It’s dark and dreary in my hometown of San Jose this week, and the ghost of something dark hovers at the edges of my thoughts whenever I watch the news. The combined effect might be disturbing if it were an ordinary week, but right now I’m obsessing over how to craft a worthy villain to terrorize the protagonist of my new series. I need all the villainspiration I can get, because the task of creating a villain requires a different kind of soul-searching than writing a nuanced protagonist.
As an avid reader of all kinds of literature, I’ve been frightened by the creations of many talented authors who are adept at writing believable antagonists for their heroes. Below are some of the most helpful nuggets I’ve taken from their hard work and brilliance.
Knowledge of the villain’s plans and motivations should be hard-won.
One of the creepiest books of all time is Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’ve lain awake at nights as a grown adult unable to sleep for fear that the red light blinking in the corner is not, in fact, my fire alarm, but rather the red pupils of an evil vampire after my sweet little throat. Stoker’s Dracula never revealed his darker side to the heroes willingly. He acted the part of a gentleman, and it took serious detective work to uncover his evil past and nefarious plans for the future. When the heroes earn their knowledge, the reader credits it more than when it’s handed over in a neat package of backstory from someone in the know.
Sometimes the worst villains start out as the heroine’s friend.
This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one that is powerful time and again when executed well. When a friend turns enemy, they know the heroine’s fears, strengths, and vulnerabilities. And because the villain began as a friend, the author is less likely to let the villain devolve into a caricature of evil instead of a person. Sarah J. Maas has a new twist on this idea in her Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy. The heroine’s true love in the first book becomes the villain of the second, without any idea that he has fallen from his throne in her heart. Seeing how the good in him grows warped in both fascinating and troubling – in the best way.
No monologuing. Ever.
Your heroine can have a speech. Your heroine’s friend can espouse on relevant topics at lenght. Your heroine’s mentor can have a rallying pep talk. But, please, skip the long explanation of motives, preview of evil plans, and exhaustive reminiscences of the past coming from the mouth of the villain. If the villain’s backstory is crucial, find a creative way to expose it. J.K. Rowling created the pensieve to give Harry a peek into Voldemort’s past. It allowed the reader to experience events in real time, with action, instead the biased ranting of Voldemort. This makes more sense for most villains, who would never willingly reveal weaknesses or plans to someone with the ability to undermine them.
Take a peek inside your villain’s head.
It’s human nature to over-simplify and stereotype the people we encounter, and the heroine of your story is no different. When, as a writer, you’re lost inside your protagonist’s head, good and evil are very black and white. But readers have a different reaction to villains who are too extreme, or cartoonish. They are less terrifying, because they don’t feel real. Writing from the villain’s perspective (even if you don’t use what you write in your final draft) forces you to give them believable motives, a view of the world that makes sense to them, feelings, and a personal history. If you’re looking for an author who does this so well, consider the protagonist/villain of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Humbert Humbert. The man is a child molester, but in his own head he is a victim of the thirteen-year-old torturing him with her beauty. You find yourself on the brink of sympathizing with him, and then the reality of what a monster he is hits you again and again. Even if you can’t give your villain a voice within your novel, as his creator you should know him well, so you can write him believably.
Thunder (or a garbage truck) is rumbling in the background as I write this post, reminding me that I should return to the task of tackling my next novel. So I’ll dim the lights, shed reality, and put some of this villainspiration to good use. As long as I don’t encounter my own personal tormentor…writer’s block.