The villain: literature’s favorite grey area.

“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.” ― Agnes Repplier

A manic cackle. A long, twistable mustache. A proclivity for instigating chaos and destruction for kicks and giggles.

These are just some of the stereotypical traits we were taught early on would help us identify the villain of any given story. We weren’t supposed to analyze this character’s motives, or find something human in his or her actions―only the darkness splashed across his or her outward appearance, accentuating every evil deed and dastardly threat.

Honestly? This flat, unyielding fairy tale villain never even existed.

There is always more to the story: another moving piece, a catalyst that shapes this character into the one we read on the page. The bad guys don’t always live in creepy castles or warn off innocents with their hideous looks, nor is it always so impossible to understand―at least to some degree―why someone might throw morals out the window in favor of one cause or another. “Villain” is, at best, an arbitrary assignation in storytelling.

So, how does a writer bring this concept to light? What does it take to make a villain leap off the page and display the complicated, layered antagonist that readers love to hate? There are a lot of angles to explore, but here are a few of my favorite elements for creating the ultimate villain.   

A deep background

To be a really awful (great?) villain, you have to find your motivation. And most of the time, this comes from a sordid past. The villains that do the most damage aren’t void of all emotion, idiots, or clichés sitting around with their hairless cats and twirling their mustaches―unless it’s one killer stache. They have depth, history that adds to their mystery as well as makes them somewhat relatable. You might find that in developing this backstory, your character also has flaws, a belief system―even humanity.  

Take Shere Khan, the man-eating tiger from The Jungle Book. If you go off of Disney’s cartoon, he’s just a tiger with a bone to pick. But, if you read Kipling’s original book, Shere Khan has been through a lot. There’s a good reason he hates humans, and it’s not just because they were taking up his share of the jungle. Shere Khan had seen the ugly side of man when they started killing his kind, and the only thing he wanted to do with it was see how it tasted. When you know that, it’s a lot harder to hate him, right? That’s because Kipling’s dry delivery gives you the facts, and lets you analyze them in whatever way you see fit. But the key is that he does provide you with Shere Khan’s history and a more in-depth explanation of his beliefs. Without that, he’s just an angry, man-eating tiger persecuting poor Mowgli and his wolf pack. 

A shadow of a doubt

Have you noticed that, on the surface at least, no villains really seem to hate what they’ve become? Self-loathing is reserved for private, brooding reflection far away from their victims and nemeses. Why? Anything but confidence exposes weakness, and you’ll never be a successful bad guy if you’re constantly giving the hero new soft spots to poke at. And if there’s a notable absence of that vulnerability, then it stands to reason that your villain is deluded into thinking he or she is actually the hero, or maybe even the real victim of the story. This state of mind is just as, if not more dangerous because in this case, the villain believes that every action is justified, no matter the result.

Consider the Evil Queen and her vendetta against Snow White. She’s obviously self-conscious and insecure; why else would she base an order for her stepdaughter’s assassination on one mirror’s opinion? But notice that after the mirror declares Snow White “the fairest of them all,” the Evil Queen doesn’t burst into tears or burrow into a blanket fort with as many tubs of ice cream as she can sink her claws into. No, on the outside she’s pissed and eager to eliminate the competition. While it doesn’t take much for the audience to see through all that bluster, it’s understandable that Snow White, the queen’s enemy and our hero, was just a tad distracted by the whole price-on-her-heart situation. Thus, the Evil Queen has shielded herself from her own doubts, and executed a plan that keeps her firmly affixed to the top of the food chain.

A likable fellow

The most dangerous enemy is the one you could also see yourself being friends with. Likewise, one of the most effectual traits of a dynamic villain is that he or she can be charming and even agreeable given the right circumstances. But by the time the other shoe drops, or the villain gets what he or she wanted, it’s too late for a hapless victim or an overly optimistic hero. No one even sees the danger coming until the claws come out, and the sinister plot is already in motion.  

In Treasure Island, Long John Silver is Jim Hawkins’s ally at sea. But we all know that Long John is capable of some pretty underhanded stuff, the kind of malfeasance that makes a feared pirate like Captain Flint wary. But to Jim, he’s an ideal buddy to have when one isn’t used to life on a ship―until he kills fellow crewman Tom and leads the mutiny against the good guys so he can have the treasure all to himself. Unfortunately for Jim, Long John knew just how to get in his good graces until it was time to show his true colors and literally go for the gold.

A common trait

It’s much harder to hate someone when you see something that the two of you have in common. Such it is when the hero of the story recognizes a shared trait with the villain. Setting aside the unnerving realization that the protagonist isn’t a paragon of virtue, the connection between the characters presents a unique challenge for the hero. If anyone else notices the similar trait―a god complex, the need to be in control, a short temper―then the hero’s credibility takes an automatic hit. Can we trust someone who can relate to his or her enemy? If pushed hard enough, could our champion switch sides?

Similar questions began plaguing Harry Potter in the fifth book of the series, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. After Voldemort has been brought back to life and infiltrates Harry’s thoughts, we start seeing more and more common traits between the two of them. Not only does this start to wear on Harry’s mind, but even the great and powerful Dumbledore is afraid to get too close, sure that the darkest wizard in history will somehow look out from Harry’s eyes and see something he can use to gain the advantage in the impending war. All of this eventually snowballs into the final battle at Hogwarts, where Harry has come face-to-face with mortality in all sorts of ways and realizes that he isn’t the same as his adversary. The explosive climax of the series is all the more powerful because he is forced to address these similarities, whereas Voldemort only fixates on those that suit his purposes and gets his ass blasted for all his efforts.

Think you’ve got a handle on your villains? Writer beware―they’re more complicated than you might think, and sneaky, too. If you need some help making heads or tails of them, contact your friendly (mostly), neighborhood editor.  

Published by kwatkins

Writer, editor, reader, steering wheel singer, Dressember advocate, animal lover. She/her. Twitter and Instagram: @thekwatkins. #kwatkins #writelikeaboss

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