Does the bad guy have to be dreadful?
All stories have folks who wear white hats, and those who don black ones. The Protagonist is of course our good guy. Conflicted, yes. Up to the task at hand? Hopefully. But this question looms large in the beginning, and only gets answered via great character development. Flawed? The most interesting ones are.
But what about those villains? Do they have to be Snidely Whiplash in order to be believed? Or, more to the point, to wreak the havoc needed to propel the hero and story?
Because the antagonist in your story provides the rub, the conflict, so that your hero has to overcome something important to save the day.
And the best bad guys needle something within your hero, so that the inner and outer conflicts mirror and feed one another.
Every interaction with the villain brings out a bit more that the main character has to overcome—both in the plot of the story, and within herself as well. Every encounter also sends the plot in a different direction, leaving more questions than answers.
A pretty tall order, no? But that just speaks to the fact that you’ll spend as much time with character building of your bad guy, as you do your hero.
Which means as well that your villain better have pretty sharp fangs, metaphorically speaking. Or in reality if he’s a vampire.
Now, that doesn’t mean he has to be Hannibal Lecter. Although doesn’t he just present a great character to aspire to write?
The thing about old Hannibal was, however, that while he loved to eat people’s livers, he was also fascinating and beguiling and multi-layered. Weren’t you drawn into his web as well, at least a little? Otherwise it wouldn’t have been nearly so scary!
But here’s the true secret to writing the most compelling villains:
The bad guy can’t be all bad.
But he’s despicable, you say! He doesn’t have a decent bone in his body! He’s out for blood!
Or a billion other clichés.
That’s all fine and good. We want him to be really awful. So much of the plot revolves around him turning the screws on the good guy, the community at large, even the world.
But nobody on the planet is all bad, and if they were, they wouldn’t be very interesting.
Even Lucifer became the devil because (allegedly) he loved God so much he wanted to be the top angel.
Boy, can’t you think of a ton of mileage you can get from that? If not, have a session with your fiction editor and she can give you a host of examples and roads to go down J
As just one case, love being the cause of evil is ripe with potential for any writer.
Because no one is all bad, or all good. As Elisabeth Kubler Ross said, “There is a Hitler in all of us.”
So yep, there’s a divine spark in even the worst of folks. You, as the writer, just have to find it.
One of the big issues I work with my authors on is fleshing out the villain, or villains. We work backward, finding those gems from childhood/adolescence/early adulthood that “turned him bad.”
Often the desperado is a bit hazier, a bit more like everyone else who just makes a really bad decision, an anti-hero like Jake Spoon in Lonesome Dove. Hurts your heart to see him fall. Of course, the real thug in the story was Blue Duck, arguably the nastiest piece of horror who ever lived.
Sometimes the villain is even a mindset (say, for an alcoholic), or a community mob-mentality. As Ibsen said, in An Enemy of the People: “The most dangerous enemy of the truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority.”
The point is to go deeper into him. It could be that he was abused as a child, when all he wanted to do was fly paper airplanes. But if you go back far enough, you can find that childlike innocence. Even in kids who tortured cats along the way.
Funny thing too—the paradox is, once you find the good things, you can play on those to make the villain all the more heinous. Because bad is often good turned on its head, no?
Even the most vicious attack dog was once a sweet mewling puppy.
So, does your villain have to be really bad?
Yep. And you have the skills to make him so. Or, talk to your book editor about ideas!
How do you bring out the worst in your antagonist?