A couple days ago, I wrote a post about Raising Stakes in your story. I’d like to talk a little more specifically about the way this affects your characterization and relationships between characters, in particular today we will talk about villains.
Earlier on in my writing, I didn’t think specifically about this. I would sometimes discover that a character ought to be at odds with my protagonist as I was writing. But there is complex tension just waiting for you to unlock within your inter-character relationships.
Probably your story will have a main antagonist. And there will be lots of tension there, of course. Your MC wants something, and your villain wants something at odds with it.
But if you let it stay at this level, that is pretty generic, and honestly not all that compelling. A stock villain may wreak some havoc on humanity, and may leave some bodies in his or her wake, but it doesn’t demand to be read. The world is replete with bad guys who are just bad because they are bad.
What makes an interesting villain is what compels them to do what they do. Why does your villain want to take over the world? Why do they hate your MC with such a bitter hatred? Why do they do the things they do?
Craft Complex Baddies
Why do people find themselves rooting for Hannibal Lecter? Why do we want Darth Vader to be redeemed by the end? Why do we feel sympathy for Draco Malfoy?
Because these authors crafted complex villains.
Hannibal is a psycho who is locked up for cannibalism in Silence of the Lambs. But he is not just a stock cannibal. He is complex. He forms a bond with Clarice and is helping her capture another killer, and strangely wants to know about her. Early on, he tells her all he wants is a cell with a window to see the world outside again. He becomes real and sympathetic. If he was just a cold-blooded killer, the story would be less interesting. Probably it wouldn’t have been such a hit. It is the very fact that we are not sure how to feel about him that makes the story so interesting.
Villain’s Personal Stakes
In the Half-Blood Prince, as Malfoy is confronting Dumbledore, we find out something startling. He says, “I’ve got to kill you, or else he (Voldemort) will kill me.” Malfoy has been a pretty hateful person throughout the books, but suddenly, we feel sorry for him. He is just a little boy, compelled to kill out of terrible fear.
What is at stake for your villain?
For Draco, if he does not kill, then he will be killed. Those are pretty big stakes. Stakes don’t have to resort to death for them to be compelling though. If you are writing a high school drama, and your villain is a Mean-Girl-type, then perhaps it is a terrible insecurity that makes her this way. If she is willing to get the leading role in the play at all costs, perhaps she is compelled by a fear of letting down her domineering mother.
Baddies doing bad stuff just because is pretty boring. Make sure your villains are as complex as any other character, maybe even moreso. Don’t settle for simplistic evil, make us unsettled about your baddies, make us sympathize with them, give them high stakes, and we won’t be able to stop turning the pages.
*Who are your favorite villains? What makes them so compelling?*