comes to a crafty villain?
Since I write fantasy, I’m coming from a fantasy strain of mind, but this is applicable to any kind of character that opposes your protagonist.
- HIS/HER ABILITIES ARE EQUIVALENT TO THE HERO’S. Everyone knows a lopsided match is no fun, but put two opposing parties of equal strength together, and who knows how things will end? That’s where the excitement and tension of a good conflict come from. It’s a coin flip. (Think Holmes and Moriarty, for example. Gandalf and Saruman, both wizards.) There’s no guarantee your good guy will prevail over the hypothetical powers of darkness. Or, on the other hand….
- “TO DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM, TO FIGHT THE UNBEATABLE FOE….” These lyrics are from the most popular song from “Man of La Mancha,” and describe Don Quixote’s knightly ideals. Rooting for the underdog is always appropriate, and always draws us suckers and saps of human beings into a good story. Think of the sadly equipped rebels against the might of the Empire in “Star Wars,” for example. If your hero and villain are not on equal footing, then you should give the bad guys a serious edge. Or, even better, try to find a way to incorporate tip one and two. Again, I’ll go to Star Wars: while the rebel force can’t match the Empire, Luke and Vader are equally powerful in the use of the Force. They are, in a sense, equals. I work a similar scenario in “The Crimson League,” where Kora and Zalski, the sorcerer-dictator, are both equally powerful when it comes to their magic, but Zalski has the weight of the government and an army behind him.
- HUMANIZE YOUR BADDIE. I cannot stress this enough: bogey-man villains such as Lord Voldemort can work if they have a more humanized supporting cast (such as the Malfoy family), but alone, they are not interesting. They are not human, and we cannot relate to them. Give your antagonist some noble qualities. Zalski, for instance, will never lie because he holds his word sacred, and he truly loves and would sacrifice anything for his wife. Those are respectable traits. And make sure to give your villain a motive that is understandable and even sympathetic. He’s been wronged in the past. He’s suffered. He’s trying to right an injustice or responding to an evil he has known.
- HIS/HER STRENGTHS EXACERBATE YOUR HERO’S WEAKNESSES. And vice versa. When this is the case, your conflict can become a struggle to see which side can muster the courage and can adapt enough to overcome their flaws and fears. THAT is interesting. THAT is worth reading, because THAT is what life, really, is all about.
- BLOOD CONNECTIONS. Joseph Campbell, renowned scholar, is famous for his studies of myth and legend, and notes that heroes and villains are usually one and the same. Meaning, they share blood. (Aren’t we all our own worst enemy?) King Arthur is Sir Mordred’s father, for example. There is a VERY unique link between Harry Potter’s spirit and Voldemort’s, and if you don’t know how Luke Skywalker relates to Darth Vader, well, you need to rent the Star Wars trilogy STAT. It’s not necessary, of course, to have close family ties between villain and hero, but it’s cool to have some kind of connection or bond. Maybe they were trained by the same organization, are from the same small town?
Well, that’s all for now! If you have some other tips/suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments! Who are some of your favorite villains? And don’t forget “The Crimson League” will be FREE for kindle on September 3-5!