Loving Your Villain

Photo credit: Martin Cathrae on Flickr
I’m going to do this thing where I give you guys a tip I’m going to start taking myself. As of right now.  

Not too long ago I wrote about getting to know your characters. Today I’m going to be a little more specific. Getting to know all of your characters is excruciatingly important, we know this. Knowing every intricate little detail about your protagonist and second lead pretty much goes without saying. We know we need to know everything about those guys because we spend the most time with them.

But the villain…he tends not to get as much love.

As you probably can guess by the first sentence, I am guilty of this in many of my WIPs. I usually start with good intentions—in two out of the last three WIPs I wrote I went in thinking ok, this time I’m going to make my antagonist sympathetic. It’s going to happen!

But then it doesn’t happen.

See, it turns out villains don’t magically become sympathetic (shocker, right?) They’re the villain—they don’t want your pity, they want your respect, your fear, those kind of delicious goodies. But sympathy? Villains scoff at sympathy.

They also tend to make you—the writer—forget that they were supposed to be multi-faceted at all. They want to be evil.

For me at least, the problem was that I didn’t love my villain enough. I loved my protagonist, I loved my second lead, I even loved some minor characters. But the antagonist? Well, yeah, he was cool too. But did I love him? Not really. I just needed him. You know, for conflict.

So now as I’m brainstorming again, I came to a stunning revelation. I already knew that I needed to give my antagonists more attention before I starting writing—that much was obvious. But I came to realize that not only do I need to love my villain, I need to love him more than my protagonist.

Now before you burn me at the stake for heresy, hear me out.

You’re predisposed to love your protagonist—if you don’t, you have a bigger problem on your hands you should probably fix, but nine out of ten times loving your protagonist isn’t an issue. It’s also pretty easy to love your second lead, especially if said lead will be involved in a romance with your protagonist (which, let’s face it, happens a lot.)   

But your antagonist. Falling in love with your villain takes a little extra work. You see, you’re predisposed not to love your villain. After all, your protagonist hates him and in the end (in most situations) your villain will fail. Why would give a character that’s going to fail (or possibly even die) in the end extra affection? Especially after all the crap he’s putting our MC through!

The answer is simple: if you don’t love your villain, your writing will show it. Your antagonist will have one side: EVIL, and fall under the category of stereotypical bad guy. Why? Because you didn’t spend enough time getting to know his other side.

Take a look at your villain. Do you know his family? Does he have siblings? What are his dreams? What does his mother think of him? What is his guilty pleasure?

Spend some time with your antagonist. Let him tell you all about himself, get to know him and don’t stop until you absolutely love him.

Because once you love your antagonist, something funny happens—you want your readers to love him too. And you’ll make sure they do.

Bet you guessed this question: who are your favorite villains? I’m going to remember to answer this time—I love many killers from Ted Dekker’s thrillers (like Boneman’s Daughters, Adam, The Bride Collector and The Priest’s Graveyard). All have really excellent villains.


Carissa Andrews said...

Excellent post!

Krista said...

Darth Vader is my favorite villain. I like villains that have depth and complexity. I think it not only makes them more believable - but makes the protagonist more believable too.

S.P. Sipal said...

This is a very intriguing post, Ava. What a wonderful way to look at the antagonist! I need to bookmark this for later. Thanks so much!!!! :-)

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

Darth Vader is a classic (and excellent) villain. I know a lot of people didn't like the Star Wars prequels but I actually enjoyed them because I found learning what made Anakin Skywalker become the infamous Lord Vader was really interesting.

Thanks for commenting, everyone! I'm glad you enjoyed it! ^_^

Laura Pauling said...

I love villains. I think I love my villains more than my main characters! I think this is crucial for a good story! Great points!

Ron Leighton said...

Great post! And I agree!

As for my fave villain: While Darth Vader is interesting, I prefer the more mysterious Boba Fett. In the Attack of the Clones, you get some of his humanity and when he watches his "father" die.

2D villains diminish a story immediately! End 2D characters today. You can help.

Mark D. Evans said...

I've just realised a lot of the books I read don't have villains, or certainly not clear-cut ones anyhow.

Having said that, I've just finished "The Traveller" by John Twelve Hawks, and though it's not the best book I've read, his villains (for there are many) ARE clear cut, and I really wanted them to lose. He did especially well in making one character in particular start off good, only to slip to the dark side.

In film, there's too many to count, but rarely do the really good villains who you love to hate get their just deserts. Their deaths are usually too quick (or am I just a bit sick?)
The Vaders are all well and good for villain-fodder, but the really good ones are those that you feel the physical need to get out of your seat and go find the slimey bastard. Old-fashioned mental hospital orderlies make good villains (Sucker Punch for recent e.g.), and I'll never forget that sick SOAB in "Green Mile", who tortured the inmates.

Sarah said...

I don't know if you'll see this but I wanted to let you know that I read this post a year or two ago and I didn't bookmark it but the advice to love your villain more than your protagonist stuck with me, and it changed my life. My story wouldn't be what it is without that idea. I just found this post again and am holding on to it!

Ava Jae said...

Oh wow! Wow. Thank you so much for letting me know, Sarah! This made me very smiley. I'm thrilled to hear the post resonated with you so much!

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