Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Showing an Authentic Villain

V for Villains...While readers often get a feel for the hero's moral compass from details shared about their upbringing and their relationships with others, I've read many books where I don't get any insight to why a villain behaves the way they do. Sometimes a villain who is evil simply for the sake of being evil can come across as a flat character. Here are my tips for creating an authentic villain as opposed to a cookie-cutter bad guy. 

Show the villain's back story.  I find it useful to know the tyrannical, sadistic king had once been forced to kill his beloved pet dog  to prove his masculinity to his own father. Or that the snooty gold digger millionaire's wife had grown up poor and is embarrassed to be associated with her past. While knowing a villain's tragic back story doesn't necessarily make me more sympathetic towards them, especially if they had done something truly heinous, it helps me understand their character motivation more.

Show the villain's perspective. When you read a book, you get a certain perspective, usually that of the hero. Can you imagine the entire HARRY POTTER series being told from Voldemort's perspective, or THE HUNGER GAMES series narrated by President Snow? A glimpse into how the villain thinks will help readers understand their choices. Why do they find the hero to be such a menace?  Why do they think their villainous deeds will accomplish more than the noble approach? Why does the villain believe s/he is the real hero?

Show the villain when no one is watching. Villains reveal their insecurities when they believe no one is looking. The tyrannical, sadistic king can't sleep unless he has a night light on and a gun under his pillow, in spite of the soldiers standing guard outside his chambers. The gold digger millionaire's wife can't bear to look at herself in the mirror after washing off her makeup. These little details help confirm that villains, like anyone, have vulnerabilities they wish to keep hidden. 

Do you have other tips for creating authentic villains?


Nick Wilford said...

You're so right, Cynthia. We need to know a bit of their back story or they risk coming off as cartoonish. I'm not sure I have any tips. I'm still working on this one! Thanks for these though. :)

Oh, I've not read the Hunger Games, but I like the name President Snow!

J.C. Martin said...

Great advice! When writing crime, I love writing from the villain's PoV, and I always try to weave in some of their backstory, or at least to stimulate readers into considering the nature vs nurture argument. Another great way to make your villain compelling is to show certain habits or eccentricities: does a serial killer always have some sort of preparation ritual before killing? In my current WiP, my killer has a habit of working BluTack between his fingers as he plans his next kill ... something that will be worked into the plot eventually. ;)

Cortney Pearson said...

These are great tips!

Julie Dao said...

This is such an excellent post. I completely agree - I don't necessarily need to sympathize with the villain, but I need to at least understand WHY they do the things they do. What motivates them? That is when a villain becomes three dimensional and not just a "bad person."

Lynn Proctor said...

if i know a villain's troubled background, i am probably going to feel compassion for them-if i don't know their background--i will probably make one up

Janna said...

As a reader, I many times find the villain more interesting than the hero. Give me someone I can love to hate, or even a villain I can just love.

Cynthia said...

Nick- I know, sometimes villains who are cartoonish can also be rather predictable.

J.C.- I agree, showing habits or eccentricities can certainly reveal more information about a character.

Cortney- Thanks, Cortney!

Julie- I too appreciate three dimensional characters over flat ones.

Lynn- That might be why some writers don't reveal the villain's background- they want us to root for the hero.

Janna- I'd be curious to know which villains you've fallen for. =)

Daisy Carter said...

Great post, Cynthia! I'll try all of these suggestions in future. For me, I try to look at my villain as the protagonist of his own story. What's his rise and fall? A workshop I took, led by author Cynthia Lu, said a villain's story arc should be the exact opposite of a hero's. I had one of those "D'oh!" moments because this is so obvious, but not something I'd made certain happened in my stories until then!

Anonymous said...

complicated villains are so much more dynamic. and i think in kidlit, help break the visions of a black and white world :)

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