The Strengths of Villainy – Making Fictional Villains Come Alive

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Karyn Connor

Senior Editor @ GoneWithTheWord

Villains are some of the most fascinating characters to write. At least, when they’re done right. The two-dimensional villain who runs around the book doing bad things for bad reasons because he’s just plain bad…well, that’s not only boring, but also becomes predictable. 

The best villains are those characters who—deep down—believe that they are the heroes of the story. There’s that old adage that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Same concept should apply to all great fiction villains.

Here are the musts for villains who will stand out and remain in the heads (and hearts) of the reader:

  • Make him sympathetic. The reader needs to know enough about what made this person evil in the context of the book. Show us enough of his backstory to inspire some sympathy.
  • Make him real. This means that he has to be more than just bad, and mean more in the grand scheme of things within the fictional world than just a bad guy doing bad things. For example, check out the summation of the villain in Joshilyn Jackson’s novel gods In Alabama

“I couldn’t but help but be glad the rapist was dead. I had a secret, fierce joy that I’d erased him from the earth, and I felt the earth was better with one less rapist on it. But I had also killed someone’s son. His father’s picture in the paper, worried and earnest, haunted me. I had killed the boy who’d fought for Rose Mae Lolley, and at school she wafted through the halls, tiny and lost with black circles under her luminous eyes. The rapist and the boy who gave me his jacket to cover the blood on my pants and made me laugh my way out of shame were the same boy.” (gods in Alabama, Joshilyn Jackson)

  • Make him somewhat sympatico with the hero. At some point, the hero has a revelation that he could have been the villain if their histories had been reversed. There is nothing scarier than a villain you are starting to understand and who—deep down—you fear you could have become.

 The best villains stand out. Phantom from Phantom of the Opera stole not only the show, but also the title. And which reader of Sherlock Holmes isn’t familiar with Professor James Moriarty? What about Silence of the Lambs? Who do you recall more vividly? The villain, Dr. Hannibal Lecter? Or the heroine, FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling? (Admittedly, I had to look up her name because I couldn’t remember it!)

Whether your villain is the unredeemable psychopath or the misguided antagonist, it’s important that there is more to them than just evil for evil’s sake. What’s the best part of writing a villain with some redemptive qualities? He can be flipped to become the hero of your next book! 

#BeBold, by Karyn Connor is available noweBook and Paperback

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