Writing Good Bad Guys
“Insanity is like gravity. All you need is a little push!”
–The Joker (The Dark Knight, 2008)
Nothing makes a story like the villain.
Don’t get me wrong, the protagonist is important, and writing them well is crucial to the enjoyment of your book, but it doesn’t stop there. For the story to be complete, you have to have an excellent villain to balance things out.
But how does one write a good villain?
For starters, make sure they’re real. Intense, over-the-top, out-of-this-world, sure…but still real.
The primary key to the bad guy—be it a brutal, evil villain or simply an antagonist who serves as the protagonist’s primary obstacle—is to keep them relatable on some level. Of course, your ‘bad guy’ could technically be a ‘good guy’, like if you’re writing about a bank robber, and his/her antagonist is a police investigator. This is perfectly fine, as long as the audience can still root against them.
(The primary obstacle can sometimes be a force of nature or situation, too, but for the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on actual beings with real motives for standing in the protagonist’s way.)
But even while your audience is rooting for the protagonist to win, they can still enjoy the antagonist. Look at the popularity of Loki in the Avengers franchise. In the movie Gladiator, while the Emperor was despicable, there’s a part of you that sympathizes with him—all he wanted was his father’s love, and he never got it.
We need to be able to feel for the villain on some level, whether they’re fascinatingly disturbing like Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker, or pitiful like Snape from Harry Potter.
This isn’t to say that we have to agree with or support the villain—The Joker was still deeply evil, and Snape still acted in a childish and vindictive fashion toward Harry—but we can still go, “All right, I see where/why/how this person behaves this way. They’re insane/deeply wounded/emotionally damaged.”
The villain is still (in most cases) wrong, but we need to see ourselves in them. We need to stand on that edge with them, and see how easy it is to slip. We don’t always need to know why they became the way they are, but understanding their perspective is crucial.
And remember that, in the bad guy’s world, he or she is the protagonist. A good exercise is to write some scenes from your villain’s point of view. You don’t have to use it in your book if it doesn’t suit your purposes, but it will help give you more insight to their motives.
Hopefully, all this will help you avoid some of the big villain mistakes, like…
Being Bad For The Sake Of Being Bad
Seriously, it doesn’t make sense for your villain to just do evil, mean, bad things for no reason. Even if they are evil, mean, and bad, there has to be some context. There has to be some gain for them. They can’t behave that way just to help you advance your plot. It destroys the suspension of disbelief you’ve created.
Don’t have a villain who’s a corporate bad-guy resort to murder for no reason (especially by his/her own hand) just to give the hero justification to kill them. Don’t make someone jump from a schoolyard bully to a brilliant psychopath capable of unspeakable evil (unless you’ve been building to this reveal, that is).
It’s okay for a villain to not be classically evil. They don’t have to be psycho rapist murderers to be unlikable—Umbridge in Harry Potter was a fantastic antagonist, but she never technically did anything illegal. Heck, even Lockhart was a great antagonist, and he was even less evil than she was. A person doesn’t have to maim small animals to draw your audience’s dislike, they just have to be unpleasant. So don’t feel obligated to push the homicidal maniac envelope too far if it doesn’t suit your purposes—a villain who’s simply annoying, self-serving, and bullying is perfectly respectable.
For the love of god, can we please come up with a more creative way to explain the villain’s plot? There absolutely must be a more efficient way. It makes sense when someone is stalling for them to talk a lot (like, for instance, if the captured hero goes on a monologue to buy him or herself time), but for the victorious villain to stand there and babble, instead of finally killing his foe? That makes zero sense.
Much like being bad for the sake of being bad, this is one of those tropes that the audience immediately recognizes, and always dislikes. It’s, frankly, pretty lame, and exceptionally overused. Get creative—it’s what writers do!
If you spend the entirety of the book letting know what a super-tough bad guy this is, don’t just suddenly have them lose without reason. It’s not to say that the hero can’t win, sure they can, you just have to make it clear that the protagonist has dug deep, worked hard, or managed to brilliantly outsmart the villain. Make it a victory based solely on team-efforts—multiple forces joining together to take down this tyrant.
This is applicable whether you’re writing a wrenching dystopian or a fifth grade comedy; don’t just suddenly have the bad guy, whoever or whatever it is, fail out of convenience. Our enemies aren’t conquered because “the story’s ending now”, they’re conquered because we worked harder, fought longer, pushed father, and grew into our true power. At the end of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra may have been (technically) triumphant, but she was completely transformed. Her mannerisms in the last chapter are almost alien to those displayed in the opening passages, even though she’s still clearly herself. She grew by leaps and bounds over the course of that journey, and that’s a big part of why she was able to claim the victory she did. The hero has to earn it, or it’ll feel like the villain was never really a threat to begin with.
Have respect for your villains. Treat them with dignity. Treat them, even, with love. You are their creator, after all. They may be the bad guy of your tale, they may be the one you’re eventually going to strike down, but as any writer knows, you can love a character and still destroy them—we do it all the time.
So let them be real. Let them have genuine relationships (though likely flawed, because, you know, emotional damage and psychosis and whatnot). Let them have goals and dreams and objectives. Fears and hopes and unfulfilled wishes. Don’t let a cardboard cutout of a flat, two-dimensional villain be the stand-in for your living, breathing, vibrant antagonist—your hero, and your story, deserve the real deal.
Who’s your favorite villain of all time?