We all have our pet-peeves in literature and movies. Maybe you’re an avid romance reader who loathes the billionaire/poor plain girl trope. Or, perhaps you’re a fantasy lover who hates novels that use cliché fantasy races. Maybe you’re into horror, but you hate it when the main character doesn’t survive at the end of the story. I’ve heard all those complaints before, and trust me, I get it.
My pet peeve though?
Flat, boring villains. Bad guys who are bad just because they’re bad guys. Still with me? Allow me to elaborate.
Here in the real world, not many people wake up in the morning and stretch their legs, plotting out a day full of evil events to pass the time. So why does the villain in your novel have no real reason for being such a jerk? We know we’re not supposed to like the antagonist, but there should be at least some rhyme or reason behind their behavior.
Here are five quick tips to bust those weak villains.
- Remember villains are not always an external force. Sometimes, the conflict stems from the character’s inability to overcome internal fears or doubts. Sometimes the hero makes mistakes in his quest for justice and truth, and those feelings come back to haunt him later. Give your hero an internal villain to battle throughout the novel. Not only does it help your character grow, it adds another juicy bit of conflict to the story.
- Some stories have more than one villain. Like we saw in the Divergent series, sometimes our hero can be faced with a lesser-of-evils scenario. While the good-conquers-evil trope is wildly popular, the real world is often a lot more complicated. We are placed in situations where we are forced to set aside our opinions and ideals for the greater good often. Supernatural fans rejoice every time the writers force a partnership between the brothers and the King of Hell. The enemy of my enemy is my friend…right?
- Villains need motives. Even if your antagonist does wake up in the morning and brush his teeth while daydreaming about the atrocities he will commit later, surely there’s a why buried in there somewhere. Is there a traumatic instance or absence in his life? A psychiatric disorder? An event that caused them to lose hope or patience? This isn’t to say every antagonist needs a tragic backstory. They just need an explanation behind their behavior. Take, for example, an oppressive government entity. Why do they want to control the people? Is it capitalist greed? Do they believe they are helping somehow? The idea of an Evil Republic that is evil just for the sake of being evil falls a bit flat, and leaves your villain feeling undeveloped.
- Avoid cliché ‘bad guy’ dialog. We’ve heard the same lines rehashed repeatedly throughout the years in self-indulgent villain monologues. Unless you’re crafting an antagonist who was influenced somehow by the villains of film and literature, it’s probably best to avoid lines like, “We meet again” and “Say goodbye, hero!” Even if you’ve written the most fascinating backstory for a villain anyone has ever read, the corny dialog will remove a significant amount of their intimidation and believability for readers.
- Remember that your bad guy probably doesn’t see himself as evil. With a few exceptions, most people tend to think of themselves as the hero in their own story. While your antagonists’ actions might be selfish and devious, they probably have a certain goal in mind that makes their behavior justifiable (at least in their mind). By giving your villain a goal or mission, even the most heinous of actions can seem like a logical enough decision (morality aside).
I could keep going, of course. I love writing bad guys. What is your favorite technique for creating compelling villains? Do you have a favorite bad guy?