Almost every book that I’ve ever read has had a protagonist and an antagonist. Sometimes they are the same person–like a person who creates the tornado that is destroying their life (see: The Catcher in the Rye), but often there is a very clearly defined hero and a very clearly defined villain. Tropes abound in the hero/villain world of fiction writing. Bullies, crooked politicians, evil sorcerers or witches, a demon, an adult who just doesn’t get the teenage main character. There’s a lot to choose from if a writer goes trope-y with their villain.
There’s also the choice between going realistic or camp with a villain when one writes a story. We’ve all seen the man in the black suit and top hat, twirling his moustache between his fingers as he ties a woman in white to the railroad tracks.
Campy villains can be a lot of fun. Over the top, evil for the sake of being evil, and deliciously fun, they can really make a story pop if they’re done well. One of my favorite campy villains is Ursula from The Little Mermaid. The fact that Ursula was inspired by the drag queen Divine probably explains the campiness. She’s sassy, voluptuous, witty, and deliciously evil. She can belt out a tune, too!
Bestill my little gay, fluttering heart.
However, campy villains don’t work for most realistic fiction. They should be reserved for fantasy, sci-fi, and horror novels. Usually. Nothing I ever say is 100% across the board accurate…
Regardless, when creating a realistic villain for realistic fiction, the first thing an author needs to do is figure out one thing.
What is the villain’s motivation?
I’ve said it before–and it’s not an original thought–but no villain sees themselves as the villain. They think that what they are doing is the right thing and the hero is the actual villain. Again, this is for realistic fiction. For a campy villain, well, they probably know they are evil and just don’t give a fig. They’re in it for the evil, so they don’t care what people think of them.
Realistic villains, however, think they are trying to do what is right–according to how they see the world through their own lens–and the hero should be stopped at all costs.
So…why does the villain think the way that they do? Are they a racist villain? What made them racist? Are they homophobic? What made them think LGBTQ+ people are bad? Do they want to stage a political coup? What about the current government makes them think they can do better? Are they a thief trying to steal their way to a better life? Why are they poor? Do they hate rich people for some reason? What happened in their past to make them hold their current views?
A realistic villain needs as much backstory as a hero.
Even if a villain’s complete backstory isn’t detailed in the text of the story, the author needs to know why the villain is the way they are and why they make the choices they make. A villain just running amok causing chaos and destruction can be fun…but they’re not as interesting.
To create a realistic villain, I often think about people in my life that I have had difficulties with in my personal and professional lives. Why did they do the thing I felt wronged me? Why do they feel they can treat other people they way that they treat them? Can I take why I feel like the hero and see it from the “villain’s” perspective–ya’ know, put that thing down, flip it and reverse it?
The first villain that comes to mind that I can understand is the alien from, well, Alien. Astronauts on a tug ship encroach on her territory, the alien needs to survive and reproduce–it’s the alien’s instinct. It’s a top of the food chain type of situation. The alien isn’t a villain if you’re a similar creature. If you’re a human, she’s a hot damn acid spewing mess that needs to be destroyed. Kill or be killed is how the alien lives–something a human doesn’t understand…yet another alien would.
Or how about that dickhead hunter who kills Bambi‘s mom? He’s just out trying to get some deer meat for winter. In his mind, he’s surviving and doing what he’s been taught to do growing up. However, to the rest of us that see the devastation that one bullet causes–we feel he should be set on fire and put out with a shovel, right?
Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life? He’s been blinded by his eternal search for more and more riches. He doesn’t see how wrong it is to amass more and more wealth even as those around him fall further and further into poverty. He’s just trying to “win at life.” He may even see the poor people around him and fear that he will experience the same fate, so he continues to amass wealth to avoid that fate?
So, a realistic villain needs to have a clear motivation that a reader can understand. Something that, even if they hate the villain down to their bones, they can sympathize with as they read. Sure, the alien is killing a lot of mostly innocent astronauts on a tug ship, but that’s its nature. It’s just trying to reproduce and survive. You can’t totally hate the alien. If you had to choose between killing or being killed…what would you choose?
Tremendous Love & Thanks,