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Creating Villains

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Thu Dec 24, 2009 3:48 am
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Elinor says...

Two-Face. Harvey Two-Face.

A young Jedi named Darth Vader betrayed and murdered your father.

Maybe if you wrote it down.
Nah, I can’t spell it. Alright, his name was Voldemort.

I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.

These characters have many names; antagonist, villain, bad guy. Whatever we call them, we certainly know that they are an important part of our story. As films like The Dark Knight, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Batman Returns have shown, there can be very frightening villains in cinema and literature. But how do you make a villain memorable? How do you make sure that they are not cast aside?
When creating villains, (in addition to normal character development) you must ask yourself four questions that really determine the course your antagonist will take.
• How much back story should my villain have?
• Do I want the reader to sympathize with the villain, or repel them?
• What are their motives?
• What is their relationship with the protagonist like?

Back Story: In literature, many (if not all) of the major characters has some sort of story as to what their life was like before the tale began. It makes things seem more realistic. Protagonists are expected to have strong and interesting back stories. In fact, it’s considered a trait of good writing if they are inserted. With villains, however, it’s different. Usually, villains have a lot of back story or very little of it (The same can be done for certain protagonists, such as Willy Wonka, although it is not very common). The latter usually means the villain is supposed to terrifying and mysterious, while the former usually suggests that the author wants the reader to sympathize with them. Both can be done well, but both can turn out badly.

If you’re going to have a lot of back story, make sure that it’s not too clichéd. Their past doesn’t necessarily have to be dark or tragic, but it should help us get a better understanding of the character. For example, J.K Rowling just showed us what life was like for Tom Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort) at Hogwarts, and how he was able to become such a monster. Sometimes the back story is not important, but it helps us get a well-rounded feel of the character, such as in the instance of Selina Kyle (Catwoman). She’s an innocent secretary who accidentally stumbles upon information that nearly gets her killed.
If you don’t want to have a lot of back story to your villain, that’s fine too. This is pretty easy to do well, as it mostly relies on motives, which I will talk about later in the article.

Sympathy or Antipathy: If you want the reader to sympathize with your villain, there are two types of it one can have.

If you have a villain like Lord Voldemort, you know that he had a promising childhood. As Tom Riddle, he was handsome and talented. You know that he had a lot going for him, and that he could have used his talents for the good of the world. However, his major flaw, fear of death, brought his ultimate downfall. You feel angry and sad that he became a monster, but once that happens, you repel and hate him. You could also study villains like The Penguin (Batman Returns), Two-Face (The Dark Knight), or Saruman (The Lord of the Rings) if you want to learn more about this trait.

The other kind of sympathy is obvious. In this instance, we feel all around terrible for the character, knowing that their status as a villain was obtained not by an evil attitude, but by an unfortunate series of ill-fated events. A few good examples of sympathy villains would be Darth Vader (Star Wars) and Gollom (Lord of the Rings).

Motives: Motives are perhaps the most important part of developing a good antagonist. As I mentioned in my Villain Clichés to Avoid article, no one who is evil thinks of themselves as evil. Therefore, they should all be doing things for a reason. It’s as plain and simple as that. Almost anything can constitute a motive, but just be sure not to make it ridiculous.

Relationship with the Protagonist:
Even though this is one of the last things that you should consider, it is still very important to think about. The protagonist and the antagonist are obviously going to hate each other, but as a writer, you can expand beyond that. Breaking the mold of the archetype he was following, George Lucas decided make Darth Vader the protagonist’s father. Obviously, that changes the perception that the two characters have about each other. In Batman, Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne are in love. Little do they know, as Catwoman and Batman, they hate each other. Go beyond. Try something new.

That’s all I have for now. Just remember, great villains are everything. Sometimes they can become the most popular characters of the story. Remember to make it count.

All our dreams can come true — if we have the courage to pursue them.

-- Walt Disney

It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and THEN do your best.
— W. Edwards Deming