This week I’m talking about ~those~ characters. The agents of chaos and change that cause so many problems for your Main Character. Those folk that leave destruction, heartache, and growth in their wake.
What is it that makes a good villain? What combination of traits and personalities, thoughts and deeds swirl together to create a Doloris Umbridge*? What loves and hates, what kind of desires and determination go into the creation of a character like Randall Flagg?
First, it should go without saying – but I’m going to say it anyway – that your Main and other characters need to be sympathetic. If your readers don’t care about your characters, then it won’t matter what your Villain does to them.
Your Villain needs, at the very least, to be relatable to your reader in some way. If you can make them sympathetic to your reader, so much the better. Kylo Ren (Don’t worry. No Spoilers here) is pretty damned sympathetic. He’s lost. He doesn’t know who he is, and he’s alone. Who hasn’t felt like that to one degree or another? We know how that feels. This is encapsulated – pretty much perfectly – in a single line that Adam Driver delivers – pretty much perfectly – in The Last Jedi:
Your Villain needs to want something. Your characters don’t necessarily need to know what that something is, but you and your Villain need to know. This something should make sense with the nature of the character and it should be something definite. Magneto, for example, wants a world where Mutants aren’t discriminated against – not hated or feared.
How he goes about it is another matter.
Your Villain needs to believe that they are doing the right thing. That the ends will certainly justify the means. History is full of folk that had to make “the Hard Decisions” for “The Greater Good” and “Do what has to be Done.” You see where I’m going with this. Your Villain is doing what they feel needs to be done to obtain that “Something.” They might not even enjoy doing what they have to do (in fact, it would be better if they didn’t), but they do it because “Somebody has to do it.”
History will show them in the correct light, will show that they were in the right. Your Villain has to believe that they are the hero of their own story.
Your Villain should also be a mirror to your protagonist. The mirror can be warped or distorted, but the reflection should be recognizable. Two of my favorite examples of this are Batman and the Joker, and Indiana Jones and René Belloq. The Joker gets close to the mark, but I think that Belloq sums it up better when he says:
“You and I are very much alike…I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.**”
As much as your protagonist needs to see something of themselves within the Villain, so too should your Villain see something of themselves in your protagonist. Done right, this can spur some sense of loss to make the Villain even more sympathetic, or plant a seed of doubt in your reader as to whether the Villain is truly “Bad.” Conversely, this may also spur the Villain on to greater heights (or depths) of nastiness as they realize that there may be something there that they want, but can never have (or so they believe).
You should put as much time and effort into creating your Villain as you do your protagonist. See where the similarities lie as well as the differences and then run with those. Weave them into your story so that it draws both characters to the inevitable final confrontation.
So you keep your readers up past their bedtime to find out how it ends.
*Yes, my favorite Harry Potter villain is Dolores. Seriously. I have rarely felt the desire to stuff a character into a cannon and fire them into the sun more than I have with Ms. Umbridge.
**Raiders of the Lost Ark – the complete quote is as follows:
“You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.”