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ProAm Tips #16

Believable villains.

Look… it’s easy to make a moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash villain. Look at basically any movie or tv show. Look at 99% of them. Go ahead. I’ll wait.


Here’s the skinny on villains: they’re a foil for your protagonist(s). Literally. Think of a book as a sword fight. Well, fencing match, if we’re going to follow the ‘foil’ metaphor through. Evert time your protagonist swings, the villain parries. Clang! That clang is the actual conflict. Maybe it’s a battle. (“We MUST get through the gate to win! Oh no! They stopped us!”) Maybe it’s a boardroom surprise. (“We want That Guy to run our company!”) Maybe it’s just straight-up cock-blocking. (“Girl, you know I love poetry, too. I wrote a poem-” *sudden Kool-Aid-Man-like burst into scene* ‘Hey! I’m published, unlike loser over there! Come talk to me because I’m all sensitive and shit, plus successful, and look at this wavy hair!’)

That’s a foil. And it’s pretty much standard. You have character A with goal A. Character B stops them, or tries to. Character B is underhanded, dirty-dealing, and generally Snidely Whiplash.

Except that’s boring.

You want to write a believable villain. Someone people relate to. Someone plausible. Someone people may not like, but at least respect, or understand. They may not root for them, but they get where they’re coming from.

Many writers fall under the ‘I need a reason to move Character A in Direction A but something has to stop them- oh, look. A villain. And… done!’ school. This is a mistake.

Believable villains are heroes in an anti-story. They’re the main character in a bleak mirror of your work. They’re not just against your main character, they’re actually against the story you want to tell. They don’t WANT your ending to happen. They don’t WANT your book to be the book you want to write.

Your villain isn’t fighting the main character. Your villain should be fighting YOU. The writer.

You want a believable villain? Make them have a real goal. Not just Evil for the sake of EvilTM.

Bond Villains want to rule the world. No idea WHY. They’re already in charge of multi-billion-dollar corporations, or conglomerate industries, or full-sized countries with armies and GNPs and budgets and stuff. WHY Bond villains want to rule the world is beyond me. They already DO.

The most believable movie villain in the last 10 years was Heath Ledger’s Joker. That dude didn’t want ANYTHING. He just wanted to stir shit up, have some fun, and cause a ruckus. He didn’t care about money (Set a pile on fire) and he didn’t care about being in charge (his gang was five people. With room for ONE more. And he made guys fight to the death to get in it.) and he didn’t even want to escape. (NO escape plan. in fact, I think he wanted to die WITH Batman.)

But you bought him because he was into it. Bane, on the other hand (Third movie spoilers) had a convoluted plan to steal a bunch of money and take over a city…. and there was a nuke, and it wasn’t Bane, but Talia Al Ghul… who ran a huge, shadowy criminal empire, but wanted to make an enemy of America by stealing a city, or punishing Bruce Wayne… or, I dunno.

Honestly, what the HELL was their goal?

That’s the difference between believable and Snidely Whiplash-like Evil for the sake of EvilTM.

You want to write a good villain? Write a good anti-hero. Make them plausible. Give them a goal. Give them a PLAN. Make them shoot for something they DON’T already have. Something they can’t buy. Something they can’t earn. Something that they have to TAKE.

Something they have to TAKE from your main character. Don’t EVER make a bad guy who’s just a bad guy. You need a bad guy who NEEDS something. Give them goals. Setbacks. Relationships. Struggles.

Hey… it kinda sounds like, if you want a good villain, you need to make one kind of like you make a good hero… doesn’t it? That’s weird. I mean, it’s not that simple, right?

Except it totally is.

You want good conflict, good story, and a good book? Make your villain at LEAST as interesting as your main character. Put in as much time on your villain as you do your main character. Research. Family. Goals. Learn them. Understand them. Make sure you know them every bit as well as your hero. THEN you’ve got something interesting on y0our hands.

There’s no such thing as good or bad books, I think. There’s interesting and boring. A poorly-written book about a fascinating character (Christian Grey is a great character study of an abused person coping. That books ain’t about S&M, doms and subs, and kinky sex. It’s a sex-crime survival story. I promise.) is as good as a masterpiece with a boring one (Catcher In The Rye is a brilliant study of conforming and society wrapped around the dumbest, most bland character ever written. Holden Caulfield’s most interesting trait is his fucking NAME for God’s sake.)

THAT is the secret to believable villains, good stories, and good books. Remember, no one is a villain in their own eyes. They’re the hero of their own story, and your main character is their villain. You write the villain like a hero, make them both fascinating, and they work it all out themselves.


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