What makes a story great? There are a multitude of answers to that question: the premise, the writing, the protagonist, the setting, etc… But, I have a confession. What makes me stay up all night turning the pages is the villain.
Yup. I live for a good villain. The villain brings the conflict, amps it up, and forces our hero to make changes. The torture, the pain, and the suffering move the story forward. As a reader, I want to know (I have to know) what will happen next. How will the hero ever overcome all the challenges, the obstacles, the danger?
The villain creates the tension which strengthens our emotional attachment to the protagonist. It’s the attachment that keeps us turning the pages. The villain is the threat- the very source of the conflict. And, good fiction is driven by conflict. Would The Shining be as great without Jack Torrence? Would Silence of the Lambs be as memorable without the serial killers Buffalo Bill or Hannibal Lector? Seriously, I will never forget the words, “It puts the lotion on its skin.” Still gives me goosebumps. I didn’t go anywhere alone for a full year after seeing that movie.
Then, there are the literary villains of children’s literature: The White Witch, Voldemort, Captain Hook, The Other Mother, Sauron…the list goes on. What makes these villains so good? So memorably evil?
Here are a few things to consider when writing your villain:
1. First, the reader has to care about the protagonist. This is crucial. If the reader doesn’t care about the protagonist, he/she won’t care when the villain tortures the protagonist. Without emotional attachment, there would be no story and your reader will stop flipping the pages.
2. The villain needs to be uniquely terrifying. (fur coats made out of puppies, a wizard so feared no one will say his name out loud, and need I say it again-LOTION)
3. The villain should be highly motivated. He/she must have something to gain and also something to lose.
4. Your villain needs to be just as developed as your protagonist. The villain should also have an arc that is credible and compelling. Remember that your villain feels justified in their behavior. They have a lot to lose and just as much to gain. Spend some time showing readers why your villain behaves the way he/she does, how he/she became that way, and what he/she is getting out of it. A good villain shouldn’t be one dimensional. They need to have positive traits as well. Characters that make an impact are complicated.
5. The villain must have a relatable sense of humanity ( if only a fraction). This is not to be confused with actually being human, which is by no means necessary. The villain should add anxiety, danger, and a sense of dread because they are the opposing force to your protagonist’s ideal state of being.
6. The villain must be flawed. Your villain needs to have a flaw that the protagonist will discover in order to defeat that villain in the end. Their weaknesses should be relatable, but magnified. Take a regular dose of jealousy, greed, etc… and multiply it by ten to get into the realm of a great villain.
7. And, the villain has to have enough power to make the stakes really high- Believable, yet terrifying is a great combination for upping the tension. Villains must torture the protagonist and, sometimes, win.
Creating a good villain can be a lot of fun. So, get in touch with your diabolical side and let it spill across the page. Your readers will thank you.