Romancing the Villain: A Writer’s Love Story

Romancing the Villain: A Writer’s Love Story

Ruth E. Walker

It’s true. We all love a really good villain. Providing, of course, that they’re between the covers of a good book or kept safe inside a movie or television screen. That’s the other side of our love affair: we control where and when we spend time with those villains. Writers know that if we want readers to root for the hero, we need to create a good bad guy. Here are some points to consider.

The hero/villain bond

Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes. Shere Khan and Mowgli. The White Witch and Aslan. A villain is the counterpoint, the mirror, the connection to the dark side of our hero.

Voldemort would just be an ugly, nasty, nameless whozits without Harry Potter. With young Harry in our hearts and minds, He Who Cannot Be Named notches up the terror-meter. And when he finally shows up, he sets fire to the page. Harry’s emotions catch fire too, and not always with good result. That’s important. For Harry, the villain is part of his journey, and all good heroes have flaws that villains love to exploit.

But we don’t just need the villain to serve as the foil for our hero. The most interesting villains come with baggage and struggles of their own. And generally, they don’t even KNOW they are villains.

(I see dead people…all the time. And they don’t know they’re dead.)

Well, unlike the ghosts in The Sixth Sense, most villains do know what they’re up to. But in their own story, they’re the hero. George R.R. Martin said:  A villain is a hero of the other side.

King Joffrey, anyone?

Author Stephen King has created many memorable twisted characters and sometimes, they start out as the hero of the story — Carrie, for example. Villains in King’s hands are much more than stereotypical bad guys. Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win. Indeed, Mr. King. Indeed.

What does your villain want?

Your villain is more than window dressing. When you write them, do you consider their life story? What about their childhood disappointments? Their losses? Their fears? The source of their desire for world domination?

Maybe Iago secretly reads romance novels to learn to be less awkward in lovemaking. Maybe The White Witch just wants Narnia to stay a frozen wasteland because she’s afraid of growing old.

Just like your story’s hero, your villain needs goals. Readers may not need to know all about the “inciting incident” that sets your villain on the road to bad deeds. But as the writer, you need to know your villain’s motivations.

To support a good plot, the villain’s goals should be contrary to your hero’s goals, or at the least, interfere with your hero’s ability to achieve them. Energy and tension come from those conflicts. The greater they are, the stronger the plot, so your villain better not be feeble. Think of it this way: a weak villain makes for a weak plot.

How complex is your villain?

Compelling characters resonate with your reader. They trigger emotions. Villains hold our attention when they are three-dimensional and we believe they exist.

Your villain may only have a walk-on part to trigger the inciting incident for your hero, but that villain still needs to be believable. And one part of making villains believable is to ensure they believe in themselves.

Consider Javert in Hugo’s Les Miserables. An intelligent man of principles, he relentlessly pursues justice, but without an ounce of compassion. We believe in him because he believes completely in his truth. Actor Jack Gleeson, who plays maniacal King Joffrey in the Game of Thrones television series puts it this way: Both villains and heroes need to have a steadfast belief in themselves.

How well does your villain fit with your story?

This one can be a tricky question. Simply making a character “evil” and “heartless” doesn’t mean that character will fit the story you are telling. As already noted, you can look to your hero to find some of the right kind of villain qualities. But you also have to consider time and place.

A story set in medieval times can have a villain who is chivalrous and noble but has no hesitation in running a broadsword into child’s heart to make a point. That same twisted knight may not fit so easily in a contemporary horror novel.

Take a close look at the story you are writing. Is your villain the best antagonist you can create, or is there room to refine your “baddie”? Up his sympathy factor? Lose some of her stereotypical nasty behaviour? Since I started to write this article, I’ve had some ideas that will send me back to my own in-progress novel. Again.

But that’s okay. I like my villain and hopefully, you will too.


Villains, Vendettas and Vagabonds is a one-day workshop Ruth facilitates for writers. She’ll be in Niagara-on-the-Lake in September sharing insights and ideas on creating great “bad” in fiction. The workshop is part of the NOTL Writers’ Circle programming for 2017.

She’ll also be offering this workshop in Durham Region this fall. Stay tuned for details.

Even Villains Need Some Affection

Even Villains Need Some Affection

Ruth E. Walker.

I do love a great villain in fiction: Voldemort, Moriarty, Bill Sykes, Cruella de Vil. And so, true-life baddtoddler sitting at beachies fascinate me – I want to know what made them nasty. Surely, no baby is born wicked (back off horror writers, I’m talking real life here.) I mean, even Adolph Hitler and Paul Bernardo were wee thumb-sucking tots at one point. I wonder what happened to drain out their empathy and fill it with cold-hearted evil?

When I’m creating villains, I want to know the same thing. Right now, I’m refining a female character that is the main antagonist to my female protagonist. She’s a cruel and devious villain, and she wants my main character dead. And, just for an added twist of nasty, my sneaky villain happens to be my protagonist’s mother.

It turns out the reason she wants her daughter dead is a big part of my protagonist’s ultimate goal. And here’s why I’m telling you this. Despite writing an outline, I had no idea about this goal when I started to write this book. My villain led me to it. Thanks Nasty Mom.

Character motivation is key…so experiment 

It wasn’t until I started to focus on my villain’s motivation that I discovered something important: I didn’t know what my protagonist’s underlying goal was. By fleshing out the villain, I discovered what it needed to be. Now my plot is stronger and my overall characterization is richer. Writing experimental scenes from the mother’s POV gave me “entry” to her head. Stopping to ask “why” and letting her tell me through free-writing was genius. I didn’t always like what she said but it helped me make sense of who she is and how she got like that.

None of those writing experiments will be in the book. But that’s okay – because now my villain’s behaviour, her physical form, even what she notices and doesn’t notice, is clear to me. And that makes me write her scenes – along with her actions and reactions – with confidence. Readers notice when you aren’t consistent or logical.

Writer, how do you feel about your villain?

dalai-lama-1169298_1920 smallAnd I have some sympathy for her. What? Concern for a murderous matriarch? Yes. Because I know what happened in her life to drain the maternal instincts and replace them with self-preservation and steely resolve. And I’m a fairly compassionate person, so I like to think that even the worst of humanity has some glimmer of good in them, if only life had been kinder.

We are all capable of doing horrible things. And wonderful things. So the terrible villains that I create in my fiction all have some “wonderful” inside them. It keeps them complex and unpredictable – like real people. For readers, complex and unpredictable can make for fascinating stories. Just like real life. And that, as writers, is what we hope to achieve in our work.

Do you have any favourite villains?

Have you fallen for any desperadoes in your own work or in books you’ve read? Spend a few minutes just thinking about what makes them your favourite. Who or what do they remind you of? How do they make you feel?

The next time you are writing a villain, show that nasty, evil character a little writerly love and compassion. Take a look at why they are so nasty. Your muse and your readers will thank you for it.

Don’t have a villain as yet? Try my quick and easy recipe to develop characters to get you started. Just toss in some extra negative traits to make sure you get enough nasty in there. Having trouble with finding negative traits, try Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s book The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws.

If you’d like some help, join me on March 5 for my Master Class in Character: More than Flesh and Bones.