As part three in my series on antagonists (to follow up a series on heroes/ protagonists) I wanted to discuss the failed villain from my first novel, Life’s Little Jokes, as a bit of a cautionary tale.
I love the book, and I love the characters, and the project taught me a lot about writing. Still, Life’s Little Jokes isn’t something I could ever send out into the world, largely because the villain just…. doesn’t work.
THE TRAPS YOU CAN FALL INTO WRITING A VILLAIN
The Duke of Kinsley is as stereotypical a villain as they come. Cunning, selfish, cruel, with megalomaniac aspirations of taking down the king and taking over the kingdom.
There’s nothing wrong with a selfish, cruel, megalomaniac villain if he’s consistent and has a background that explains why he is the way he is. The Duke of Kinsley wasn’t, and didn’t.
So I can assure you, you’ll do well to watch out for these pitfalls when creating any antagonist, especially one closer to the “evil” end of the villain spectrum.
- HE’S GOOD AT HIDING WHO HE REALLY IS, BUT ONE CHARACTER CAN SEE THROUGH HIM: FOR NO EXPLICABLE REASON. In my novel, the Princess Cassandra is the only person who doesn’t fully trust Kinsley. Part of it is jealousy that her father treats him like a son while more or less disregarding her entirely, but her loathing is deeper than that. It comes from intuition, an intuition never explained. (Naming a character after mythology’s Cassandra and having her spout “prophecies” no one believes isn’t enough by itself to justify her seeing through the baddie. Kinsley doesn’t start to let his defenses down until well late into the novel, but Cassandra distrusts him from the start when no one else does: including her intelligent, astute best friend, the Lady Catharine.)
- HIS BACKGROUND DOESN’T REALLY EXPLAIN HOW HE CHANGED INTO SOMEONE “VILLAINOUS.” Kinsley’s backstory is that he fell in love with a peasant girl who died in an influenza epidemic. Upset that he couldn’t marry her and bring her into his family’s home, he believes societal norms of separating nobles from commoners led to her illness, so he then: decides to destroy the king and work with an enemy army to topple the kingdom’s structure? Really? That doesn’t make sense, especially since the novel makes clear that Kinsley, at one point, was more or less a decent person. There are ways to effectively evolve a villain over the course of his life. This isn’t it.
- HE NEVER CHANGES IN ANY WAY THROUGHOUT THE COURSE OF THE ENTIRE NOVEL. Kinsley’s evolution is all backstory. From the first page to the last, Kinsley’s plot is in place and he brings it to fruition (or tries to) with no remorse, no second guessing, no doubt: no anything. He’s pretty wooden, which means he doesn’t read like a person of flesh and blood. At the end, Cassandra does make him doubt how his dead love would view him now, but he reacts as a villain would: lashes out in violence and anger. Cliche. Boring.
When writing Life’s Little Jokes, I told myself Kinsley was a human character because his villainy was wrought of grief and a response to him feeling wronged by the social structure of his kingdom.
In truth, that backstory was incredibly weak. People lose loved ones all the time; that’s a horrible fact of life. We all die at some point. We all grieve. We all feel the anger and the powerlessness that grief brings.
As a general rule, we don’t become megalomaniacs as a result.
A HAPPY ENDING FOR AN AUTHOR
I still laugh and shake my head a bit when I think of Life Little Jokes, but I’m glad I wrote it, as awful as it is.
It gave the me insight to create a villain named Zalski in The Crimson League, my next novel, who is solidly and undeniably human and a reader favorite according to reviews. He’s one of my favorite characters too.
After the Duke of Kinsley, I knew I had to make my villains inherently human (I wrote yesterday about humanizing a villain), and I focused on doing that.
I don’t know why constructing villains out of cardboard, wood, marble, or whatever other non-organic material you can name, is so tempting and so simple.
I hope, though, that this post inspires some thought about crafting human villains. Just remember:
Not every antagonist tries to hide who he really is, but when one does, if one character can see through him, there better be a good explanation for that.
If your antagonist borders on the psychopathic, best not to assign him a backstory that has him being a normal person at some point. JK Rowling got this entirely right: Voldemort was ALWAYS Voldemort, even as a child in an orphanage.
If your antagonist isn’t a psychopath, then a bit of development and demonstration of emotion beyond anger and hatred always helps.
What cautions would you give about crafting an antagonist (whether he’s a “villain” or not)? Feel free to comment below.
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