Let’s talk about villains. I’m not talking about the Empire. I’m talking about Darth Vader. Because the Empire wasn’t the real bad guy in Star Wars. They were just window dressing for the real thing. Vader. A very bad man with a seed of good in him. A conflict we can all relate to. The problem is, your villain isn’t Vader. Half the time, your “villain” is the Empire. And that doesn’t work. We need one. One that represents the Empire and all the evil it stands for. Or you have the opposite problem. The Dark Lord quandary. You have one singular villain. But they’re EVIL. That’s it. EVIL in all capital letters.
I’m here to say neither of those work, and I’ve had both problems with my current work in progress, which led to nothing but severe writer’s block and lots of wasted word counts. Here’s why. No one is EVIL for evil’s sake. Most people believe they are doing the right thing. Now it may just be the right thing for themselves at that moment, but they believe it is the right thing. People are the hero of their own story. After all, you’re the hero of your own story.
Characters are the same way. Every single one of them, even the villains, has a story, a secret one, in which they are the HERO. They are doing all the good. They are the amazing, the awesome, the best. Unfortunately, too many of us, and I did too, fall into the trap of ignoring our villains because they’re just the bad guy. Yes, they ARE the bad guy. But they’re not JUST the bad guy. They are your hero’s mirror, the dark mirror. When Luke faced Vader in the cave during training and found himself staring back from behind the mask, that is the ultimate purpose of the villain in fiction. To hold up a mirror to the hero’s flaws and, as cliche as it sounds, say (ideally without actually saying) we’re not so different, you and me.
The villain is there to force the hero to change in such a way that he or she leaves the story transformed, better than at the start. Evil for evil’s sake does not do that. It simply gives your hero something to push back against until they break. Now, that’s not to say every villain has to have a redemption story. Vader did. My cultist does not. What she does have is a compelling backstory that makes me sympathize with her even while I destroy her life. The audience won’t know everything about that backstory, but I will, and I will use those details to write her as convincingly and consistently as possible. That is where real conflict and drama come in. Also, don’t forget to write everything down. Keep character bibles for your characters, even and especially your villain. It will help when you’re 200 pages in and you’re trying to figure out what comes next.