Villain Tips: Of Conquest, Minions, Progress, & Planning
Table of Contents
- If you've got a villain who wants to take over the country/world/whatever, ask yourself some questions.
- Figure out why your villains' underlings work for them.
- Figure out how your villains get from Point A to Point B.
- Try to imagine your villains doing risk management.
- So, in summary!
If you've got a villain who wants to take over the country/world/whatever, ask yourself some questions.
Taking over anything big requires a lot of hard (and often very risky!) work. So what does your villain plan to do after taking over that's going to make it all worth it? Once the villain is finished basking in the glow of victory... then what? Ask yourself this question and figure it out - and remember, it needs to be something beyond "my villain just wants power," because that's an excuse, not a reason - people seek power because they plan to do something with it, not because it's something they want for its own sake.
If you're unsure of what your villain wants to do after taking over, here are some suggestions (none of which are mutually exclusive, so feel free to mix and match!):
- Your villain believes that whoever is currently in charge is incompetent and/or corrupt and will lead everyone to disaster and ruin, and so wants to take the reins to prevent this from happening.
- Your villain has a vision of what would make a "perfect" or "just" society or system (according to personal beliefs, biases, and desires - make sure you ask yourself where they came from!), and is trying to take over in order to make this vision a reality.
- Your villain believes that society or the system is corrupt or evil and wants to set everyone on a path of truth, justice, and righteousness (according to what the villain believes is truth, justice, and righteousness, of course!).
- Your villain wants to use that power to gain or protect something else - EG, take over and make a small country part of the empire and use its resources to boost the empire's economy; or take over a country between the villain's home country and an enemy country and post soldiers there to prevent the enemy from passing through, or conscript its people as soldiers should the need arise.
- Your villain wants to live it up and enjoy the good life, enjoying the pleasures and privileges that come with being in charge.
Figure out why your villains' underlings work for them.
Some stories essentially treat minions and underlings as little more than mindless automatons, or show them being so overcome by the villain's sheer force of personality (and maybe a show of strength) that they fall into lockstep and do whatever the villain says - no matter how needlessly cruel, wasteful, or pointless it might seem.
People can and do follow horrible orders all the time, but here's the thing: they usually need an actual reason for it beyond "the boss will kill us if we don't!" If their only reason for following orders is because they don't want to be killed for disloyalty, what's to stop them from trying to do in the villain in before the villain does them in for some perceived act of disloyalty? It wouldn't be the first time a tyrant ended up killed this way.
So stop and ask yourself: what's in it for the underlings, or what do they at least think is in it for them? Why do they think following the villain is worth their while? If you're unsure, here are some examples (again, mix and match depending on what might work for your villain and your villain's underlings!):
- The underlings have been brought to believe that there is something very wrong with the state of the world (and possibly there actually is), and the villain is the only one who really knows how to fix it. (Note that this will require your villain to be able to appeal to people's senses of justice and wanting to do right.)
- The villain's ideology gives them absolute certainty. The villain's side is painted up as the side of truth, justice, love, and freedom, and offers members a clear-cut system of rules and morals that are claimed will lead them to a utopian world if followed loyally and faithfully. People often crave certainty (uncertainty and doubt can be very stressful, especially in times of hardship), so it can be a powerful draw.
- The underlings have been brought to believe that the villain is specially chosen by fate or the divine, and that being "allowed" to serve underneath makes them part of an elite (EG, the ones specially chosen by the Holy One) and/or blessed beyond far what they deserve (EG, to die with the rest of the miserable, corrupt, unworthy world).
- They've been brought to believe that they're bravely fighting against an external threat that will oppress or destroy them if they don't follow the leader's plans. (This is often paired with painting those who disagree with the leader in any way as dangerously naive, criminally apathetic, traitorous, corrupted, or oppressive - further discouraging people from speaking out for fear of being labeled the same.)
- The underlings desire the leader's approval. Most people crave approval from those they perceive as rightful authority, so once they're convinced that the leader is on the right side and everyone else is wrong or evil, they'll be motivated to do as the leader says in order to get it. When they do, they'll feel rewarded and validated, and thus encouraged to keep following orders.
- The villain makes them feel important or needed, such as by making them feel like they're chosen, better than everyone else, that they have a grand destiny or are part of a grand design, or that they deserve better than what the rest of the world has given them. People aren't as likely to turn on someone who makes them feel special than otherwise, and they're much more likely to do something extreme if they believe it serves a bigger purpose.
- The villain gives them authority (real or perceived - IE, through a legal system that permits it, or through an ideology/belief system that condones it) to bully or otherwise act violently upon those they believe deserve it (EG, people who oppose the villain's plans or ideals, people who are part of "evil" outside groups, or even those whom they just personally don't like).
- The villain provides them a place to belong, or a place where they feel they can be themselves without shame or censure. Giving people who feel alone or out-of-place in society a sense of belonging and purpose can be a powerful motivator.
- They're made to feel like they owe the villain. Maybe the villain did something for them that makes them feel indebted, or maybe the villain made them feel like they've committed (if only unknowingly) some horrible injustice against the villain that they can only repay through total loyalty and obedience.
- The villain compensates them (or promises compensation) with necessities (EG, money, medicine, food, etc.) that they can't easily get otherwise, and/or with privileges and luxuries they didn't have before (EG, power, expensive goods, sex on demand, etc.) or are brought to believe they didn't have before (EG, to be reincarnated into a life of fame or power, or to enter a blissful afterlife). If the underlings are asked to do things they know they probably won't survive, promising the worldly/material goods to their surviving family members can be a potent motivator.
And remember, most real-life organizations and groups of questionable morality typically utilize at least several of the items on this list, so try to aim for an assortment that could work for your story.
For more information on how underlings can be brainwashed or caught up in a villain's ideological milieu, see How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad, Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably, and Things About Moral Panics Writers Should Know.
Figure out how your villains get from Point A to Point B.
A lot of writers seem to operate on the assumption that villains can do just about anything they want as long as the heroes aren't there to stop them. Problem is, writing this way will leave your story with a lot of plotholes when you end up with your villains doing things that there's just no way they could have done.
Whatever your villains are trying to do, stop and think about the steps they'd need to take to get it done. Where would they have to go? What kind of equipment or people would they need? Who else might they have to interact with along the way? Who or what might present obstacles for them? What are some ways their plans could go horribly wrong, and how might they account for them? If they have to engage in illegal activities, how will they avoid leaving obvious trails that lead back to them? (And remember, killing all the witnesses or trying to bribe everyone into silence may not be the best option!)
Do you have a villain who needs to break into a high security structure to steal something? Think about what kind of security the place might have - and if necessary, put yourself into the shoes of whoever is trying to protect the item. Research how security systems and protocols work (or worked, depending on when your story is set), if you can. What might your villain need in order to get past all that?
Does your story depend on the villain getting some kind of awful law passed? If so, would it really be that easy to get it passed? What about the people who would be protesting or opposing it? Any law that changes the status quo for the worse for any group of people who have the power to speak out and/or have people willing to speak out on their behalf is definitely going to be met with opposition.
Do you have a villain who took over and instated a tyrannical government? Remember, people aren't just going to roll over for something like that - they'll fight back until they believe it's hopeless or until there aren't enough of them left to fight back anymore. How did your villain deal with the resistance? How much resistance does your villain still have to deal with?
Also, something else to keep in mind is that showing how your villains get their stuff done can give you a much better story. By actually showing how they get their stuff done, you can make them look genuinely competent - at least, so long as it's because they're genuinely skilled at what they do, and not because the opposition is cartoonishly inept, spineless, or apathetic. It's also a great way to build up suspense, as people will know that the villains are on the move and aren't just resting on their laurels! You might not want to do this in every story (you might have deliberate reasons not to show the villains), but it's something to consider.
Try to imagine your villains doing risk management.
Risk management is a simple concept: when undertaking a new plan or entering a new scenario, stop and try to figure out how and where things are most likely to go wrong. Then, ask yourself if there's anything you might do in order to minimize this risk - or whether you might just be better off choosing another plan. Risk management can be as complicated as meeting with one's advisors and experts, or as simple as stopping to ask oneself where things might go wrong and what one might be able to do to prevent it.
So put yourself in the shoes of your villains and imagine them going through the risk assessment process, however they'd be doing it. For example, do you have a villain with a fortress? Imagine what went through your villain's mind when deciding to build there and when overseeing the construction. Did your villain look around for ways the enemy might get in? Did your villain perhaps minimize risk by building barriers in weak areas, assigning more security to them, or both? How about accident hazards that could result in personnel getting hurt - EG, high walkways without guard rails?
This can go a long way to writing much more menacing villains - it's really hard to be scared of a villain whose plans are so obviously flawed that you realize immediately that there's no possible way for this character to succeed short of the heroes being even more incompetent.
Of course, you might need your villains to overlook or ignore something somewhere (villains who are too good run the risk of becoming unstoppable except through deus ex machina, after all). In these cases, try to stop and think out why they might do so. Here are some examples:
- Maybe they just don't know about some of the risk factors. (If so, how did they manage to miss them?)
- Maybe they're underestimating the risk factors. (How come?)
- Maybe they expect things to play out very differently than they probably will. (And why do they expect things to go like that? How did they get such skewed perceptions/expectations?)
- Maybe they're desperate and see no other ways out. (And why don't they see any alternatives?)
- Maybe they overlook something because they're busy focusing on something else - it can happen to anyone, especially when there's only limited time to assess potential risks.
- Maybe their resources are thin - EG, if a villain has a base, there may not be as many guards as would be optimal to guard an area that size, leaving some parts weakly protected.
- Maybe they're impulsive types who just don't think things through before they act. (But if so, could they have really gotten as far as they already have?)
In any case, try to come up with something plausible and understandable, because if you end up with your villains doing ridiculously risky stuff for no reason besides they're "just too evil to care," you run the risk of making them look cartoonishly inept - even if they do have high body counts.
So, in summary!
- If you have a villain who wants to take over the country/world/whatever, ask yourself why. What's the villain's reasoning behind it?
- As yourself why your villains' underlings work for them and don't just try to murder them first chance they get. What's in it for them - or at least, what do they think is in it for them?
- Figure out how your villains get their stuff done step-by-step.
- Imagine your villains doing risk management - whether it's a meeting with the advisors before building a fortress, or a quick assessment of possible hazards before entering a fight.
You might also be interested in:
Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Tips To Write & Create Better & More Believable Futures
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings