Technique: Villains

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 7. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

I don’t know why, but the word villain creates a disconnect in my brain, and I always want to spell it incorrectly. Thankfully, in this situation, spell check is my hero.

  • A good villain is someone whose underlying motivations are understandable to the reader. (e.g. we don’t understand the motivation to conquer the world… but we do understand the motivation of being made to feel small, insignificant…)
  • A good villain is someone who can exploit a heroes weakness.
  • The villain makes things tougher for the characters that we like.
  • When designing a villain don’t make their motivations a cliché (refer to the Evil Overlord list).

I think that I have done this quite well in my novel Vengeance Will Come. The villains all have motivations that drive their agenda which in turn drives the plot. At least that’s what I tried to do.

  • There are two kinds of villains: an ‘every man’ villain and a ‘superman’ villain. (In Lord of the Rings, Sauron is an example of a superman villain – very, very powerful. Gollum is an every man villain).
  • Where you have a villain who is all-powerful evil:
    Pro: Can force the protagonists through a good journey (interesting conflict).
    Con: Usually not very interesting characters (we don’t get to know them well), and they lose the ability to have a personal connection and redemption arc.
  • A great example of this is given: Lord of the Rings; if Sauron wasn’t an all-powerful military force the fellowship wouldn’t have had to sneak in to Mordor, but could have arrived at the doorstep with an army.

So, why is it that we can identify with the villains?

  • Not every villain is a clear-cut villain. We can have normal people who make poor choices, and are thus cast into the villainous roles. Their motivations may even have been good, but misguided.
  • Competent villains can also be admired for their competency. Even if you don’t agree with someone, you have to respect it when they have achieved a goal.
  • The villain is the hero of his own story.
  • A hero is one who overcomes their internal problems, a villain is one who succumbs to them.

I’ve noticed in my own writing that it isn’t normally black-or-white, win-or-lose. The villain always achieves at least a measure of victory. No one ever gets exactly what they want…

  • Finally, they speak about anti-heroes: a hero with villainous behaviour (e.g. The Punisher, Dexter). They ‘get the job done’, but not in a way that would normally be considered praise-worthy.
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