Monday, August 11, 2014

How to Make the Not-So-Evil Villain Work For Your Story

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

It was after school, and I was half-heartedly stretching for drill team practice when the girl beside me, Hannah, said, "Don't you think you're being mean to Jodi?"

I had never really talked to Hannah before, but she had recently become friends with my best friend, Jodi. And apparently my best friend had been sharing some less-than-flattering things about me.

A whole list of responses swirled around my mind, but could be summarized with, "You don't understand."

It's possible in the stories you write, the same words might just as easily come from your villain's mouth if you let them. Perhaps they feel that your main character has gotten the story wrong and that if only you would give them a moment to explain...

How to Make the Not-So-Evil Villain Work for Your Story


Who is the villain in your story? I'm not a fan of that label for a character because of the evil connotation it carries with it. I prefer to think of my villain as the antagonist. As a character who operates in a way that opposes my main character.

But can a not-so-evil villain really work in a story? Absolutely. Here are five ways to keep the tension strong even if your villain isn't plotting to take over the world:

1. The villain knows how to get to the main character.

What do I mean by "get to"? I mean that your villain should be able to access your main character in a way that makes him vulnerable. It can be either physically, as in the classic threat, "I know where you live." Or the villain can get to the main character by knowing a weak spot and how to push their proverbial buttons.

This is key because a villain is scariest when the reader knows they have the power to do something.

2. The villain has a clear goal.

Your villain should be just as focusedperhaps more focused—on their goal as your main character is on his. And, for maximum impact, they can't both win. Caroline Bingley and Elizabeth Bennett cannot both marry Mr. Darcy. Hans and Elsa cannot both rule Arendelle.

3. The villain has something in common with the main character.

Perhaps even a lot in common, like Harry Potter and Voldemort who share similar childhood stories.

4. The villain should be able to explain why they are right.

Going back to Hannah from drill team, even without her naming how I was being mean to Jodi, I knew exactly what situation she was talking about. And I could have easily told her why my actions were good choices, because I had spent plenty of time justifying to myself what I had done. In my head, it wasn't me who was acting villainous, but my best friend.

The same should be true for your villain. They've thought this through. They've rationalized. And in their thinking, if the main character would just do X, Y, and Z then everyone would be so much better off.

5. The villain shouldn't start out in the mud.

If you have a villain who isn't so evil, I think it's best if the reader gets to witness their progression. Maybe Susie McVillain is jealous and she lets a snide comment or two slip. And then maybe Susie allows something bad to happen to the main character, but she isn't really directly involved. Then maybe she's part of a group that's doing something bad to the main character, but she isn't in charge. And then...

See what I mean? Voldemort was once Tom, and your villain should have a starting place too.

What kind of villains do you have in your stories? Are they evil at their core or the type who are merely working against your main character or do you have both?



28 comments:

  1. I'm still trying to come up with an antagonist for my story (YA fiction). My main character is a high school senior, but I'm trying to avoid the whole "mean girl" thing as much as possible. I originally thought the antagonist was going to be my character's self-doubt and even a health problem, potentially, but I keep getting the impression that I need SOMEONE to oppose her. This post definitely helps, though. I feel better knowing I don't necessarily HAVE to make a "mean" character. Thanks, Stephanie!

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    1. I think it's great that you're trying to avoid a cliche like that. But, yeah, I definitely advise having someone work against her, though having self-doubt and health problems thrown in the mix would be good too.

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  2. I've always wanted to see this done in YA Fantasy or other genres like that. But see it done well, not half-heartedly. I've thought plenty of times of writing something like this, kind of where the villain ends up being right all along and he technically is the hero and the supposed hero is the villain, but I can't think of a plot to go with it.

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    1. That actually sounds like a really interesting idea, but talk about a plot twist! Lol.

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    2. Yeah, I think that would take just the right story because you want to make sure your reader doesn't feel betrayed at the end. I think it's a really cool idea though.

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  3. Heh. My villains are never 'evil'. I just don't like that sort of character...

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    1. I think it's tough to make them feel as real, honestly.

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  4. I technically hav 2 villains. One is the sultan of an different planet and the other is the president of Earth so i guess the villain would be the government then.

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    1. The villains would still be the characters, but yes, that would cause some serious distrust between characters and the government.

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  5. I love characters, antagonists especially, and it makes me upset when anyone leans too far to one side. "An antagonist can never be pure evil… it won't work." "An antagonist can never be good at heart… it won't work."
    There are a million types of characters, and that goes for "villains" too. There's not set pattern or infallible formula. Sometimes an evil villain is better. Sometimes a misunderstood or confused one is the best route. You just need to know how to write them.
    Thanks for the fabulous post, Ms. Morrill!

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, London! I agree. It really just depends on the story you're telling.

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  6. In the story I am writing, I want my villain to be evil (he's trying to take over the world), but I don't want him to be just another guy who wants to rule...

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    1. That can be a tricky balance, but that kind of villain is popular for a reason. Good luck with it, Alea!

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    2. Thank you! And good luck with all of your villains too! :)

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  7. My villain is driven by power from something that happened to him long ago. He was an experiment, but treated unfairly so over time became more aggressive. I don't think he's stereotypical, I hope not!

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    1. I like it, Kyra! He sounds like a nice departure from the trope of the protagonist being an unfairly treated experiment.

      My villain was abused, kidnapped, and failed to get the girl. Is it too much?

      Of course it is; everything in my first draft is too much. Too much backstory, too much telling, too much dialogue, too much interior monologue, too much giggling, too much snorting (you'd think I was writing about a family of pigs!), too many cliched lines... It's just awful, awful, awful. I'm trying to perceive the fact that my book is so bad as a blessing, odd as that sounds. Before I was obsessing over how high my wordcount was and worrying that I'd grown too attached to my beginning to restructure it , but now I'm salivating at the thought of cutting these horrible passages.

      But still...it is a humbling experience to reread my writing and find that my prose is poo.

      The idea isn't poo though, and my MC won't let me give up on her. (Well, as wimpy as she reads, she probably would, but in my mind she would as soon let me give up on her as renounce her vegetarian ways.)

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    2. Oh, I clicked publish before I remembered to sing the praises of waiting six weeks before the first read-through. I can't imagine how much worse I'd be feeling right now if right now was six weeks ago when I finished drafting. That was another great post, Stephanie!

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    3. Miri, I'm so proud of you for waiting! Gosh, that can be tough. But every time I do it and then go back and look at my manuscript, I'm like, "Wow, I'm glad I had some time..." Stephen King is a wise man for the suggestion.

      Kyra, I like that a lot! It reminds me a little bit of Magneto from X-Men, how he was in a concentration camp as a child. I think that added such a lovely depth to his character, and I think the same will be true for your villain.

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  8. I have both, though my favorite are honestly the ones that aren't evil to the core. For instance, in my futuristic story, the government actually has some very positive aspects (good healthcare, stellar technology, protection from enemies, etc.). However, their negative aspects, the Supernatural Projects, are working directly against my main characters. So, of course, my MCs are against them.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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    1. I love that! I think it makes it feel so much more realistic. Nice job, Alexa.

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  9. I have two villains in mind as I answer this (from two different stories).
    One is an insecure lord who nearly goes into a panic whenever he perceives a servant might be rebelling against his authority. This makes him react terribly and dramatically even when no reaction was actually necessary. If the story centered around him, the readers would see how much he stresses over "failing his forefathers" with any weakening of the social gap between himself and his servants. You might also see how indulgent (to a fault!) he is to his two little girls. But the story isn't about him -- it's written from the perspective of his servants. So he just seems to be a cruel, heartless man with no logic or reason for his villainy.
    The other is a villain whose backstory I explored for fun on my blog. I thought of him when you talked about the "progression" to villainy because that was the outline of his backstory. Once upon a time, he was a cute, shy little boy. How did he become such an evil character?
    Your post was helpful, Stephanie. Thank you!

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  10. I'm sure I'm going to keep referring to this post. This type of 'villain' often appears in my work. Most of my main characters would fall into this pattern, which means my antagonists either have to be far worse, or generally decent people. The trouble then, is to make the reader dislike them as much as the main character, or at least be able to understand why the main character is against the antagonist.
    Incidentally, one of the best examples of a not-so-evil villain is the original JM Barrie's Captain Hook, with his preoccupation with 'Good form'.

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  11. I don't know what type of villain my villain is!
    My antagonist, Jasmine, is a girl about my main character's age, who, in the world she lives in, riddled with war, developed powers (a rare blessing in my story), and used them freely. Unfortunately, she was taunted, and lived in a place that would put people to death for being so special. She had to leave, and she eventually grew kind of insane. She then ransacked villages with the powers she had been developing, and ravaged the already-ruined land. She now wanders, basically keeping people away from her by fear. What type of villain would she be? Really, she's just defending herself, and it's driven her mad, but she has become pretty evil towards people, including my protagonist. I'm a bit confused on how to develop Jasmine. Can I get some advice?

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    1. She sounds pretty interesting! Hmm, I'd say that she's an evil villain, but with a backstory that makes her relatable. Like Loki or even Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Straight evil, but they've got reasons. Maybe not the best reasons in the world, but reasons all the same.
      But that also depends on how she sees it: is Jasmine in a kill-or-be-killed mentality, thinking she has to do this to survive? If so, than she's not quite a villain. More of an antagonist. If however, she's started to enjoy that kind of thing or is doing it just because she can, then she's definitely evil.


      Alexa S. Winters
      thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  12. Right now, I'm working on a book from the villain's perspective, and this post has really helped me to focus his character. My antagonist is an overprotective lord, who freaks out when his sister runs away looking for adventure. I've had some trouble trying to come up with something that would properly motivate him to act as he does, and this post has given me some ideas.

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

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  13. I really, really want to create a villain who became one just because. I think it would be fun because most villains have common reasons why they do what they do and eventually the protagonist can pick up on it and anticipate what the villain would do next.

    I just really want to create a villain who does what they do because they were bored. No tragic childhood, no dead/scorned lover, no dead child, no envy or ethics. Just someone who was bored and just wanted to take a walk on the dark side for the fun of it.

    Is that plausible for a villain or is it better for the villain to have some sort of a "why" they do what they do like their lover was killed or they just want to inflict their ideas on everybody else or anything else of the sort?

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  14. My villain is a young 10 year old girl (yeah, I know) who has been tested on m=by the government so much that her skin in pure white, her hair is grey and her eyes are glazed icy blue.

    This has effected her so much that she decides to stop the government. But the problem is that the government is still keeping the economy running. My MC also wants to stop the government, but in a way that the economy will still run smoothly.

    Can this still be my villain, or would my villain be the government?

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