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...
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 focused—perhaps 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?