You can’t have a good story without them. We loathe them. We hate them. Sometimes, we admire them. While we know the protagonist, the hero, must prevail, deep down inside, we sometimes still root for the bad guy.
So how do we create a memorable villain? The first thing we have to remember, to quote Tom Hiddleston, is that “Every villain is the hero in his own mind.” We have to remember that the villain, however horrible their deeds or deplorable their actions, believes on some level they are doing the right thing.
How is this possible?
Villains should have a sympathetic background.
C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity that no one does evil for evil reasons. They do evil as a shortcut to doing good. We must remember that every vain, head-of-the-football-team villain in a YA is really craving the respect and attention they feel they deserve. Every mad terrorist in a globetrotting thriller is really looking for justice for their people. Their methods are skewed, but once upon a time, their hearts were pure.
See, I think the best villains have sympathetic backgrounds. You may completely disagree with their actions and methodology – but if the writer can make the reader feel sympathy for the position the villain is in, then we are moving toward a memorable villain.
Of course, having sympathy for the villain's circumstance doesn’t mean you have sympathy for the villain.
A really great villain must be thoroughly irredeemable.
Did you read Frankenstein? I did. For most of the Monster’s story, I felt bad for the shambling corpse. He moved in with a blind dude living in the forest. (BTW, who leaves their blind relative living in the freakin’ forest?) He serves the old man. He cares for him. The old hermit introduces the Monster to reading. I started rooting for the Monster – especially considering the good doctor abandoned his creation.
Then the old, blind hermit’s family comes visiting and drives the Monster off. Still, I am filled with sympathy for the Monster – until he murders a little girl in his rage. As bad as the monster’s life has been, nothing justifies a child’s murder. Frankenstein’s Monster has truly stepped into his role of villainy once blood is on his hands.
A villain must also be more powerful than the hero.
Ever wonder why every teen movie starts with the “new girl” or the “new boy” in town? Ever wonder why these characters are lovable misfits? Because the new person, or the outsider, has no social cache with the school community they’re forced to join. The villain in these stories are more powerful than our hero because they have social power. The hero's journey will be about gaining and creating their own community – a goal opposed by the villain.
This is why political thrillers are crammed with governors, senators, and titans of industry as villains. They are inherently more powerful than the protagonist. If you were to write a story where the local office manager was our hero, but his nemesis was a lowly custodian, things would turn to comedy and farce very quickly.
A memorable villain must be an opposing force.
What’s the point of a villain who’s never in the hero’s way? Everywhere the hero turns, they should see the villain or the villain's handiwork blocking their success and frustrating them. If you’re writing a story where the stated bad guy is just grousing at the protagonist and not actively getting in their way, then you don’t have a villain. Make sure the villain is always in the way of the hero. Always thwarting their hard work and ruining their plans.
PLEASE NOTE: This doesn’t mean the villain has to be on the stage. But it should be apparent that the villain is the root cause of the hero’s problem.
A memorable villain must make it personal.
A great villain will always take things to the next level and make things personal. Whether they just want to throw the hero off their game and get in their head, or they truly want to cause the hero pain, a memorable villain will find and dig at that open wound the protagonist has been trying to hide.
Years ago I saw Prince’s Purple Rain. In it, Prince plays “The Kid,” an up-and-coming musician and his band in Minneapolis. There is a big battle of the bands competition coming up, and The Kid’s nemesis is Morris Day and the Time (another band). The Kid comes from an abusive home where his dad hits his mom. At one point we see our hero step in and defend his mother. Toward the end of act two, the father commits suicide, throwing The Kid into a tailspin right before the finals of the band contest.
As the villains, Morris Day and his band, come off stage from a triumphant set, they sing “Let’s get crazy” in a mocking tone as they pass The Kid’s dressing room. Suddenly, they stop and back up. Morris Day turns to Prince’s character and says before running down the hall, laughing, “Hey man. How’s the family?” The Kid breaks down in tears. Brutal. Just brutal. NOW, it’s personal.
If you want to learn more about villains, you can listen to the current RMFW Podcast, where I talk to the esteemed Mark Stevens about it all. On Saturday, February 17th, I will be giving an RMFW free program at the Sam Gary Branch Library in Denver on this very subject. The program starts at 2 PM, but get there early if you want a seat!