Last post on villains was so successful, gaining lots of attention and folks letting me know how much they enjoyed it, that when Deb Nam-Krane offered to do another, I said, “Absolutely.” No lie. So welcome her with her own take on writing villains; I promise you, it’s good. Leave her tons of commentary to chew over.
by Deb Nam-Krane
What is a villain? Various dictionaries give different answers: a deliberate criminal or scoundrel; one blamed for a particular evil or difficulty; a character in a story who opposes a hero. My favorite comes from, of all places, Google: a person guilty or capable of a crime or wickedness. Because, when pushed far enough, I think most of the characters I write for are. Depending on how we define “wicked”, Emily, the main character of my book The Smartest Girl in the Room might be accused of being a villain; certainly, stealing someone’s drugs and punching another in the jaw right before you blackmail them are criminal. But, I submit, Emily isn’t a villain at all: she’s a young woman trying to protect her friends. If her actions are questionable, her motives aren’t.
Which leads me to my first observation:
1. Villainy is about perspective. You, the reader, know immediately that Emily isn’t a villain because you know what led her to her actions. Someone else (say, law enforcement) might not be so forgiving. Emily is trying to protect her best friend Zainab from someone she hasn’t trusted since the first chapter. What she does is ill-advised (breaking the law should be avoided at all costs), but you know why she did it. If someone else did the same things but for a different reason- they really wanted to get their hands on a stash of drugs, for example- your conclusion might be different.
2. Chillingly, though, that doesn’t matter to the person in question. In my experience, most villains don’t think they’re evil. In the minds of most villains, they are completely justified in what they’re doing. They may even feel pangs of guilt over some of their actions. It is, perhaps, their ability (and willingness) to push aside those feelings that connect them to their humanity that make them villainous. I’ll stay silent on whether we need to break eggs to make an omelet, but once you stop thinking about acknowledging the eggs, I wonder how good the omelet tastes.
3. The best villains have a recognizable focus. In that way, they are just like your protagonist. In my upcoming sequel, The Family You Choose, the “Big Bad” is justifiably loathed by more than half of the other characters. But while the reader might not like him, they’re guaranteed to be a little more sympathetic because they’ll understand why he did what he did, even if they don’t agree with all of his choices. They’ll cringe when they see him make the transition from emotional to calculated, but they’ll get it.
4. Which leads me to another requirement: a good villain has a back story. Of all of the Harry Potter books, the second and sixth were my favorite. Why? Because they dug into how promising young Tom Riddle became serial killer Voldemort. (I’ll also add that the fifth and seventh books’ focus on Snape’s backstory made for fascinating reading.) The present day focus is what drives your characters actions, but the backstory gives you a feel for why that focus developed. It doesn’t have to be a past filled with tragedy (in fact, please don’t; most victims of tragedy don’t grow up to be villains), but there has to be something that lets the reader draw a through line to the character’s present day actions.
5. Know your villain’s happy ending fantasy. As I wrote before, you have to know what a character’s idea of a happy endings is, even if you have no intention of delivering it. In the case of a villain, that is even more important. For most villains, the goal isn’t the same thing as the happy ending, unless you’re writing about a megalomaniac (“I won’t be happy until I’ve taken over the world.”). In The Family You Choose, the villain’s original crime was keeping two people apart without understanding the truth about their relationship. Although it’s never explicitly stated, his idea of a happy ending would be forgiveness from the people he hurt. That he’s never going to get this is what moves him to his later actions. You will completely agree that he’s trying to make things better while you’ll know that he only made things worse.
Every good story needs conflict, and I enjoy stories in which that conflict includes another person working at cross-purposes from the hero or heroine. No problem calling that person a villain, but the best, most enjoyable villains aren’t mustache-twirlers. Making your villains human beings is going to make your readers go deeper into the story- and the story go deeper into them.
Deborah Nam-Krane was born in New York, raised in Cambridge and educated in Boston. You’re forgiven for assuming she’s prejudiced toward anything city or urban. She’s been writing in one way or another since she was eight years old (and telling stories well before that). It only took 27 years, but she’s finally ready to let the world read her series, The New Pioneers. The first book in the series- The Smartest Girl in the Room- was released in late March. She can be found at Written By Deb as well as on Pinterest, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google+.