All this week, I’m recapping some of the panels I attended or served on at Imaginarium Convention last weekend. It was a fun weekend of inspiration, networking and hijinks. Earlier this week I summed up “pitching a publisher” and “writing speculative young adult fiction.” Today, let’s talk about building a better bad guy. This panel consisted of me, Peter Prellwitz and Cyrus Keith.
What makes a great villain?
It turns out the better question might be “how do you write a hero as compelling as your villain?” Conflict and problems create story, and the source of many of your problems and conflict will be your antagonist. As long as you are writing a real character, with depth and his or her own motivations and justifications, a villain will often start out more interesting and engaging than your protagonist. After all, the gloves are off with villains. Unbound by a moral code or the need to be likable, ironically your bad guy (or girl) may end up more enjoyable to read about than your hero.
One way you can create that kind of fleshed-out, engaging villain is to show things from his or her twisted point-of-view. When readers understand why your antagonist does what he does, it helps sell the conflict and make it more believable.
The best villains are the hero, at least in their own minds. And there is a bit of a difference between a villain and an anti-hero. In the original animated movie Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a villain — and revels in it. In the live action movie, she’s an anti-hero, who’s actions have understandable, if not justifiable, motivations.
Not all villains are purely evil. Sometimes your antagonist has a lofty goal (or at least believes it’s a lofty goal), but their means of achieving it put them in a moral grey area. And some characters, particularly in a book or television series, can move up or down the moral spectrum in terms of both their motivations and their means over time.
A notable example is Walter White from Breaking Bad, who started out as a good guy doing bad things for a good reason, and progressed to a bad guy doing bad things for selfish reasons. Of course, the opposite happens as well. Regina and Hook from Once Upon a Time started out the series as villains, but their character arcs have brought them pretty firmly into hero territory.
Writing a good bad guy isn’t an oxymoron. In fact, your antagonist should challenge you to make your protagonist as interesting as possible. The measure of a hero or heroine is often defined by what (or in this case who) they have to overcome. The better your bad guy, the more impressive your protagonist’s success will be.
Who is your favorite villain? Do you enjoy stories where good guys go bad (or bad guys get better?)