Villains Top Ten: What NOT to do.
Villains. The necessary evil of any story. Yet I find so many tropes in villainy that really, really irritate me. So I decided to do a top ten break down.
“Because he’s Evil,” is not a motivation.
I promise, it’s not. Think of the greatest evil in the history of this world. Who comes to mind? Hitler. Al Capone (for anyone familiar with mob history.) Vlad Dracul. Elizabeth Bathory. Ask any of them why they do what they do, and you won’t hear, “Because I’m evil.”
Not in any of their languages, or English. Hitler thought he was cleansing the species. Al Capone? Well…
Really, Al? Because that’s exactly what I want on my wall. Though I’m not convinced paying people to gun down other people was a public service.
As for Vlad and Liz, while no one can say for sure, Vlad seemed to be trying to keep the peace (sorta, anyway) and Liz just wanted to stay young. Using the blood of virgins. Life is not an RPG, folks, and as fun as this video is… (Those who dislike somewhat graphic cartoon violence, we are talking villains here. Don’t want to see it? Don’t click.)
Bottom line: No one does anything because they’re evil. Villains are generally selfish. Moving on.
“Because he’s Insane,” is not a motivation.
First, let me say, mental illness can cause extreme behavior. That aside, only the minority of the minority in this case cause the sort of behavior that would lead to villainous atrocity. After all, even small studies into mass killers have turned up no consistent link to mental illness.
True villains terrify us because of their sanity. Their understanding of the world around them, and how to manipulate it to their advantage. In fact, the most terrifying villain I can recall just now happens to be Hannibal Lecter (thanks to a nameless former acquaintance who convinced me to watch it at uni.) His impeccable politeness horrified me. How could anyone be such a stickler for manners, yet murder in cold blood and devour his victims? Today, we might call it sociopathy. Bottom line, he only cared about what he wished to care about.
If a villain is genuinely unbalanced mentally, because of trauma or an underlying condition, fine. Just give me a reason, because that villain now fits into 7.5% of a minority population. However, the most infamous villains (barring the Batman cast) exist in defiance of our attempts to categorize or pathologize. They want what they want, and will go to whatever lengths they feel necessary to get it. So, what do they want? That’s best explained as part of the story.
Bottom line: Mental illness is not a prerequisite for villains. However, they usually fall into the category of “There’s something wrong with you.”
“Egomaniac” and “Megalomaniac” are traits, not an identity.
Plenty of people love the look of their own reflection and the sound of their own voice. Most don’t turn into beautiful flowers or cause those who love them to fade into nothing but sound waves.
Not villains. Villains thrive on their own conceit, often to their downfall. Avengers Loki, anyone? Yes, villains are often self-obsessed and narcissistic, but please, leave the 1 dimensional rant monkey in the cartoons.
Bottom line: Yeah, your villain is likely selfish and self-absorbed. Just don’t leave that as all they are.
Stereotypes – Villain – are categories, not useful descriptors.
Yes, you have a villain. Yes, he’s probably not what we would spend a weekend at camp with. Or maybe she is, and you’re not her target. Who knows? Villain, just like dumb blond, gang banger, or hippy, doesn’t truly describe a fleshed out person. And because your villain is the main character’s reason to fail, that villain better be fleshed out.
Bottom line: Stereotype = Vague Description
Refuse to use convenient stereotypes to create your villain or antagonist.
Evil psycho. Desperate revenge seeker. Power hungry. War monger. All of these are excellent starting points. Please, don’t let your villain end there. It’s dull, overused, and leads to a myriad of cliche encounters. Add a little spice to it. Perhaps my evil, power hungry psycho is a woman who just wants her child back, wears pastels, and enjoys a daily treat of strawberry cream puffs. She blames the villain for her child’s death. Except she never had a child.
Bottom Line: Stereotypes can be a fantastic starting point. They’re not a good finish point.
Use conscience and judgement to display your villain’s deeds and the consequences of those deeds.
This one came up for two reasons. One: I’ve read some books that turned my stomach. Two: An attendee of my presentation on these ten points asked what to do if you’re a rather conservative person, and your villain is responsible for horrible things. Three points to consider here.
Who is your audience? Fiction for adults generally houses far more specific details about the villain’s actions than a children’s book, or a YA fiction book.
How’s your stomach? If you would put the book down, or shut off the movie when you found that scene in it, don’t include it in your own work.
Necessity of understanding. Aside from the other two, is this a detail your audience needs to truly understand this villain?
Bottom line: Be aware that the Villain is the bad guy, but that doesn’t mean we need to watch her dismember victims or him violate a child’s corpse.
Know your Villain as well as you know your Hero.
Seriously. What makes your villain tick? And don’t tell me it’s just the hero getting in his way. How do they take their tea? Brush teeth in the morning before or after breakfast? Brush teeth at all? What books do they read? What’s the best thing that’s happened to them? The worst?
Know all of this. Once your hero is facing off against more than just the “evil” version of themselves, then you’ve got a story.
Bottom line: Know your characters. Really know them.
Converse equally with your Villain and your Hero.
I tend to use role play and audio recording in my draft stage of the story. My initial uni schooling was in Theater, my focus Acting. This works quite well for me, and though I generally end up shaving down the dialogue during edits, it helps me find the character’s voice. This is vital for both hero and villain.
Bottom line: Have equal understanding of the good guys and bad guys in your stories.
The Villain is always the Hero of his own Story.
Seriously. This is how your villain sees themself.
Come to think of it, many would consider Tony Stark a villain. Accountable to no one. Able to destroy the planet with his intellect alone. Geez, don’t let anyone bend him to their own will. Regardless, your villain thinks they’re the hero. See the Al Capone quote above. Public service? His motto? Wish I could’ve found the quote, but he actually believe he was a benefit to society. What is your villain fighting for? Why do they see the hero as the villain in their story?
Bottom line: Find out what the villain is fighting for, and why they believe they are right.
Villain is a Character. Character is a Person.
And people are fascinating, three dimensional creatures. No person in our lives is just a foil for ourselves, so, if you want a great villain (which really helps make a great story) then that villain’s characterization needs to be thought out and on point.