Writing the perfect villain
What makes a perfect villain?
It’s not the mustache twirling, top hat wearing trope of yesteryear. A solid villain is a character that the reader can relate too. Any mustache twirling is subtle.
In the classic style of stories where the action consists of a hero fighting a villain/enemy, the two may be regarded as protagonist and antagonist, respectively. However, the villain of the story is not always the same as the antagonist, as some narratives cast the villain in the protagonist role, with the opposing hero as the antagonist.
An antagonist also may represent a threat or obstacle to the main character by its existence and not necessarily targeting him or her in a deliberate manner. — Wikipedia
In other words, every story doesn’t need a villain, but it does require an antagonist.
It would be easy to label Brain (of Pinky and the Brain fame) as a villain. He wants to take over the world and can never get past the obstacles presented him without doing significant harm to himself.
If you were to ask Brain if he was a villain, he would say no. His sole purpose in life is to organize the world in a way that made sense to him. And, he is willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Brain’s roadblock to success is Pinky, the bumbling, big hearted friend of Brain. All Pinky wants to do is make his friend happy, if that means taking over the world? So be it. At best, Brain is an antagonist.
With all the machinations and shenanigans happening, Brain really isn’t a villain. He’s just an entertaining character who is thwarted at every turn, who is an antagonist.
A memorable villain will have the following qualities:
- Conviction – They believe that their point of view is the only valid POV around. Their way or the highway (and that highway is built on the bones of those who don’t see the vision).
- An Agenda– Everything an antagonist does has a direction that makes perfect sense to the character. While the protagonist may not recognize the manipulation of events until it is too late, the villain always knows.
- Connection – A memorable antagonist has an element that the reader can relate to. Whether it be background, grievances, disability, or family, there has to be something that strikes a chord in the reader.
- A Defined Target – A villain’s target is not the same as an agenda. A target can be physical or metaphysical. Anger at God provides a focus for the agenda. Destroying the bully on the playground when you are an adult becomes the impetus for a plan. The target could be long gone, but it has impacted the antagonist in such a way that it is the motivation for the rest of their actions.
- Flawed – No character is with out flaws. Everyone has them, that’s what makes the antagonist or protagonist have depth as a character. If you read mythology, every major or minor member of the various pantheons have their issues – jealousy, commitment, dismorphia, megalomania, family, recognition, and more.
The only thing that separates a hero from a villain is the perception of behavior and actions. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason and vice versa are what makes characters interesting. Based on behaviors and actions, a hero can become a villain in the blink of an eye.
If you’re going to write a villain, make him/her/it memorable and form that connection with the reader. Writing a half-baked villain will only get in the way of your storytelling.