Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Villains: The Guys You Love To Hate

You might think I should be the last person to write about creating your book's villain…because sometimes, I root for the bad guy.

However, that's the precise reason I'm writing on this topic.

Before you assume I'm a bad guy myself, let me explain.

You know Mordred, the bastard son of King Arthur? He's one dark character. His parents were half-siblings, his mother being the witch who fooled Arthur into believing she was someone else the night Mordred was conceived. Raised on a steady diet of vengeance and hate, Mordred rose against his father, leading a war against Camelot that ended in the death of the Once and Future King.

Pretty much a jerk, right? Depends on your perspective but I don't think so. Mordred didn't choose his parents and he couldn't change being ruled by his mother. He grew into what she made him. He couldn't change his destiny any more than anyone else in Camelot.

How about Raistlin from the Dragon Lance series? Not exactly a Boy Scout Leader, not even when he still wore the red robes of the neutral mages. Elric Melnibone? Classic anti-hero--a term that simply means the villain is the protagonist of the story. Elric kills just about everybody he meets because his sword, Stormbringer, thirsts for blood and souls. (Oh, yeah. He wants to destroy the world, too.)

Why would a good person like me be rooting for these bad guys? Because they aren't flat characters. Mordred was a child who needed to be saved--and no one was there for him. Raistlin chooses the black robes not only because he's egotistical and power-hungry but also because he wanted to usurp an even greater evil. And Elric is a haunted man--desperation drove him to pick up Stormbringer and he comes so close to doing the "right" thing time after time only to fall slave to his howling sword.

The whole destroy the world thing? Elric chooses to die so that the balance between order and chaos can be restored. My heart is still broken over that.

I love the bad guys who make me root for them. How boring would stories be if we didn't love/hate each and every character?

Character flaws in a hero are wonderful because they leave room for his growth and expansion. Flaws in our hero give us another reason to sympathize with the character and root for him. Flaws humanize a hero, helping us to relate to them. We see they aren't perfect creations--which is relatable because we're not perfect, either.

But what about villains? They need love, too. Otherwise it would be too easy to hate them. Where's the fun in that?

When a villain has a character flaw, it gives us a way to relate to them without making us feel guilty for liking the bad guy.

Perfect Imperfections
A character flaw in a villain may be a surprising good trait: a talent we admire, a tender personal relationship, a reluctance to cause harm…some inkling that makes us think "there's hope for him, yet." That's what creates our emotional bond to them and further binds us to the outcome of the story.

Giving the villain a likeable trait creates a delicious sort of tension in a story because we know the good guy has to win...but what will happen to the bad guy if he does?

Sometimes you can't make a villain act completely out of character--but you can make him wish he could. Give readers a chance to peer into the villains mind and see what he's feeling. It's an excellent way to add psychological and emotional depth to his character. Bad guys have backstory, too, and you can use that backstory as a backdrop for their current motives. Villains don't just hatch out of eggs--they are created by the world and the circumstances surrounding them…the same way as heroes.

Creating a Complexity
Don't let your villain fall flat--make him complex and conflicted. Let your readers teeter on a suspenseful edge, asking "will he or won't he?" It will help make your book a real page-turner.

Ask yourself a few questions:
  • Who is my villain and what is his role in the story?
  • What is his motive?
Now ask:
  • Who was he before he became the villain he is? What is the backstory?
  • What does he do/has he done that is anti-villainous?
  • Who does he sincerely love? What does he sincerely care about?
  • What would change his mind and deter his villainous course?
Have you discovered something about your villain that makes you like him a bit more? I hope so--it will make your final conflict even more interesting because you may want both sides to win. That's a book we won't be able to put down because we'll have to know what happens next.

We want our heroes to succeed and we don't want to see them hurt…but we also want an amazing story. Good vs. evil is conflict, to be sure, but when we give both heroes and villains character flaws we amp up the complexity of their relationship and we create more suspense.
More suspense means emotionally hooked readers. Flesh out your villain with the same care as your hero. Readers like me are always ready to fall for the bad guy.
And that's not a bad thing.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash at for news on her upcoming release THE HEARTBEAT THIEF (under the pen name AJ Krafton). Ash is also a contributing editor at the QueryTracker blog.  .

1 comment :

Sue Coletta said...

Ah, the Dexter effect. A big thing in crime fiction. I have two books in the works using anti-heroes. They make such interesting characters.