Villains & their villainy

Greetings, Escapists!

I have been wanting to write a post on villains for a long time, now. Everyone has their different ideas as to how to write a villain and write one correctly. Just the same, I have my own opinions on how to write one effectively and capture your audience into thinking he or she is on the same level as Darth Vader, Saint Dane, Voldemort, and all the other great antagonists out there. Not that I have written with a great villain yet, but I believe the more one understands how a villain works, the more equipped they will be to write a great one.

(Just a question here, but do you prefer antagonist or villain? Which one sounds more ominous to you? Which one more creepy? Just a thought. And no, I’m not going to resort to the usual “bad guy”, here. Come on, that’s totally wimpy. Imagine a villain monologuing to the hero, only for the hero to look strangely at him and go “oh, wait, you’re…you’re the bad guy, right? That guy that wants to take over the cheese industry and thus control the markets of the nearby tri-state area? You’re him, right?” Pft. No. Reduces him to a third grader talking about people who graffiti walls, that sort of thing. There’s a difference between being a bad guy and a villain.)

I believe there are three main reasons why someone turns into a villain. It’s all rather psychological. No one is ever born a villain. With every antagonist comes a background story and a reason why they’ve gone sour. I bade you to remember throughout writing with your antagonists that they are still human, and that somewhere deep inside them they believe their actions are justified. As you write with them, listen to what they are saying. The more you step into their shoes and understand their thoughts, the better and more believably you will be able to write them.

Three main reasons for becoming a villain:

1. Revenge. A lot of times, the antagonist becomes who he is because of revenge. We all know what pain feels like, don’t we? Imagine being stabbed in the back in some various way, or being withheld from something we loved, or having to watch someone we care about suffer and/or die in a way we cannot control. That pain, often times, festers . . . and turns into hate, rage, and a desire to hurt someone back. This is revenge. Often times an antagonist is after revenge for something they believe was wrongly done to them, and often times the hero either gets in their way or is the person they want revenge upon. Take, for example, Syndrome from Pixar movie, The Incredibles.

Syndrome is a classic example of someone turned villain because of hurt, because of the need for revenge. In all likely hood, if Mr. Incredible hadn’t turned Buddy away as a boy, Syndrome would never have been born. This shows us that sometimes circumstances can turn even the most gentle, eager people into villains for the sheer reason that pain hurts. It makes us human, of course, but sometimes it even goes deeper than that, and sometimes the need for revenge blots out everything else. Another classic example is Sweeney Todd (book, musical, and movie adapted), a barber who wants revenge on the man who sent him off to jail, then kidnapped and killed his wife (normally you would consider him the hero, but he kills dozens of innocent people, thus creating within himself a monster, insatiable and insane).

2. Conquest. This is a bit different from revenge. These sorts of villains are full of greed, maliciousness, and yearn for control. They want power. They don’t necessarily have grudges against anyone in particular, and often times anyone who gets in their way is instantly destroyed. There is no room for revenge, only room for conquer and expanse of power. The single thing that drives them is desire for more and more and more. Often times, villains yearn for control because they either had none growing up, or because they grew up in a scenario where they were taught to want control and take it from anyone they could (there is always a psychological reason for being evil, but I’ll get to that later).

A classic example of conquest would be Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.

Yes. For sixty years, the Ring lay quiet 
in Bilbo’s keeping, prolonging his life, 
delaying old age … but no longer, 
Frodo. Evil is stirring in Mordor. The 
Ring has awoken. It’s heard its master’s 

  But he was destroyed … Sauron was  

No, Frodo. The spirit of Sauron endured. 
His life force is bound to the Ring and 
the Ring survived. Sauron has returned. 
His Orcs have multiplied … his 
fortress of Barad-dûr is rebuilt in the 
land of Mordor. Sauron needs only this 
Ring to cover all the lands in the 
second darkness. He is seeking it, 
seeking it, all his thought is bent on 
it. For the Ring yearns, above all else, 
to return to the hand of its master: 
They are one, the Ring and the Dark 
Lord. Frodo, he must never find it. 

Other examples of villains who only desire to conquer are: Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb, Jafar from Aladdin, Saint Dane from The Pendragon Adventure, and Voldemort from Harry Potter. Conquering is definitely one of the more used methods for villains. Everyone wants something; these villains only wanted their desire on a much higher, and more brutal, scale.

3. Conviction. This third and final reason is a little less dramatic than the other two, but is still worthy to be pointed out. Everyone has things they believe to be true, and everyone has the things they would fight for to the death. Sometimes, villains are simply people fighting for their convictions, albeit their convictions are obviously wrong and oppose the protagonist’s convictions. In any story-bound world, if the hero was convicted that putting down animals at The Pound were wrong, but the villain was convicted that it saved the city money and room, then obviously the villain (in the eyes of the hero and the reader) would be wrong and be seen as sinister and heartless. Even if the villain him/herself isn’t necessarily a bad person at heart, this would deem the villain as the antagonist of the story and solidify our hatred for them.

The best example I can think of for a villain who is driven by mere conviction would be Javert from Les Miserables. Javert is a policeman who is hot on the heels of a changed convict who escaped from jail and fled to renew his ways and do good. Even when Javert realized this convict is no longer breaking the law, even when this convict saves his life and lets him go free despite having ever reason to kill him, Javert cannot let go of his conviction that once a thief, always a thief. It is this conviction that makes him the antagonist throughout the whole play, despite being truly a good person at heart. Another example might be the feud between the werewolves and the vampires in Twilight. Both are convicted that the other side is a threat and ought to be destroyed, but individually no one would consider Edward or Jacob to be villains. Conviction is really how a certain person views the world, and how an opposing person might call them out for it. It has nothing to do with being evil at heart; everyone has opinions. Sometimes opinions are simply the driving force that can make a villain who he/she is.

A couple things to note about villains. First of all, do remember that villains are, at the core root, human. No villain is purely evil (unless we’re dealing with non-human entities, but that’s a whole different playing field that I won’t touch upon today). No villain is completely irrational, heartless, or brainless. They all have their very specific reasons as to WHY they are who they are. WHY they are conquering, why their are out seeking revenge. On a daily basis, I am sure you and I have both felt the desire to fight for our convictions and seek revenge, though perhaps on a lesser scale. The only difference between us and villains are that villains take what they feel to a more massive level. Whereas we might hate someone in our heart, they take that hated and they kill with it. Whereas we might pine for someone we cannot have, they obsess, kidnap, and seduce. 

Think about it. Villains aren’t some untouchable force — they have human rationality, they have emotions, they have scars, they have sheer will. Antagonists are normal human beings take their negativity, their desperation, their desire to be acknowledged, and use that force to become something to be feared. The only thing that differentiates a hero from a villain is that the hero takes that force (and a dash of positivism) and uses it for good. A hero and a villain could be on the same page. What changes is that they both take what they feel and think, and head in opposite directions. Heroes use what they know for good. Villains let negativity and hatred lead them toward evil.

(I really wish I could draw this out. It makes better sense in my head.)

Second of all, get into the head of the villain. Try to understand why they are who they are, and what pushed them into acting this way. Each villain has a backstory, a family life, difficulties  hardships, and losses. The closer you are to understanding what happened to them previously, before the start of your novel, the more realistic your villain will be. Someone once said something to the idea of: A villain doesn’t just go around cackling and rubbing his hands together. There is a reason he does it. It could be something physical or something psychological. But there is always a reason, a past reason or maybe even a present reason. Don’t fall into the trap of having an antagonist without a reason for it. Don’t make him completely, nuttily evil, either. You want your audience to find your villain realistic.

In fact, I believe the main goal for writing a villain is to write one so well that your audience cannot help but almost be sympathetic for him, feel sorry for him, and then become completely chilled in discovering that the villain is much more human and normal than they thought. There are “bad guys” everywhere, people who kill and murder and steal. Villains are not confined to fiction. The best thing you can do is to make others realize is that no one is completely evil, and no one is completely good, either. If you think about it, villains and heroes aren’t very different from each other. They both experience desire, fear, doubt, hate, and joy. It is only the black and white line that defines them, with the hero standing on one side and the villain standing on the other. It is only how one decides to handle those experiences, it is only how one decides to deal with those experiences, that makes the ultimate difference.

A pretty good example of this would be Luke from Star Wars. He could have joined his father. He was very close to giving in, to falling into the lure of power and fame. What made him different? He refused. He refused to give into the dark side (and lost a hand). THAT is what separated him from his father. A lot of times, it is just like that for heroes and villains.

At least, in my very humble opinion.

2 thoughts on “Villains & their villainy

  1. Wow! This was an absolutely wonderful post, extremely well written. I understood most of this but you made it make perfect sense. I completely agree with you :) Villains are human (unless they aren't… But that's not what we're talking about) and they definitely should act human. I think the funnest villain to write is a completely insane villain :) And while they might not have the same thinking capabilities as a sane person, there should be some reason that they are insane. Not just because, you know, they hate people and all mankind. Actually… That gives me a good idea for a villain (which, by the way, is my preferred name for the "bad guy") I'm off to plot :D

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