MORE Tips To Improve Your Villains
Table of Contents
- A "villain" who is nothing more than a petty inconvenience isn't a villain
- Just because someone has done one bad thing, doesn't mean that person will do any bad thing for any reason.
- If your villain is supposed to be mega-dangerous, then make sure your villain's actions show it.
- Whatever your villains are up to, ask yourself what they stand to gain (or think they stand to gain) from it.
- When applicable, consider having your villains take advantage of the law.
- Consider setting your villainous organizations up as fault-tolerant systems.
- And if you need inspiration for a villain...
- To recap!
A "villain" who is nothing more than a petty inconvenience isn't a villain.
For a character to be a proper villain, that character must knowingly take action that will lead to excessive and unfair harm to someone else (though the character may believe it's fair and justified), whether physically, emotionally, financially, etc. Someone who simply competes with your protagonist for the same goal may be a rival, but is not necessarily a villain for it - not unless that rival takes deliberate action to sabotage your protagonist for personal gain and/or spite, or is willing to deny your character something desperately needed to avert disaster or tragedy.
If your "villain," say, tries to date the guy your protagonist has an eye on while playing completely fair (EG, doesn't try to date him when the guy and your protagonist are in an actual relationship, doesn't try to sabotage a potential relationship between them, etc.), you don't have a villain - just a romantic rival. And if your protagonist goes so far as to try to deliberately drive the romantic rival away from the guy (such as through sabotaging a date) when he's not unhappy with the way things are going and is perfectly capable of expressing himself if he is, then your protagonist is by all rights a villain.
Same goes for characters who do something that your character simply doesn't like or agree with. Authority figures who simply expect the protagonist to follow rules and protocols? This might be frustrating to deal with, but this hardly qualifies the authority figures as villains. Dolores Umbridge was a tyrant - but a teacher who simply expects students to turn their homework in time and show some semblance of decorum in the classroom? Nope, not evil. Parents forbidding their kid from attending a party because they're worried about drugs and alcohol at the party might be a downer for the kid, but does not itself make the parents some kind of tyrannical monsters. Cinderella's stepmother was definitely abusive, but simply keeping a child away from a few parties is not even close.
So stop and think about what your would-be villain is actually doing - is it something that's going to lead to someone being excessively and unfairly harmed? Or does it really just amount to something mildly annoying but not actually harmful, or just happen to get in the way of something your character wants but doesn't actually need, or is the "villain" simply going after something your character really isn't more entitled to than anyone else? And no, "my character doesn't have the time/patience for this nonsense!" or "my character wants it more!" don't cut it - if anything, a character like this will probably come off as having an entitlement complex. While it's perfectly natural want things so much or feel so frustrated by authority that those in opposition to you might seem like villains, it doesn't automatically make it the case.
If you're not sure whether your villain is behaving properly villainously or whether your hero might be crossing a line into villainous behavior, try to imagine your hero and villain in reversed positions, doing the exact same things but for their own agendas or causes. If the villain's actions all suddenly seem justifiable when it's your hero doing them or seem like something your character would do in that position, there's a good chance you have a problem somewhere.
Just because someone has done one bad thing, doesn't mean that person will do any bad thing for any reason.
When trying to write a plausible, three-dimensional villain, it's important to remember that most people who commit acts that most would consider "evil" are not actually evil to just anyone for any reason, but instead are evil to specific people for specific reasons. Furthermore, the ability to commit one kind of evil does not mean that someone is capable of committing any kind of evil, and someone may only be capable of certain actions when sufficiently desperate. Let's examine how this all works in practice.
First, whether through rational deliberation ("If I do this, I'll hurt people who who don't deserve it, and I don't want to hurt undeserving people, so I try not to do it") or cultural conditioning ("I was taught by someone I hold in authority that this is wrong, so I try not to do it"), people typically assign different moral weights to different actions. For example, it's typically considered a greater wrong to kill someone than it is to steal a pack of soda.
Then, conditionals in morals allow a person to ignore a rule if certain conditions are present and/or unmet. For example, most people consider it wrong to kill someone for being mildly irritating. However, most would not consider it wrong to kill someone who actively posed a threat to the lives of other people in order to save those people.
So, someone might be willing to steal money from the widowed landlady if given the opportunity to do so, but that same person might be unwilling to actually kill the landlady for the money if it came down to that. However, that person might kill if it was a really and truly desperate situation - such as if xe owed money to someone who threatened to hurt a loved one if the payment failed to come on time. (And as a sidenote, if this person did kill the landlady, it would not necessarily push this person over some kind of moral edge and onto a gleeful killing spree!)
Someone might be willing to sabotage a relationship for petty revenge, but might consider stealing from widowed old ladies to be unthinkable. Someone easily capable of killing others in what, to that person, is a fair and justified fight won't necessarily be inclined to go killing people for any petty reason - let alone torturing them for fun. Someone might enjoy verbally tormenting people, but have no taste or inclination for physical torture. Someone might consider even white lies inexcusable, but think nothing of using threats of violence to make people do what xe wants - and someone else might hold to just the opposite. (And as a quick aside, it's important to remember that people's moral values are heavily influenced by culture and experience, and don't usually just pop out of nowhere - so keep that in mind when developing your villains.)
So, a villain will have significantly fewer inhibitions against committing malignant actions and more conditions in which these actions are considered acceptable than most people, but it doesn't mean that inhibitions should be entirely absent, nor does it mean that the villain should consider malignant acts appropriate for any and every occasion. To write your villain thus risks leaving you with a character who feels forced and two-dimensional.
If your villain is supposed to be mega-dangerous, then make sure your villain's actions show it.
If your villains are described as being some of the most dangerous or deadly people to walk the earth and your heroes take them out with minimal struggle or risk, it's not going to make your heroes look good - it's going to make your villains look overhyped and overblown. Also, when you talk up a villain as someone who is truly dangerous to contend with, people tend to start expecting an exciting and dramatic showdown. If you let them down on this, you risk creating a very unsatisfied and unhappy audience.
Likewise, if your supposedly super-dangerous villains don't actually do anything worse than inconvenience or annoy the heroes, your villains will come off more as pests than actual threats. If the only people your villains manage to do actually hurt or endanger are nowhere near the capability level of your heroes, your villains are just going to come off as bullies, rather than credible threats to the heroes.
So unless you're creating a villain who is supposed to be overhyped in-universe, make sure that your villain's actions live up to the reputation, and make them legitimate challenges to take down. See Tips To Write Better & More Exciting Action & Fight Scenes for some pointers on how you can do the latter.
Whatever your villains are up to, ask yourself what they stand to gain (or think they stand to gain) from it.
Closely related to making sure your villain has a motive, make sure that your villain actually has something to gain (or at the very least thinks there's something to gain) from xir villainous activities.
So ask yourself: what does your villain expect to get out of it? Money? Sustenance? Relief? An emotional void filled? A sense of completion or satisfaction? A personal utopia? And will the villain actually get what xe wants, or will it end up not delivering as expected, or even make things worse? What complications might that bring for the villain, and how might xe react? (This could be material for a whole new plot!)
When applicable, consider having your villains take advantage of the law.
If you want your villains to be scarily competent, have them take advantage of the law. For example, if a villain finds out where a vigilante lives, maybe xe calls the cops on xir knowing that they'll find a lot of illegal weaponry and gadgets. Or rather than hiring a hitman to stalk and murder the masked vigilante, maybe your villain starts a rumor that that there's some dangerous object at HQ that's going to be used very soon. Then the villain hires some superpowered security, and when the masked vigilante comes after the object apprehends and has the vigilante arrested for trespassing and theft.
In any case, not only will your villain avoid potentially getting into a lot of trouble xirself, but the hero could be in a lot of trouble that's much harder to escape than a simple bad guy!
Consider setting your villainous organizations up as fault-tolerant systems.
This won't apply to all villains, but for those it can apply to, this is a great way to ensure that your villains can stick around for a long time without having to resort to contrivances and deus ex machinas to save their hides.
In a fault-tolerant system, individual parts of the system can fail or become compromised without the rest of it losing the ability to function and operate. Potential ways to make an organization fault-tolerant can, depending on what kind you're writing about, include:
- Having the leaders or high-ranking members rarely, if ever, personally get involved in any of the dangerous and/or dirty work. Instead, they send out people hired to do these jobs.
- Having second-in-commands and the like who can immediately assume authority should anything happen to the leadership.
- Having the organization divided into relatively autonomous branches, divisions, or cells. Not only might these sub-groups be able to carry on operating if anything should happen to the leadership, but should any sordid activities carried out by them come to light, it's easier for the leaders to claim that these things were done without their knowledge or approval. (Though they will likely come under scrutiny for not keeping a close enough watch on their people.)
- Establishing fronts - groups that maintain the appearance of being unaffiliated with their true owners or sponsors. Those who use fronts can avoid potentially damaging their own reputations or having to take responsibility should something go amiss, or if their reputations are already damaged, make people think they're working for or with another group. In some cases, members and employees of fronts (especially those of lower rank) may have no idea who they actually work for.
- Assuming that sooner or later, something will go wrong and creating a fallback plan, doing contingency planning, or creating a ‘Plan B’ in case the first plan should fail.
- Building redundancy, to allow for individual divisions or sections of the organization to fail without taking out a vital portion of the group's infrastructure or function.
- Training the various divisions of the group on how to fail gracefully, or how to rebalance (or avoid taking on) the responsibilities of a failed member to avoid cascading failure.
- Having the group comprised of many different divisions or cells who operate almost, if not completely autonomously and independently of each other, united only by a common goal or ideal. (Note that this will eventually lead to the formation of splinter factions, and these splinter groups will form rivalries with each other.)
Also, for some general tips on developing and writing organizations, check out Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations.
And if you need inspiration for a villain...
Don't ask yourself, "What are some horrible things someone might do?" Instead, ask yourself, "What are some horrible things that people are doing, or have done?" Trying to remember concrete examples, rather than trying to assemble hypothetical ones, tends to be much more effective.
Check out the news. You'll find stories of all kinds of people up to all kinds of skullduggery there! Likewise, you can occasionally find documentaries that examine famous criminals and the like; these can make a good starting point.
Consider this: What evil people often want is ultimately the same as what anyone else might want - security, influence, love, comfort, fun, success, etc. What makes them evil is the wanton harm they cause in their attempts to get it. So potentially, any motivation can be a villainous one - the character just needs to be willing and able to hurt and treat others unfairly over it.
Pay attention to characters in media and how they make you feel. When characters (whether villains or not!) make you feel anger, fear, disgust, discomfort, etc., take note of what they're doing, how they're doing it, who they're doing it to, and what the intent behind the action is. Conversely, if a villain fails to evoke these emotions in you despite doing "bad" things, take the same notes. Compare what you find out, and use your data to help you develop future villains.
- A villain isn't just someone who happens to be obstructing your character or is competing for the same thing your character wants - a villain needs to take malicious, cruel, and/or patently unfair action, or to be working for such a goal.
- Just because someone can commit one evil action doesn't mean that person is capable of all of them! Most people have complex moral rules that make it possible to do certain "evil" actions under certain circumstances without doing anything and everything evil. Factor this in when writing your villains!
- If your villains are supposed to be a huge, dangerous threats, make sure they lives up to the reputation! A hyped-up villain who turns out to be a dud is a sure-fire way to spoil your story.
- Ask yourself what your villains think they stand to gain from their efforts - and whether they'll get it, and how that might affect the course of the story.
- If applicable, consider having your villains use the law to their advantage - this can make them much more dangerous than otherwise!
- If your villains have any kind of organization going on, consider making it fault-tolerant - you can get a lot more mileage out of your villainous organization this way.
- If you need inspiration, ask yourself what kinds of horrible things people actually have done. Check out the news or watch documentaries. Remember that any motivation can be villainous, as long as someone is willing to hurt others over it. And pay attention to and study other characters to figure out what might make a good villain!
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