Or “This is totally a love letter to writing strong, love-to-hate-and-hate-to-love villains.”
I love me some well-crafted villains. That’s not exactly news to most people. There’s a certain appeal to bad guys that heroes can’t capture, and for obvious reasons. Sure, the hero saves the day, usually by dramatically untying the dude or damsel in distress, foiling the villain’s plan, and defeating/imprisoning/killing off the bad guy in question. And yes, there’s definitely something enjoyable about writing the hero, flaws and all. My heart, however, will always have a special soft-spot for creating the villains. You may find yourself asking “Why’s that, Phil?”
Honestly? Because we’ve all got a bit of a dark side; that little monster in the back of your head, hiding right behind your conscience and whispering things you’re sure couldn’t have been your own thoughts. Villains provide the backwards version of our own moral compasses. That’s not to say all villains are purely evil, and I’ll get to that shortly, but oftentimes they are modeled after a writer’s own view of what is wrong. You won’t find any heroes tying people to railroad tracks or dangling them above shark tanks. They’re the thieves, the marauders, the evil grand viziers (or, really, just grand viziers, because that titles seems to belong exclusively to sinister folks intent on taking over the government), the terrorists, and so on and so forth.
There’s so much fun potential for depth and moral gray areas with villainous characters, though. Can they have redeeming qualities? Yes. Why not make them just a teensy bit likeable, too. Or what if there’s some sad backstory on how they became the nefarious overlord or overlady they are in your story? Writing villains, at least for me, is the creative equivalent of finding myself on a private beach with a bunch of construction equipment and endless hours to build the most epic, giant sandcastles ever. That comparison sounded so much cooler in my head. The best villains are the ones the reader will sympathize with. The ones who will make readers think “Wow, what an asshole,” but still also cause the reader to want to wrap them in a shock blanket, offer them a mug of hot chocolate, and assure that everything will be okay (just as soon as they put down the remote to their Doomsday Device). The most fun comes from finding the perfect blend of whatever brand of evil a villain should be and redeeming qualities. My ideal villain needs to be just evil enough, but have a strong enough pull on a reader’s heartstrings to leave them thinking “Oh, man, did I really just hope this nutcase succeeds over the hero?”
Now you might be saying “Phil, I think you might be a little twisted.” Maybe you’re right, convenient character helping me transition between talking points. I would argue, however, that everyone is a little twisted by other people’s standards. Everyone has at least one or two behaviors or traits that can, and probably would, make another person’s skin crawl. The fun in writing a good villain is taking a trait like that, mixing it up with other things such as a dash of charisma or a hint of homicidal tendencies, wrapping it in a bow, and then letting it run havoc all over an otherwise perfectly peaceful fictional world.
Villains stir things up. They screw with the status quo, help get heroes to the moral of the story, and, quite frankly, usually look pretty awesome in the process. This post was brought to you by me writing a particularly “holy crap, did I just think that” line for a villain in Joshua’s Nightmares. What are your favorite bits about writing bad guys? And yes, killing them off in magnificently creative ways is an option.