Does Your Villain Need More Evil? (The Unified Writing Field Theory)
Is your story good enough?
In fact… you’ve probably been exploring and sweating to make your protagonist more real, more dynamic, and the supporting cast just as compelling as you need. But, could it be that what you aren’t getting the most out of isn’t the good guys, it’s the bad ones?
Villains can be frustrating folks to write, with so many of them already out there to make your idea seem unoriginal, if the word itself doesn’t sound cliché to you. Or you might think you’ve got a brilliant villain concept, but wonder if you’re making full use of it.
Well, I know I’m not pushing my villains to the limit, and most other writers aren’t either. But then, I’m not sure villains have a limit.
If “story = conflict,” that can make the opposition a whopping half of the tale’s very nature. The hero’s struggle may be at the center, but the villain is the root of it all, often the one who created the crisis in the first place. Neglect the villain and the hero has more and more moments when he’s struggling against empty air.
(And let’s face it, a good villain stays with the reader. Heroes need to not be “boring,” but they’ve usually got a relatable balance of issues they’re sorting out over time. But the villain’s liable to make a choice and then “watch the world burn.”)
—Or your writing could be going for a different kind of conflict than Heath Ledger’s Joker. Still, every moment of human conflict can learn a few things from what we call villains. A protagonist still needs major obstacles, whether they’re “bad” people or well-meaning ones; and whatever’s making those people problems ought to be key parts of the story.
(Except for tone, most of the time. We’ll get to that.)
How human? Hold onto your keyboard, it’s going to be a bumpy night:
Coming to the Dark Side
None of us want to write someone who’s “just a villain.”
—Okay, some writers do, and it can be downright liberating. But if you do, keep reading: a bit of the same balance can still strengthen them.
But: have you really given your villain enough of a reason for what he does? Could you push him harder? One good measure is K.M. Weiland’s challenge that “Maybe your bad guy is right.” Myself, I think it all comes down to, based on what the reader learns,
Of course, “in the way” might mean anything from blowing up the world to a by-the-books teacher who won’t give a student an inch of slack. But whatever they’re creating that conflict about, what these people need is to make that motivation and its ties to the conflict utterly clear. Remember that marvelous Terminator line:
It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.
If you can give a human antagonist some of that momentum, for human reasons, you magnify everything about the villain. Which magnifies the whole story.
What are those human reasons? You’re probably got your idea there already, so I’ll settle for mentioning my Sith/ Seven Deadly Sins breakdown and my Thunderbolt Ross question as a starting point (is it what he wants to take from the hero, or what he’s afraid the hero will take?).
So what reveals those reasons? It’s usually how well the backstory, the evolving plot, or at least the story’s situation shows this person HAS to do what he’s doing. Possibly the best way is to plot in the way he might be fulfilling his goals without making trouble (bonus points if it’s as a friend of the hero, of course)… and the perfect chance to make that work… and it goes utterly wrong. You also want to choose a balance between the sense of a harsh world that makes that “fall” seem like something that could happen to anyone, and the intensity in this character that shows he’s better than most would be at embracing his fall—if it wasn’t a leap.
Keep asking that question: would this person NEED to get in the way? (The words you’re looking for are “Hell yes!!”)
Darker and Deeper
Once you put the villain on his path… is that enough?
Part of it is “narrowing” that path, finding ways to show that this villain isn’t out to do whatever “bad things” are available, he wants what he wants—meaning, what chances to do damage can he pass up because they aren’t in his interest? The more you show what things he’ll pause for, the less cliché he is and the more you’ve reinforced that the rest is where he will not stop.
(At least, he won’t stop for long. Some of the best villain “falls” happen in the middle of the story, with his missed chances to turn back happening at the height of everything else.)
All this means giving the villain chances to let people live, to clash with his lieutenants, whatever it may be—maybe because it doesn’t fit his plan, or sometimes even because he does have his softer side or other motives as well. It also means surprising the hero (or at least some less villain-savvy friends) with twists where the villain passes up one target to go after another, probably a nastier one. (If you were thinking that The Dark Knight seemed to ignore the last section’s tips about justifying the villain, you’re right. We never learned what made the Joker, but instead the whole movie used this method to demonstrate in detail just what he was.)
To really show things off, try letting the villain do good now and then, maybe allying with the hero if there’s something they both need gone. (“He can’t destroy the world, I need to rule it!” is always fun.) And of course the hero should be spotlighting the villain’s nature too, with every scene where he tries to predict, trick, frighten and generally outwit his enemy. (I’ve analyzed a few ways to do that.)
In fact… could the villain change? Star Wars and many other tales turned out to be about redeeming their villain. Or he could give up his evil world-view for a different and even more vicious one. (In its most overused form, “If I can’t have her…”)
Villains may be implacable at the right moments, but they need a sense of precision and even change as well. Because they aren’t forces of nature, each is something much more terrifying: a human being who’s actively looking for ways to get you.
Note that word, “actively.” That’s the next question for maximizing a villain: are the hero—or you—taking them for granted?
No Evil Autopilots
It’s a simple question: How often does your villain act on the story? That is, what proportion of your scenes are about his attacks, his control, his ability to get and stay “in the way” of your hero?
—Actually, let’s make that a more specific question:
It’s a common complaint against even Lord of the Rings: a villain can cast his influence over everything in sight, and drive them all along his sinister scheme. But then… those forces stay driven, pressing closer and closer but always along the same overall plan. Impressive, but it misses the chance to show the villain doing something more.
One of the best tools in a writer’s arsenal is: what readers notice is the story’s changes. Heroes have their character arcs, and you’ve probably given yours those moments when they follow one plan only to find it a red herring or failure, just to show the hero can move on to a better one. Your villain deserves some of the same respect.
After all, a threat that keeps pushing in the same ways might as well be hostile weather; what’s scary (and real-life relevant) about a living enemy is knowing there’s a human mind out there that keeps looking for new ways to get ahead of you, and you always need to keep up. When your hero makes a move, look for ways the villain can counter it or try to come in from a whole new angle. Ask yourself, which is a better epitaph for that doomed first strategy of your hero’s:
- “Guess that plan wasn’t good enough.” Or,
- “He saw me coming.”
A serious villain forces the hero—and of course us writers—to look harder, hit harder, and never ever let our down our guard. And each separate time either side takes their game up a notch, the story gains another marvelous moment of tightening the tension.
(If you’ve got a less villainous antagonist, your options here are more limited. One rule of thumb is that “evil” is what we call someone with a goal that hurts us deeply, if too much of that motive includes a need to stop reasonable ways to work around him or compromise. We may hate the Scrooge types that don’t give extensions on mortgages, but it’s the ones that are trying to stop us from paying up that move into full villain territory.)
Does your villain actually win, sometimes? You might ask how much your story develops using either:
- Victories, the hero winning part of what he’s after or weakening the villain—“points” for the hero, with the villain on a losing streak that might undermine the story if it goes too long.
- Defense, where the villain tries one counterattack or scheme after another and the hero blocks each—looks good for the hero, but the villain gets some credit for his efforts.
- Pressure the hero isn’t holding back, but toward a goal of the villain’s that isn’t reached yet—strengthens the villain’s image, but only partway.
- Defeats for the hero (or “tragic victories”), where the villain takes or destroys an actual person, place or thing the hero cares about in its own right—the dark moments that might do more than anything else to drive the story.
Look at your favorite stories, and see how often the major parts of them are marked by a friend of the hero dying, or the hero losing a fair fight and needing a rematch… or failing a test, having an ally hired away, or other less bloody equivalents. There’s a reason these are often the cornerstones of a tale.
Of course, each story has its own balance of these, not only the overall “score” but how much it uses each and in what combination. Lord of the Rings is a classic heroic series of victories and defense, that builds power from a few well-timed defeats (mostly deaths) and the sense that Mordor and the Ring both have an infinite amount of pressure they’ll keep raising until our heroes reach their limit. Its darker descendant A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones) is clear that the full defeats will outnumber the victories, partly to remind us it has so few true “heroes” at all.
And, Points for Style
We’ve looked at some of the biggest missed opportunities for villains, in character and plot. But, presentation matters too. How many chances do you have to remind the reader how dangerous the villain is, and also how he’s a specific rather than a cliché?
It might be as simple as a name. Some stories need a villain named Dr. Doom or Randall Flagg, and others really call for a Martin Smith. And that’s the general approach, before you look for particular images and sinister sounds. “Hannibal Lecter” sounds like a brilliant mashup of a ruthless general and a trusted professor, even before you hear what that first name rhymes with.
The first scene matters, when your Vader strides in and seizes the rebel captain’s throat, or your Saruman waits as the wise friend Gandalf comes to for help. Or you can use be moments the villain isn’t even in: Conan Doyle wrote Moriarty a whole page of Holmes himself describing how dangerous he was, and then only one brief but pivotal instant when we actually glimpse him.
Really, every scene of the villain’s ought to be a chance to push him further. We can’t imagine Dr. Lecter missing one moment where he could show off his wit and his sinister stillness. Or take Blue Velvet—its villain isn’t the smartest, but he’s Dennis Hopper at his absolute wildest, with our poor heroes trapped right under his thumb. Some villains radiate evil; others need their “kick the dog” moments as a fast way to hint at how vicious they can be.
Speaking of dogs, it’s all about hitting the right tone. The original One Hundred and One Dalmatians book was full of chapters of the dogs’ life and their struggles on their road, neatly spreading out the scenes with the elegant, sinister Cruella deVil that had more than the dogs wondering if she came by that name literally. The movie made her less like the previous Disney film’s Maleficent (who could have been her role model), and more… you know. –And yet, do you know any other trick to get away with a fast-paced “kids’ movie” about skinning puppies?
(Pause, take deep breaths.)
Whichever way your story’s going, even a hint of the wrong kind of “Disnification” to the villain can drag it down faster than anything. The villain’s providing a huge share of your story’s energy, for either your key moments or almost the whole thing, and he may well be the reason there’s any conflict at all.
But it’s all too easy to set that villain in the foundation of a story and then leave him there. Any time you want more conflict in the story, the answer may be as simple as finding the most dramatic, sinister ways that villain is human.
Quick: right after your villain’s first move, how many scenes does your hero have? Is he sort of trusting that he’ll have a little time to mourn or rest, and letting his guard down?
Now, are you going to let your hero get away with that?
Evil laughter echoes…
Want to hear more? Let me know!