Characters drive your novel. We all know this, right? As your Protagonist traverses the many trials and tribulations of the story, mastering tasks, facing internal demons, the very plot itself changes her. Conversely, her reactions to external events turn the plotline in different directions.
It’s a yin/yang kinda thing.
But what about those secondary characters, especially the villain? Pretty much all stories have a bad guy of one sort of another. Those rare ones do of course exist that are strictly man against nature (Robert Redford’s All is Lost comes to mind). But for the vast majority of stories, we have a desperado, often in disguise.
And one issue is pervasive in the litany of manuscripts I’ve seen over twenty-some-odd years—this is the area writers want to skimp on. Oh, not from the standpoint of the bad guy being anything from a jerk to a Judas, from having made a deal with the devil whether long ago or last night. Character creation of this sort isn’t difficult. And I’ve seen some truly creative antagonists!
But if all they are is bad to the bone with some sort of twist, they’re still flat and cardboard, sort of ho-hum. When that happens, the reader doesn’t react, doesn’t get drawn in. Because said reader knows all about the awfulness of the character. And that’s it.
For a reader to really buy into the story, to be taken on a long roller-coaster ride with circles and spins and dizzying heights—and never look down—the writer has to be skillful enough to create a beast with whom readers bond.
Yep. Bond. Your readers have to care about the outlaw too. If just for a minute, for a space without the Protagonist in it.
No easy feat. But mandatory.
This is what adds depth and texture and nuance to both your bad guy, and your book. Hannibal Lecter doesn’t still terrify us because of his pure evilness, but because that is backed by an ability to get deep into the head of whomever he’s charming—and beguile them he does. To be able to do this, some shred of humanity still must exist. And along with Clarice, we found ourselves being sucked in by his lure.
So, how to create a character everyone loves to hate?
4 Simple Ways:
- You, as the author, must love your villain. Yep, love him. You cannot have a character in your book whom you hate, with no other emotion.
Haven’t you read a host of books where it’s obvious the writer didn’t like her own characters? They’re flat. Frankly, they’re uninteresting. Truthfully, you forget them.
But you won’t fall into that trap. Instead, find the core of humanity in your thug. Look at him as would a parent. We’ve had a litany of mass shootings of late. How do you think the young men’s parents feel about their sons? Put yourself in their shoes. Horrible, yes. And how quickly feelings of anger and hatred and vengeance arise within us, toward someone who took so many innocent lives. All justified. But what if you were one of their mothers?
Because in essence, when creating fictional characters, you are . . .
- Each scoundrel has his own story. All secondary characters with viewpoints have to have their own arcs of their own storylines as they enact their supporting roles in the play. That’s one thing that makes creating secondary characters of any sort so difficult. They aren’t on stage just taking up space and jumping into the plot for your convenience. They’re real people too. And when done correctly, each secondary character believes the novel is about him.
Especially the villain. That’s a big role. A lot went into making him into the monster he is today. In essence, I’m uninterested that he made a deal with the devil. I want to know why he did. Where are the holes in his psyche? What were the jagged wounds that he just didn’t have the strength to face, and which festered and remained open and bloody under the surface long before exploding into some violent act?
And while you’re searching for this, find the sweet little boy he once was . . .
- Unearth the thing that makes him unique. The core of it. Because in that uniqueness you’ll paradoxically find his humanity. Empathy lives there. Compassion does too. And when you can find even a thimbleful of empathy and compassion, you can return him to humanity. Again, if only for a wrinkle in time.
And once you do that, once you as the author care about him just a whit, your reader will too.
- Just about the best way I know to gain this effect is to write a short story about your bad guy, with no one else from this novel in it. This isn’t to be included in the book, but exists strictly for your reference.
Go back to his childhood. (Try and avoid clichés here!) Or adolescence. Find out who he used to be before succumbing to monster-hood. Find his strengths and weaknesses. Witness what stabbed him so deeply that he never recovered. Or perhaps never had anyone to help him recover.
This is deeper than just his first girlfriend dumped him. Everybody gets dumped. Find the original wound at the core of him that caused him to turn violent instead of introspective when she left him.
Once you start really getting to know your bad guy, to care about him, rest assured—your reader will too.
And that causes the oddest thing to happen—the villain’s evil deeds actually become more heinous. Because you know his humanity is there, buried way deep and under all the crap, but exists none-the-less. And he murdered the baby anyway.
The point is that in the end when the villain dies (in whatever form), you want to evoke both elation and a tinge of sorrow in your reader. We are all in this boat together, and there by the grace of God go I . . . .
Because conversely, as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said, “There’s a little bit of Hitler in all of us.”