On Villain characterization

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

I apologize for neglecting this blog as long as I have (as my niece Brianna was kind enough to point out), and especially for breaking away from my series on writing and historical research. My current job hunt, and some nasty scammers I’ve been dealing with, stole my thunder for a while there, and it’s been difficult to get it back. I promise I have more to say about historical research and fiction, and will post on how to get started soon, as well as sharing some tips for editing (per Brianna’s request).

The current post started as a Twitter thread, something that popped into my mind as I am outlining/drafting a fairy tale retelling. I’m attempting to transform a typical flat fairy tale trope–the wicked witch who is also the evil stepmother–into a fully fleshed out and believable character. Here’s why I’m making the attempt.

I hate cardboard villains. Mustache-twirling, Snidely Whiplash types who are bad just because they want to be bad annoy me so much. Part of it stems from the fact I want characters to have a personality, full stop, and that includes villains. But I also think if your villain is a baddy who’s bad for no reason, you may be shortchanging your story’s arc. If the villain has no complexity, whether that includes redeeming qualities or not, your protagonist’s attempt to defeat them may feel like throwing themselves repeatedly at a brick wall, in hopes that one of the times they might actually break through. The conflict between these two opposing forces may all come down to a matter of strength, the kind of conflict that interests me least, or cunning, which is more interesting but can still lack emotional juice. If your villain is complex and fleshed out, however, your protagonist can use their strengths and weaknesses against them, much as the villain is doing themself.

Understanding your villain’s motivation is key to understanding how your protagonist can defeat them–or not. Allowing the main character to figure out what makes their antagonist tick can give them more room for a try/fail cycle, for mini-successes followed by epic defeats, and that can make their entire journey that much richer. If your villain is motivated by greed, your main character might try to bribe them to be left alone, only to find out the villain’s notion of wealth vastly outstrips their resources. If the villain seeks revenge against someone else, the main character might offer to join forces and help to defeat the greater threat (then have to hope the antagonist is trustworthy). If the villain’s quest for vengeance is against the main character, perhaps they will have to apologize for past deeds, allow themselves to be soundly beaten at some point & hope that’s enough, or offer the villain stronger incentive to drop it.

These are super simplistic examples, of course, and most people have more than one motivation at any given time. I have an exercise I like to use when creating a villain character that you may want to add to your toolbox. I imagine my villain witnesses a terrible car crash (carriage crash, chariot crash, shuttle crash etc. Make it fit the world of your story). What do they do? If they don’t help, are they lazy, self-centered, or worried about getting dirty? If they do help, how? Does the villain make a call from the safety of their own vehicle, then send a chauffeur or minion out to investigate? Does the victim’s identity make a difference in whether they will help or not? Maybe your villain has a weakness for children, or the elderly. Maybe they will help anyone who might give them clout. If your villain does offer aid, will they then try to make the victim pay for it? What other scenarios can you come up with?

Whether or not you use my villain prompt, it’s important to understand what makes your villain tick. Their goals and motivations will inform the actions they take against the protagonist, and their flaws will help map the road to their defeat. By fleshing out your antagonist as fully as you did your protagonist, you’ll create a villain readers love or love to hate, and make their defeat that much more rewarding in the end.

I hope you found this post helpful. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a fairy tale to tell.


YA Author, history buff, lover of fairy tale and myth

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