Guest Post by Ash Grey
Hello, girls and bugs. Your friendly neighborhood dragon is here with a post that demonstrates how to write an effective villain.
Over the years that I’ve been writing and sharing online, attending college courses, and sampling media with badly written villains, I’ve had many opportunities to acquaint myself with what makes an effective villain.
First, what is an effective villain? Let’s make a list (I love lists).
An effective villain is:
1) Someone the audience is supposed to hate, though they may sympathize with them.
2) Someone with realistic and understandable motives – including being insane and having no motives at all. Extra points if the motives are something we, the reader, can sympathize with. (i.e. The villain had the same heroic goal as the main characters but went about it… evilly.)
3) Someone who further defines the main character. Good villains set the stage for the protagonist to react, and the way the protagonist reacts further defines them as a character. For example, in my book The Harvest, the villain Dr. Zorgone injures the love interest of the protagonist. He does this because he knows how the protagonist will react, and the way she reacts – choosing not to run – reveals who she is.
Now, let’s get down to what it takes to make an effective villain.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years. (More lists!):
1) Know what a bad person is
You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what a bad person is. Probably because they’re pretty dang awful themselves and just can’t see their own villainy.
A Bad Person is a person who does bad things with the purpose of hurting other people who are minding their own business, usually for their own sick pleasure, because they think they are superior to others, or because Mommy didn’t hug them enough. Sometimes all three.
We also call these Internet Trolls.
The Bad Person picks on the helpless: kicks puppies, sexually harasses people in public, casually shoots some man getting coffee in the face, rips on welfare, double parks in handicap, beats women, steals candy from kids. Complains about Affirmative Action. Loves using slurs for the sick pleasure of offending entire groups of disadvantaged people. You see where I’m going.
Being a jerk also usually means being a bully of some sort, picking on people who are weaker than you in some aspect. Bullies usually believe they are superior to whoever they are picking on just because they have more of X than the victim has.
“I am physically stronger so I am superior!” “I’m smarter so I am superior!” “I have more money so I am superior!” “I have a penis so I am superior!” “I have less melanin chemical in my skin so I am superior!”
You’re still with me, right? Good. You’re smart people (but not superior people!).
The villain also doesn’t have to necessarily be a big person to be a bully. In my science fiction series The Prince of Qorlec, (The Harvest is the second book) the biggest jerks in the galaxy are the zonbiri, little blue people who think they’re better than everyone else and that they should rule the galaxy due to their delusions of superiority. In their case, being “superior” boils down to having better technology than the other aliens, and somehow, this makes it “okay” to invade other planets.
2) Present a motive
In my humble opinion, the best villains are the ones who’ve got a reason behind why they’re kicking puppies, why they’re robbing banks, or why they snapped that dark day and chopped Mother into tiny pieces. It’s especially interesting when the villain is not dehumanized into a two dimensional cartoony jerk who just wants their Lucky Charms back or they’re tie your girlfriend to the railroad tracks.
Insanity (no motive) can be interesting. Especially if there’s a reason the villain went insane. In The Prince of Qorlec, the main villain, General Phorott, has a narcissism disorder. This is a personality disorder and it is considered a form of insanity because a person has to be a little out of touch with reality to have it.
General Phorott thrives on gaining validation from adulation and attention. So his conquest of the galaxy (and of his own planet) is all just something that stems from Mommy never telling him he was good enough. On the surface, his motivation looks like racism and imperialism (and they are) – you know, the usually stuff — but underneath it all, he’s just a really, really sick man who is out of touch with reality. He actually believes what he’s doing (committing mass genocide) is right.
This kind of background makes a villain human, realistic, relatable, and still utterly hateable.
3) Good villains properly challenge the protagonist
A good villain will find the weakness of the hero and use it. This is where knowing your main character being written well comes into play.
Quinn is the protagonist of The Prince of Qorlec (though, arguably, there are multiple protagonists) and her greatest weakness (and her greatest strength) is the fact that she cares about people recklessly. She cares so much that she will put herself in harm’s way, risking everything, even – shortsightedly – the people she is trying to save. Her enemies use this against her again and again to trap her.
For example, in the very first book, Project Harvest, the zonbiri injure Rose (Quinn’s mother) knowing she will jump out of the car, leaving herself vulnerable to abduction. Her good heart and shortsightedness is something that is used against her again and again, eventually with devastating consequences, as the people around her are hurt because of it.
In short, good villains will find a weakness and make use of it. Also, how they go about finding the weakness can be interesting as well.
4) Good villains have sweet monologues
This mostly boils down to how creative you are with insults and poetic rambling. Good villains can make the audience mad in one breath and make the audience sympathize with them in another. A monologue is usually the moment when they reveal their motive, brag about how they (think) they won, or just give the protagonist some good ol’ fashioned insults.
5) Good villains lose in a poetic way
Just as good villains should be using the protagonist’s weakness against them, good protagonists should be using the villain’s weakness against them.
In my book Time’s Arrow, the antagonist is a very conceited dragon queen whose arrogance is used against her. During the last showdown at the end of the novel, she is led to believe that she is winning the fight and so leaves herself open and vulnerable, only to realize she has been tricked. Thus, her own arrogance kills her.
These are the five things I tend on focus on when going about the business of writing villains, though there are so many more things, which is why entire books have been written on the subject.
It’s not that hard, though. Okay, it’s hard. But still, what are you waiting for?
Go write the next brilliant villain!
By Ash Grey
Rose, a sweet and kind librarian, is on her honeymoon with her goofy gym teacher husband when the trip takes a turn for the worst and she is abducted by aliens. When the spacecraft is attacked by the enemies of Empress Nashal, Rose makes it back to Earth freshly impregnated by alien royalty with said enemies on her heels. Now faced with running for her life, she is joined by Zita, a cheerful alien marine, and must make the choice between her unborn alien child and her baffled husband, who believes the child is his.