Friday, May 15, 2009

Writing a Good Villain

by Scott Rhoades

One of the most common bits of advice writers receive is that we have to give the villain positive traits if we want the villain to be realistic. Likewise, our protagonists should have flaws. One of the reasons why we're told this so often is that it always stops there. Seems like nobody ever explains how that advice works or what it really means.

This is my attempt to fill the gap. And I'll do it by stepping into forbidden territory.


Don't run away. I think it's a way to give an example that just about everybody gets, and I'm going to be as non-partisan as possible.

There's a certain Utah politician who, to me, is the epitome of evil. My guess is that many of you have a politician you look at that way, maybe even one I support. That's why the example works.

This particular politician expresses, very clearly, views that are opposed to my own. His mouth is always getting him into trouble, and for good reason. If I were the protagonist in a political novel told from my point of view, he would be the antagonist, and would be portrayed as the horrid person I believe he is. My character would fight against him, with the objective to not only stop his reelection, but probably to discredit him in the process. To me, he's evil.

If you've drawn a realistic villain and a realistic hero, then chances are that the line between good and bad are completely a matter of point of view. And that's where it gets fun.

This particular politician is not a comic book villain who is evil for the sake of being evil. By all accounts, he is adored by his family. His neighbors like and respect him. His dog probably gets excited when he comes home from work, or even from a ten minute jaunt to the store. For all I know, he might be one of those rare people who is loved unconditionally by a cat. His supporters vote for him because they think he's right with a capital R. He is motivated by his sense of right and wrong--taking a stance that he sees as defending right. He probably got into politics as a means to exercise his ideals and protect those of his community.

Sounds more like a hero, right? In fact, although I'm the protagonist in my own story, if it were told from his point of view, I'd be the villain. I criticize him, oppose his ideals, want to thwart his goals, and I would love to see him lose in a big way. But I'm adored by my family, I think. I'm motivated by my own ideals, my own sense of right and wrong. Heck, I'm even loved, somehow, by a cat who annoys me.

So the good guy and the bad guy depend totally on the point of view from which the story is told. Flip the point of view (or, as super-editor Sol Stein suggests, give each character his own script), and the protagonist and antagonist are also flipped. Each character is, from his own point of view, good, and is opposed by the other.

Here's another example, one that could be used in a story for young children who might not quite understand the previous example.

Little Molly has a new puppy. This puppy is so naughty. It always tries to get outside. It's uncontrollable when she takes it for walks, pulling at the leash and trying to go its own way. It doesn't follow any of Molly's perfectly reasonable rules. When the puppy runs away and is missing for a whole day, Molly is devastated. How could her puppy be so wicked?

But what is the puppy doing, really? It's being true to its own puppiness. It doesn't understand Molly's unnatural rules. All she does is try to to restrain it and she scolds it for simply being what it is. Maybe at the end of the story, the puppy learns to submit after getting itself into a dangerous situation. It learns that Molly was right.

Or, better, Molly starts school. She is restrained, forced to follow rules, when all she wants to do is go outside and play, like a typical kid. She learns to understand the puppy's point of view, and realizes that puppy is not really naughty. It's just like her. Because of this puppy, she understands herself and her world just a little better. She learns something about her own puppiness.

So how do you show this in your own stories?

The key is to look at the story from your villain's point of view, not just the hero's. Why does the villain do what he does? How is the "good guy" an obstacle to the bad guy? Give the villain good intentions that are thwarted by the protagonist. Show your villain being loved by family, a pet, a crippled neighbor child. Show him rescuing a scraggly animal from the shelter, one that would almost certainly not be adopted and so faces a terrible fate.

Create at least one scene where the protagonist lights into the antagonist in a way that makes the protagonist less sympathetic than the antagonist, a scene where the roles of good guy and bad guy are flipped, even though it's still told from the protagonist's point of view. I bet it will end up being one of your favorite scenes. Now take the energy from that scene and scatter it strategically throughout the story.

If the reader can sympathize with your villain, which might sometimes mean that the hero appears to be wrong, then she'll care about both of these characters and be sucked into the story. Maybe she'll want the hero to win, but she won't really want the villain to lose. This creates stress and conflict, not just in the story but in the reader herself.

And that makes for a good story that won't soon be forgotten after the last page is turned.

Scott Rhoades is an Orem-based writer who is scheduled to contribute to this blog on the first and third Friday of each month. For contact information, including his Twitter and Facebook details, see


Rebecca Talley said...

Excellent post. You're exactly right. Though we tend to make our antagonists the epitome of evil, the fact is real people, even those making really bad choices, have good qualities as well.

Great analogies. Thanks!

Paul West said...

Great article, even if your first example isn't all that difficult to figure out. In my YA novel, I've told part of the story from the antagonist's POV. That way, I've gotten into his head and the reader can see why he does what he does, even if we don't agree with him.

Scott said...

Telling the story partly from the antagonist's point of view is a good move. He becomes the protagonist in those scenes, and so the line between good guy and bad guy is blurred, especially if you've made him sympathetic in his POV scenes.

Kristin Hayes said...

Very insightful. Thanks for this.

Jaime Theler said...

Great post. Thanks!

Allison Morgan said...

Just what I needed for my current novel. Thanks for the tips!