Every story has a bad guy. And oh how I love my bad guys. I think I enjoy crafting a villain far more than any other character in the story. They’re what add conflict and tension in the story, and they can be so many levels of bad. Hell, they can even be sort of good. The villain or antagonist stirs the pot and muddies the waters. Without them, you’d have a very yawn-worthy tale where nothing really happens.
I think the reason I enjoy writing the villain is that it’s probably the hardest character to craft believably. There’s far more to the process than simply creating a character that does bad things to add a bump in the road for your protagonist. The villain or antagonist (and these are not always the same thing) should be more than just the opposite of the protagonist.
You have to craft a villain so that he is credible, logical, and believable, but not necessarily likeable. The reader should understand what the villain is doing and why, and accept that it is a negative thing for your protagonist and his goals. Your readers also need to understand why he believes his actions are justified and rational. Don’t just make him batshit bad, make it believable. Give him three dimensions.
Sadly, it’s getting hard to find a book where the villain is more than a shallow, narrow-minded asshat whose only ambition in life is to be as evil as possible. This loses the reader for a couple of reasons. First, you lose any emotional impact your story might have had if your readers can not completely believe the threat to your protagonist or his goal is real, or threatening enough. Second, a completely evil character is also completely weak. If your villain’s only motivation is evil, he’s got no depth, and without depth, he’s not real to the reader. Giving your bad guy only one motivator, particularly one as cliché as evil or greed, is simply not good enough.
You have to craft the villain as carefully as you crafted your protagonist. You took the time to climb inside the protagonist’s head, and to craft a memorable tale for him, you have to do the same for your villain. Find out what makes him tick.
Your protagonist needs a worthy opponent so that the reader is just a little worried that perhaps the ending might not be happy after all. In order to be considered a worthy opponent, you must portray your villain honestly. What drives him to act the way he does? No one sees themselves as mean, crazy or stupid, so your villain won’t see himself that way either. To him, every disgusting thing he does is logical and justifiable, and the reader must agree that his point of view makes sense, even if it’s wrong. If the villain is logical, the suspense is intensified. If your villain is capable of winning, the outcome is uncertain, and your reader is more likely to become engaged.
To put it more simply, your villain has to be so good at being the bad guy that the protagonist has to be better in order to beat him. Think Hannibal Lector. Most brilliant villain I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
A little trick I do to ensure the villain I’ve crafted is logical and believable is to write a scene or two in his POV. These scenes don’t have to be part of the book, they’re just a test. If you can write the scene from his POV with just as much impact and believability as when it’s in the protagonist’s POV, then you’ve created a memorable and believable villain.
Another test might be to describe the antagonist or villain from the hero’s POV. You should be able to show him as logical and real, but also as complex, devious and misguided. This also helps strengthen the protagonist’s character because it gives insight into where he might fail or succeed in his battle with the force that works against him.
Some say the villain should not be likable, but I disagree. Eric Northman, anyone? Jaime or Tyrion Lannister? They’re pretty damn likable, and more than a little naughty. I think a truly memorable villain is one that gets under the reader’s skin. What better way to do that than to give him a trait that the reader relates to? Make the reader like him, but not quite as much as she likes the protagonist. It’s a challenge to accomplish this, but the result is awe-inspiring. An easy way to do this is to give him a trait the reader might recognize in herself. Maybe he’s funny or maybe he’s ridiculously serious. Perhaps he shares a common view or fear. Something simple, yet so universal that the reader can’t help feeling a little tug toward his point of view. Occasionally I take one of the protagonist’s traits that I feel is kind of annoying, and have the villain mock it.
The writer has to walk a thin and frayed rope to create a villain that is relatable, yet unlikable, and it’s easy to fall off, but walking it anyway ensures you don’t go to the stereotype “bad” guys who have no redeeming qualities. Not one of your characters should be one-dimensional because this lowers the emotional impact, and it lowers the reader’s esteem for the protagonist.
Remember, the stronger the antagonist, the stronger the protagonist. If you have an antagonist that is intelligent, complex and damn good at what he does, then to achieve his goals, your protagonist must be better. With a strong, believable villain, you increase the value of every character. This means you can tell a more intense and complex tale. And who doesn’t like intense and complex?