Writing villains and antagonists is not easy for me. I think that’s partly because I don’t think I’m much of a villain at heart. Now writing is a challenge, but in one of my stories, I decided to write from a villain’s perspective, and that made everything twice as difficult (more on that later). But also I believe creating villains is difficult because they need to be believable and realistic, and making that happen is challenging.
For me, it’s easy to look at a plot, figure out what the protagonists need to do, and then make up an entity that opposes them. That’s easy. But that’s not a villain. Technically speaking, it is an antagonist (not always the same thing as a villain), but it’s not a very good one.
Why We Need Villains in Stories
I remember reading books as a little kid and sometimes wishing that the “bad guy” wasn’t part of the story. Just think how much better everything would be if that one jerk wasn’t part of the story. I liked to imagine how everything would have been better if I had been there to eliminate the villain before they could do all the bad stuff.
Obviously, I was missing the point. We need villains in our stories. I can come up with two reasons. One is obvious: there has to be a literary struggle, and at times that can only be provided by someone who actively works against the hero. That’s just how writing needs to be. That’s an antagonist. Antagonists are not always bad (like Javert in Les Misérables, who I have written about before).
But I think there is another reason too. We need villains to help us relate to the heroes. Life is not always smooth sailing like I wished it to be as a young reader, and without the opposition of well thought out villains, I don’t think we would enjoy much in books.
Villains Are People Too
There is more to the villain in a story than just being bad. In my own writing, my villains need to have just as much motivation for what they do as my heroes. I need to believe that my villain is committed to their own cause to the point that it defines who they are. If the villain is not well developed then they are just a plot device, like a storm or a broken wheel.
On the other hand, if the villain is believable, has legitimate motivations, justifications, and a moral compass (however amoral it might be in comparison to the heroes), the story grows in strength. When I write a villain, I want the reader to feel at least a twinge (if not more) of sadness when things go awry for them. Besides, nothing makes the hero’s venture more fulfilling than overcoming a real obstacle instead of just episodic encounters.
Understanding the need for villains and how to write them is one thing. Actually doing it is another. When I write a character, I don’t get to decide what that person does throughout the story. Instead, I imagine a personality, likes, dislikes, motivations, and dreams. And then, when a situation comes up in the story, the character acts according to their traits. Sometimes they surprise me.
Where Villains Come From
This is what makes villains hard. I have difficulty sculpting the traits of people with bad intentions. In my short story Deception, one of the stories in Thread and Other Stories, I wrote entirely from the perspective of Dmitry, the villain, and it was challenging. I had to take breaks after certain paragraphs because it was emotionally draining to think like Dmitry and observe what he did. At times I felt guilty for what Dmitry was doing.
Obviously, every character in a story comes from the imagination of the author. So where did Dmitry come from for me? Where does any villain come from? I would say it comes from within, and that might seem a little scary. But here’s the truth, we all have some good and some bad in us. We all have the capability of doing what we ought or what we ought not. The thing that separates us from those that we might consider “bad” is that we choose not to let the bad side of us win. To read more of my thoughts on villains, take a look at this post.
For me, understanding this point helps me not to worry too much about writing a character like Dmitry. I know I’m not him even though I take his place during the few pages he exists and bring him to life through my writing. It’s much easier of course to accept all of that for the opposing view, the heroes, but I don’t know if we learn as much about ourselves that way. Villains really bring literature home.
Leave a comment below. Who is your favorite villain from literature and why?
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