First, let me assure you that you cannot get away with having no Villain in a story.
Types of Villains will determine your type of plot. There are in essence three main types of plot, according to my High School English teacher: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself.
In all three types, there IS actually a Villain; in Man vs. Nature and Himself, the Villain is either his own inability or other weakness, or the world around him, such as a blizzard or a mountain that won’t let him climb it. But these are still Villains... of a type. They work best if you give his alter-ego or the mountain a kind of personality, and humanize them somewhat so the reader can identify with them.
In practicality, the only one that really works well in most cases is Man vs. Man, because very few people really want to read about a guy surviving in the rocky mountains... book, after book, after book, after book. That might be nice for one unusual story now and then, but it really isn’t practical for most plots. (Even the movie ‘Fight Club’ was rally Man vs. Man, although of course the twist in the end was that it was REALLY a Man vs. Himself plot. But having two very different actors playing the two halves of one human doesn’t REALLY count in all practicality as a Man vs. Himself.)
Frankly, you need a good bad-guy before you can even think of having a good plot. That is why the Villain is listed before the Plot in the lessons list. A Villain is, in fact, the backbone of your entire story. You must be so familiar with him (or her, but we will stick with ‘him’ for sake of clarity), his way of thinking, what is in his underwear drawer, and what he likes to do with his Saturday nights that you should start thinking of your Villain as one of your alternate personalities. You should answer to the name of your Villain, not your Hero, when someone shouts the name across a park.
You may in fact fall in love with your Villain so much that in later books you will completely switch the story around and end up with your Villain converting, having a change of heart, or in some other way coming in line with the good-guys, and end up making HIM into the Hero! These of course are really fun books.
How is this possible? How can you make a Villain that you can become attached to? It has to do with understanding evil. If you do not understand evil, you will not be able to make a good Villain.
There are two kinds of Villain. There is the backward good-guy, and then there is the pure evil bastard. Both can be used together, although the pure evil bastard will be the one the Reader truly hates and loves to see completely destroyed.
First, understand that nobody ever (or almost never) sets out to BE EVIL. Stamp that law into stone and remember it. Nobody starts out to be evil. They end up evil, because the precepts they choose to believe are wrong. That is all.
And it’s pretty easy to choose to believe a wrong precept. For example, in Galileo’s day, the major scientists of the time all chose to believe that the sun revolved around the earth, because in their mind this gave glory to God. Their intentions were good, and their zealousness for their beliefs was admirable. They respected God and their church, and they wanted to uphold what they felt was right.
After all, Galileo’s ideas were just theory, and a lot of people during that time were coming up with lots of crazy theories! Plus, they felt that Galileo’s theory seemed to slander God, and show disrespect to the Creator. What ended up happening was Galileo was put under house-arrest and boycotted by the leading scientists most of his life. Those zealous, fervent, loyal, and very wrong scientists could easily become Villains in a story about Galileo. But were the scientists evil? Not really. They were just wrong.
What drives me up the wall these days is reading stories where the Villain is just a meanie-head. He has no reasons for doing anything he does. He is just basically a big compilation of an inexperienced author’s prejudices about what Evil is. And of course, he comes off as a cardboard kid’s TV show baddie with no depth and no believability. It is because of lame villains that most people put a book down for good.
Keep this in mind. Especially when dealing with the backward good-guy Villain: something is only evil if it is in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can’t leave out the TIME element, because a thing by itself is never evil. What I mean is this: you can’t make a character a Villain just because he owns a gun, or gathers a huge army. Because sometimes, in the real world, a gun or a huge army is both necessary and good, if used at the right TIME.
If the only thing that makes him Evil is because he did something stereotypically “evil,” you don’t have a Villain. You have a ridiculous caricature, something we would expect to see on bad Saturday Morning cartoon instead of in a book. But remember, the best bad-guys in the cartoons had reasons why, and goals... even Gargamel wanted the Smurfs for logical reasons... he needed them to make potions. And in the best cartoons, the good guys and the bad guys traded places... who was the bad guy really? The roadrunner, or the coyote? (Frankly, I found the roadrunner annoying.)
For most backward-good-guy Villains, all you need is a person in a position where his big weakness is effecting other people on a large scale. This person is not worse than anyone else; it’s just because their position of authority amplifies their power, their weakness which would be small if they were a nobody becomes a BIG problem. Their weakness could be simple selfishness... or cowardice, short-sightedness, even too much of a good thing. This is how Captain Blye lost his ship! He was not an evil man... he was TOO disciplined. He was completely inflexible and everywhere he went had to be England; he was too strict. He was also afraid that if something wasn’t just right, he would lose control somehow. So he freaked out over a coat being buttoned just right, but he did not freak out when his men ran out of water and began to dehydrate to dangerous levels.
However, if you read the historical accounts, once he was kicked off of his ship and cast overboard in a tiny little row-boat, he became a hero to the few officers in that dinghy with him. His stubborn, tyrranical strength of character and obsessive discipline were now his greatest strength instead of his flaw: it was what they desperately needed to keep them alive all the way to Java. The officers in the row-boat thought of Blye as a hero. Without him, they would have died.
Is this the same Captain Blye that had his crew (and later his provence when he was a Governor of Java) mutiny? Yes. What is a weakness and makes a character a Villain in one situation may be his strength in another.
A proper Backward-Good-Guy Villain sees himself as the good guy. His position is right, and he has a list of reasons why, usually backed up by centuries of tradition and culture. (Remember, culture is created over centuries of solving problems, so once upon a time, every tradition was the right thing to do. It may simply be outdated now.) His goals are simply at odds with the Hero’s goals, and thus they are enemies and rivals.
If you can define how your Villain is a good guy, then you have a proper Backward-Good-Guy Villain, which is the most flexible and useful type of Villain to use in stories. You should be able to get inside the mind of a good Villain and see how and why he thinks. See things from his point of view. You must be able to understand perfectly when the Villain gets self-righteous and yells at the Hero about how he is right. Your readers can sympathize with him, and feel his pain. If you really did this part right, when the Hero wins, your readers should feel slightly guilty.
Make your Villain have just as many good points as weak points. If he is selfish, he may also be very likable and have a really great sense of humor. If he is too strict, he might also be very patient and even-tempered. He might be sick and twisted at work, but he may be a wonderful, warm, and loving father and family man! (Many Nazis were!) He could be such a great speaker, that even the good guys want to join his vision after listening to him. He could be a philanthropist, giving a percentage of his evil earnings to charities and orphanages. He might be a war-hero from wherever he’s from! Your Villain could, in fact, be the handsome good-guy looking one who is the best swordsman who ever lived, and your Hero might be the weird-looking guy with black fingernails. (Shrek was popular for a reason, after all; people like to see stereotypes broken). Mix it up. Nothing in real life is usually as it seems, carry this same fact over into your writing.
If your Villain has minions, why are they loyal to him? If he is mean to them all the time, they won’t be loyal; they will abandon him entirely! I don’t care how super-powered he is, Mankind will find some way to get away from a bad boss. That is one of the first laws of Humanity.
Avoid the cliché of the Bad Guy who kills or abuses his minions whenever he has a temper-tantrum. A person who is able to gather together hundreds of people and somehow make them stick around is probably 1) organized, 2) fair, 3) pays his workers, 4) charismatic, likable or has leadership ability, and 5) probably looks out for the best interests of his minions. Just because he is a Nazi doesn’t mean he is a bad manager. After all, Nazis get great health benefits packages and retirement plans!
If he is a disorganized, unlikable, immature, petty, whiny leader, it is probably because he was put in charge artificially by some large organizational structure like a Military. In this case, the Villain may be the boss in a position of legal authority and the Hero might be someone stuck underneath this guy, who is forced to become a criminal and break the law in order to escape or stop him from his tyranny. (Make sure the Hero has lots of angst about breaking the law and doing bad-guy style things just to do what has to be done.) But even so, we can understand and sympathize with this Villain. Maybe he doesn’t want to be there any more than his underlings want him to be there. Maybe he is insecure about his ability to lead, constantly dreading confrontation, and therefore acting out inappropriately to try to appear as ‘strong.’ We should get inside your Villain’s head.
Having lots of minions always give your Villain yet another good non-wacky reason to be doing what he is doing. The more people who believe in his vision, the more he thinks he is right. He will use the sheer number of his loyal minions as proof that he is Right.
The second type of Villain is much, much simpler and more terrifying than the backward-good-guy Villain. The Pure Evil Villain is the one your readers will truly despise, and hated with a rabid insane bloodthirsty rage… if you do him right.
Pure Evil is a whole different ball of wax than the backward-good-guy. Both types of Villain work according to the same rules, however: both of them have reasons why they do everything. Both of them have a totally logical world-view, that makes sense from inside the bizarre and sideways universe of their own mind. Both kinds of Villain believe that their actions are the only sane, reasonable, or even possible option available. Usually, Villains believe they are backed into a corner and there is no other option at all.
Tip: if a character believes there are no choices except one, they are probably a bad guy. Good by its very nature (which is in essence creativity) always presents multiple choices, but a classic characteristic of evil is to force a person to act out of a false belief that there is only one option.
The essence of the pure evil Villain is hunger. Here is how he developed: long ago, he was in pain and desperate, needing something horribly. No matter where he turned, no matter how he begged or cried, no one and nothing could or would help him.
The pain of the need eventually drove him to the hard decision within his own heart that he would do anything to feed the hunger. Once he made that decision, he essentially set himself up as his own god; a god is anything that will fulfill all of a person’s needs, usually by giving it sacrifices. Once he determined that HE would feed HIS OWN need until it was full, he set himself on a path of conquest.
Of course, the more he sacrifices to fill the need, the more it demands. At this point, the Villain has become a spiritual cancer, or a virus; he is unable to stop consuming everything around him in order to fill his need, and logic doesn’t make a dent in this guy. He has already sacrificed reason and logic to the Need, those are the first things to go.
The Need of course remains. Something is still eating this guy, and will continue to do so for as long as he feeds the Need. The only way out of the trap is for this person to somehow come to the blinding epiphany that he will never be able to satisfy his hunger, and seek outside help. But the very last thing in a pure evil Villain to die is pride; he is stubborn, determined, resourceful, smart, and absolutely decided that he will fix this himself. He will accept no help, he will listen to no voice, he will not have pity or mercy until he has stopped the pain within.
It is difficult to describe this process of starvation, this terrible decision to eat at all costs, to a person who has never known true and consuming need. There is a point in pain which is a boundary; once that line is crossed, sanity is gone. When a man grows hungry enough, he will do anything. He becomes a wolf, not a man; his eyes become dark wells of violence. He will not sleep, he will not eat, he enjoys no pleasure at all, except to fill the Need.
It is extremely creepy in real life to meet this kind of person. They may act on the outside reasonably human; they still have all of their little habits, like getting dressed and swaggering around and carrying on the rudiments of his personality. But all of these trappings are a hollow shell on the outside of an angry, snarling vacuum.
The real ‘person’ within is more of an elemental force than a man, the Need itself incarnate, a hunger become flesh. And that demon-man within peeks out all the time, peering out through eyes that have become pitch blackness, no matter what color they really are. They are not eyes; they are just holes, holes in a face of any expression. The expression of the face determines the style of the Villain: sly, crafty, sucking holes above a deranged smirk, stabbing, wild, crazy holes above a grimace of terror, bright, painfully energetic holes above a maniacal grin. But they are all holes.
We as humans are not built to deal with a predator in our midst; a person which has scarified his own sanity and humanity to feed a hunger has become a cannibal, and we can no longer truly see him as human.
Insanity is a simple mechanism: it is choosing to feed the desire above anything else. To pacify the demand, whatever the demand is, with absolutely no regard as to the cost. It is complete devotion to the service of self-satisfaction, identical to the devoted, fervent worship of a god. The insane will adjust his beliefs, from what his own eyes see to what he knows to be true, he will sacrifice everything… from family, relationships, friendships, the evidence of his eyes, the witness of his own heart, everything, just to feel a moment of peace as the desire is momentarily fed.
When this kind of a Villain is realistically created, the writer has become a true master. It’s tricky to make it real, and usually relies on the writer having actual personal experience with this kind of creepy man-predator.
This kind of Villain is very versatile. He can be a devoted Lieutenant to the backward-good-guy Villain who believes he has no choice but to use this freak; or he can be the Boss himself, in which case he is soft-spoken and relatively civil to all of his followers, who in turn are terrified of him and revile him with every fiber of their being; or, he is freakish to everyone, but he does control all of his followers through some need of their own, some kind of spiritual or real blackmail. The last type will struggle constantly to maintain a balance between seeming human, and filling the Need. He is a tormented Villain, half-demon, half-man.
If he is being used by a bigger Boss, that Boss will make sure to grow his Need, and at the same time promise that only the Boss can allow the Villain to fulfill that Need. In that way, the P.E.Villain is reliant on the Boss Villain and remains as content at his side as a well-fed Persian cat with the scruples of a man-eating tiger.
I have met a variety of Pure Evil Villains, each one unique and different in his way, like each snowflake is different from another. All of them shared the same blackness of the eyes, the same disregard for sanity, the same parody of humanity. They kept the little rules, they even demanded on these little social rules being kept, but they themselves cared little or nothing for the rules. The rules, to them, were merely a sorting mechanism. Anyone who broke the rules became food to feed the Hunger.
Remember, even a Pure Evil Villain can have ‘good points.’ These are the remnants of his humanity that do not interfere in feeding the Need. A few customs or affectations remain intact, left over from his days as a real feeling human being. To satisfy some vestige of guilt or feeling that he should conform to human society, he might even work on these ‘good points’ and polish them, take pride in them and showcase them. Perhaps he is generous and gives his followers little gifts. Perhaps he is understanding, and encourages them to indulge their needs as well. Perhaps he plays music, or paints, dresses exquisitely, or is extremely learned and intelligent. He will usually keep some little pet mannerism around, wearing it like a big flashy cloak, to make himself feel as if he is successfully blending in with the sheep.
But in truth, the only way to save everyone within this Villain’s reach from being destroyed is to destroy the Villain himself. Anyone he can touch will eventually be fed to the Need.
Once you have a realistic Villain with good points, weaknesses, understandable motives, history and depth, you can find your story plot.
The plot is simply explaining through storytelling why the Villain is carrying out his vision/goal, and how it is effecting the world in a negative way. His vision will be effecting the world in a negative way because his ideas, although logical sounding TO HIM (or in the case of the Pure Evil Villain, his ideals work for him despite logic), don’t work in the real world… that, and that alone, is why he is the Villain.
For the backward-good-guy, take a tip from Jean-Jacques Rousseau who said, “Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to combat with ourselves.” This is the perfect bad-guy mindset.
For whatever reason (maybe tradition, or just bad judgment), the bad-guy has decided that up is down, and down is up, and called this rule a Virtue. Therefore to live according to these crazy rules/Virtues, which don’t fit reality and are nearly impossible to follow, the Villain has to be constantly fighting himself. This makes him really fanatical about fighting with everyone else who seems to be failing the Virtue also, because by encouraging them to live according to the Virtue (even if that encouragement is violent), he is really rallying himself to do the same.
For the pure evil Villain, this struggle long ago ended; he no longer struggles with himself, but has given himself over to the pure fanatical devotion to the Virtue (feeding the Need) without any guilt, concern, or thought of consequence. He is a true believer.
So the Villain’s negative influence on the world (or work environment) must be corrected, even if that means taking down the Villain to do it. This is especially true of the Pure Evil Villain, who must be destroyed simply because he is a cancer; his Need can never be quenched, and he will continue to consume and destroy endlessly.
This campaign to stop the Villain’s destructive influence should take several steps: usually people don’t try to just kill someone else outright. First, they will try to talk sense into the Villain. This will turn into a series of escalating and possibly very dramatic confrontations and arguments with the B.G.G Villain, but will have absolutely no effect on the P.E. Villain except to give the good guy the creeps.
Then, the good guy will possibly gather together other people and take the Villain to court or try to stop him through some legitimate means, and remember, every culture in the universe has always had some kind of court system. However, usually a good Villain has hedged his bets, and has protected his villainy/need from every legal and legitimate angle, so the good guys will be stopped in their tracks.
If the Villain wins in court and has the aristocracy or men of power on his side, then it comes down to the people themselves: every corrupt aristocracy has been taken down by a group of angry peasants. That may be the climax of your story right there.
The Hero is usually from the group negatively effected by the consequences of the Villain’s actions. Usually the Villain either doesn’t know about this disgruntled group, doesn’t feel they are a large enough group to prove that he is doing something bad, or they are simply the sacrificial percentage of the population that have to be lost for the greater (or his own) good. The Hero, then, should work on gathering some kind of proof that the Villain’s ideas don’t actually work in reality; remember, in most cultures throughout all of history, you can’t just walk up to someone and hack their head off, and expect to get away with it. Your Hero might have to win his great battle in a court of law.
The Hero should be a realist. He knows how things work in the REAL world, and he knows why the Villain’s good-sounding but actually bad ideas don’t work. For example, the crew of Captain Bly’s ship knew that humans are more valuable than trees. It was more important for the crew to drink water than for a bunch of breadfruit trees to use up all the water! However, in Captain Bly’s universe, the crew were expendable; the trees were his vital mission and they had to be protected at all costs, including the lives of his men.
You could end up with the Heros not only stopping the Villain, but being forced to finish the Villain’s quest; because it is a necessary thing, but he is just going about doing it all wrong. For example, Blye’s ship. He needed to get the ship home, but he was Captaining all wrong. So someone else had to kick him off, and take over as the new Captain. Someone had to be Captain.
Here is another big tip: be the Villain, and play to win. PLEASE don’t cheat to let your Heroes win, that destroys all of your credibility as an author right there. Don’t assume your readers are stupid! Assume they are as smart, or smarter, than yourself. If your Villain has a resource that can stop the Heroes (and he should be spending most of his time getting his hands on resources that can stop the Heroes), use it! Don’t be tempted to make your Villain suddenly have a stupid moment so that your Heroes can survive. Nothing ruins a book faster than author-cheating. Be the Villain, play the chess board from BOTH sides. Then if your Heroes win, they won fair and square and the victory feels real and satisfying.
If you have a brilliant evil mastermind as your Villain, then by God, make him act brilliantly! Don’t call him brilliant, and then make him do really stupid things in reaction to the Hero. Do NOT dumb-down your Villain, make him act confused, or get panicky and afraid half the time. Make him do something brilliant and clever! If he is brilliant, show off! Give your Villain ALL of the brilliant, amazing, clever plot twists! That way, the Hero’s victory will seem truly amazing.
Don’t make a Villain that is purely reactionary. He should be proactive. Anyone who is able to gather a large group of minions, or develop a large-scale Evil Plot, is going to be together, self-motivated, upwardly mobile, determined, somewhat successful, and able to act on his own. He should be a step ahead of the Heroes most of the time, because it is the Villain, not the Hero, who LEADS the plot. Always remember: the Hero follows where the Villain leads.
He will be working to not only bring about his Evil Plan (which the B.G.G. Villain thinks is a Good Plan, and which the P.E. Villain thinks is a ‘good’ plan because it feeds his Hunger), but he will also be working to make his life—and possibly the lives of many others around him—more comfortable in a variety of ways. Always have your Villain doing something, going, working toward a goal. He should be a go-getter, an entrepreneur, the kind of guy who would make a really great Hero (or Saint) if his ideas weren’t all backward. In short, a good Villain is a Hero gone wrong.
Here is one last really obvious but often-overlooked tip: make sure your Hero is able to somehow continue to thwart your Villain! Don’t take away all of the Hero’s leverage by simple bad planning. This is why it’s usually necessary to work out the entire plot in advance, so you can make sure that the Hero is always one step behind the Villain in the race to the finish, and right at the finish line, beats him. But that’s Plotting, and we’ll get to that in the Plot article.
Remember, although you will be tempted to spend all your time with your wonderful Hero and his wonderful Hero-land (which is usually, in all honesty, a playing out of your personal daydreams), you actually have to spend more time with evil and the Villain while you are planning and developing the plot for your story. Don’t avoid spending time with evil just because you want to live in perfect Hero-land. If you do, you will end up with a cartoonish ego-trip, not a good story.
Sure, it’s nice to daydream, and the dreaming is a very necessary step before writing. Spend time with your Hero by writing pre-stories, practice pieces developed merely to hang out with the parts of the story you enjoy most. But when it comes time to write the final draft, you will spend most of your time in your Villain’s head.