Bad to the Bone: Creating the Ultimate Villain

Jan 31, 2012

Yesterday, Hubby and I took the Kiddo to the bookstore. I have a Christmas gift card that's burning a hole in my pocket, so I got some books I've been wanting (yay!) and let the Kiddo browse for something for him. This is what he picked out.

He is completely obsessed with Star Wars lately. OB-SESSED. He wants to watch the entire trilogy every day (no, I don't let him). He picks up his toy sword for light saber battles with mom and dad. He runs through the house shouting, "Open-a blast doors!" and "Power of-a dark side." He pretends to use the Force on us when he doesn't want to be tickled. And his favorite character is Darth Vader. The villain. I've got to admit, I think Darth Vader is pretty darn cool myself.

Villains-- especially GOOD (as in bad)--villains can make or break a story. Think about the Batman movie The Dark Knight. What does everybody remember about that show? The Joker. The bad guy. The twisted, evil, fascinating bad guy that makes the hero go through that harrowing emotional journey we love so much.

I'm the first to admit I haven't given my villains appropriate attention in my previous books, which is half the reason I'm writing this post (I swear I learn more writing blog posts than I do reading books about writing). Before we jump in, I want to clarify something. There are different types of ANTAGONISTS. At its most basic, an antagonist is simply someone whose goals oppose the protagonist's. They don't necessarily have to be evil. I'm going to be talking specifically about VILLAINS, which (for me, anyway) fall into a category within antagonists. Villains are the ultimate bad guys-- their goals aren't just opposed to your protagonist, their goals are BAD, and the protag has to stop them.

So how do you create your ultimate villain, like Darth Vader or Voldemort or Hannibal Lector?

1. Make them as three-dimensional as any other character
Yup. Three dimensions, just like any other character. Your villain is possibly THE most important character next to your protagonist. You don't want to flesh out everybody but the bad guy. You need to know the mask they present to the world (dimension 1), the history behind why they do what they do (backstory- dimension 2), and who they really are behind their mask-- what they will do when the pressure is on (dimension 3).

Example: Darth Vader shows the world a mask literally. He looks and acts powerful and cruel. But underneath he hides a broken body and spirit. He's a slave to the Emperor and the dark side of the Force, still lusting for power he's no longer capable of wielding, which makes him bitter and even more cruel. When it comes down to it, though, we discover that his good side is still fighting to get out-- and he gives up his own life to destroy the Emperor and save his son.

2. Give them SPECIFIC goals and reasons behind them
Their goal can't just be "stop the protagonist from doing his thing." They need a concrete goal that OPPOSES the protag's goal, of course, but usually the villain was being his bad self before the protag even comes on the scene. And the villain can't just be bad because he is (even if he really is that bad). What are the reasons behind the villain's goals? How are those reasons tied to the villain's character?

Example: In Star Wars episode 4, Vader is practically desperate to find the stolen plans for the Death Star, as well as to find the rebel's hidden base. He needs the plans so the rebels can't use them against him, and he needs to find the base to destroy the rebels. Simple reasons, right? But a little deeper, if we look back to the character we saw in Revenge of the Sith, we see that he thinks destroying the rebels is a good thing. They're bringing disorder and even violence to the orderly Empire that he sacrificed basically his entire body trying to help set up. Sure, his actions are evil, but he believes he's in pursuit of a noble goal.

3. Give them something memorable-- try for contradictions
And here we have the really fun part. Make your villain stand out above the crowd. You can do this in a myriad of ways, including cheap tricks. Darth Vader had his evil-looking armor/life-support suit. The Joker has his scars and makeup. Voldemort has his snakey face. These end up not being cheap, however, because they all tie in to the character and their backstory. Even if you don't use visual uniqueness, try to give them a unique character instead of using the stock bad guy. An easy and memorable way to do that is through contradictions. Maybe your evil, puppy-killing villain has a weakness for unicorns, and draws them on the wall as his trademark whenever he kills those puppies.

Whatever it is, make your villain MEMORABLE.

So, my friends, who are your favorite villains in fiction? Why do you love to hate them? Who is your favorite villain you've ever written? How do you make them come alive?

23 comments:

Jess said...

I have to agree with you. Darth Vader is probably THE ultimate bad guy. He's my favorite too!
Your son knows an awesome story when he sees one :)

Leigh Covington said...

I not only going to bookmark this, but print it out too. My villain is currently... lacking and he needs to be strengthened. These are awesome tips! May the force be with you!

Kittie Howard said...

Great tips, Shallee. Thanks for sharing. I especially took note of #3.

Adrienne said...

Yay for awesome villains! You already know my fave, but the Joker is right up there. Unlike Vader, in the movie at least, he is a result of Batman's presence, or so he says to compound Batman's guilt. I'm not sure how close the movie is to the comics.

Melanie Stanford said...

Great post! I love Voldemort and Snape as villains. For the WIP I've just been brainstorming so far, I really need to sit down and map out my villain, so all your points were really helpful.

Ruth Josse said...

Shallee, you're always making me think. Which is good because I've been pretty brain dead lately. I'm going to use this when I do my character sketches for my next book and make sure my villain has all three of these dimensions.

Jenny S. Morris said...

My sons would have picked the same book. LOL. Darth Vader is such an awesome bad guy. And his back story is one of the reasons he's such a interesting villain and his decisions at the end of his life.

I wrote a scene from my villains POV recently and it helped get me into his mind of WHY he was bad. I loved it.

The Writing Hour. said...

This is a great post! I am definitely bookmarking this. I agree, the villain is one of the most important characters in the story. The points for making them three dimensional are great, definitely going to copy those down.
And...confession...I've never seen Star Wars! (hides under desk.) Well I've seen the newer 1 2 and 3 ones. But not the originals. My friends are always giving me crap for it!

Kate said...

Awesome post, but after your introduction I couldn't stop thinking about this:

http://youtu.be/R55e-uHQna0

Emily R. King said...

Wonderful tips, Shallee. My sons are just now getting into Star Wars, and I couldn't be happier. Characters like Darth Vader are fun to introduce to them.

Jessie Humphries said...

Great reminder. I got to think of a few more memorable traits for sure.

Meredith said...

I love a good, complex villain. And Darth Vader is an awesome one! Your son is too cute!

The Golden Eagle said...

*bookmarking*

One of my favorite villains is actually from the MG series Artemis Fowl. Opal Koboi is full of contradictions and she's quite bad.

DL Hammons said...

My all-time literary villain is Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. Creepy and intelligent! :)

Kari Marie White said...

Vader is a great villain. Great post Shallee. As always, top notch info.

Janet Johnson said...

Oooh, our boys would get along well. We may or may not have every Star Wars toy known to man.

And actually, Darth Vader is one of my favorite villans because his story is so complex. And I really love creating villians. So fun!

Angela Cothran said...

I heard at a conference last year that great villains think they are the hero of the story. That has totally stuck with me! I love well fleshed out villains.

David P. King said...

Writing villains has been one of my tougher bits, I've come to realize. Thankfully I've had great help with shaping them into despised, yet likable characters. :)

Stacy Henrie said...

That is so cute about your son! Who doesn't love Star Wars? :)

This will probably make you laugh, but I love Dr. Doofenshmirtz from the cartoon Phineas and Ferb. He's a three dimensional villian and always has clear motivation for why he's doing something evil, which typically stems from some tragic backstory.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I love this post, Shallee. Writing or creating memorable villains has not been easy for me. I feel my villain can become more three dimensional. I will bookmark this post for future reference.

Misha Gericke said...

Excellent post.

My favorite villains would be: Vader, Joker, Sylar and the Sheriff of Nottingham. :-D

Eric J. Krause said...

Excellent post! These are great tips on how to make your bad guy as believable as possible. I try to remember to do this, but it's always good to get the reminder every once in awhile.

And I have to admit, Darth Vader is my favorite baddie...

Jarom said...

Johnny Friendly from On the Waterfront, Warden Norton from Shawshank Redemption, and Ben Wade from 3:10 to Yuma.

 
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