In a great story, you will have a memorable hero, but also a memorable villain. Too often, the hero is well developed but the villain falls into the category of generic and is not given equal time and investment as the hero. To create an effective villain, you must treat your character as though they were the hero of their own story. And in a way, that’s true. The villain will believe in what they are doing, from their perspective, they are their own hero, and the hero of your story would be their villain. Does that make sense?
The world doesn’t function in dichotomies, it’s not a 50:50 split between good and bad. Similarly, your characters from heroes to villains are not 100% good or bad. Morality has underlying principles but its boundaries are fuzzy and can be subjective, varying between individuals. A believable villain is a believable person first. Clearly, your villain will fall upon the darker side of the morality spectrum, but that doesn’t mean your character is incapable of showing compassion or affection or doing nice things. Take Klaus from the Originals for example, he is a villain that the audience of the show loves and hates. Sure he will rip off a head when he needs to, and lie to those that trust him but he will protect his daughter with his life.
When you’re developing your hero, one of the first things you should do is to establish what the character’s motivations are. You need to do the same for your villain. This makes your character more believable and helps your readers to understand your villain. They don’t need to agree with what your villain believes, but it is important for them, or at least you, to understand so that you can keep your villain’s actions consistent. If we take Cruella de Vil for example, the audience knows that she will do anything to be the head of fashion, no matter what the consequences will be. And so it is no surprise when she hires the goons to capture the dalmations.
The villain needs to have a realistic chance of defeating the hero. Your villain and hero need to be at least on equal footing. The hero after all goes on their hero’s journey in order to progress and develop into someone strong enough to overcome their obstacles and defeat the villain. However, if the villain is not well developed there is not tension or surprise when (and I say when) the hero overcomes the villain. If we take Jamie Moriarty as an example, she is such an effective villain because she outmatches the intellect of Sherlock Holmes; but she is still eventually overcome by the heroes when she faces Joan Watson as well.
In order for a villain to be a great villain, your character needs connections in order to implement chaos. That could mean having minions, allies or even friends. In all cases, a successful villain needs to be developed enough to take a three-dimensional form in emotional complexity, enough so that it is believable for people to serve your villain either from loyalty and gratitude or from fear. Where would Voldemort be without his Death Eaters? Where would Little Finger (Game of Thrones) be without his allies?
If your villain has people working for them in fear, you must demonstrate to your readers how this fear is instilled into those followers – if in fact it is fear that wins their loyalty. We see clearly in Harry Potter why people have followed the Dark Lord on multiple occasions: the very fact that Harry Potter is the boy who lived is proof of Voldemort’s evil. If your villain has people they can rely on through loyalty however, this means that your villain must be capable of doing something nice. For example, even though Damon Salvatore (the Vampire Diaries) has done many bad things in his past hundreds of years, he has friends that still care about him and that are willing to go to extreme lengths for him. This is because he has the capacity to care for others, and sometimes people think that Damon can redeem himself. This is a similar situation with Klaus, and how Camille still helps him after everything he has put her through.
Then there’s the key element. The chances are your villain isn’t some big evil monster or some government to overthrow, it’s more than likely your villain is a person. In these circumstances you need to remember your villain is human (or at least something pretty close). They love and hate, they fear and enjoy, they have emotions just like the rest of us. Emotional villains like Loki (Marvel Cinematic Universe) have been well received by fans, because it shows a relatable human element to the villain. Klaus is governed by his emotions, he’s easily angered and easily hurt which causes him to lash out and hurt other people. If anything it’s his emotions that lead to his actions. One of his main motivations is to be loved and have a family, someone he can trust, but because of his emotional nature he pushes his family and loved ones away.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can make a villain so vile they are hated and their deaths are actively celebrated. I’m talking about villains you love to hate like Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones) or those who are an emphasised idea of all you hate like Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter). It’s a very fine line between a villain people hate and one that they love to hate. To find the balance is even more difficult but when it is achieved the reaction is phenomenal. Joffrey wasn’t just hated for his sadistic nature but his spoilt Prince antics, other characters’ reactions to him only gave more reason to hate him but he became a joy to hate. Umbridge on the other hand was a stark contrast, wearing pink with a room decorated in kittens she was far from what everyone imagined to be a villain, but everyone had that one teacher in school who was utterly cruel, the only difference is Umbridge had power and magic behind her. She was the Miss Trunchbull of the magical world and what made things worse was that the Ministry of Magic envisioned Umbridge to be in the right. Her prejudice was a reminder of real world issues.
“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.”
As the quote above seems to suggest, writing a villain is about balance. About finding the harmony between the good and the bad traits because no one person is truly 100% evil. As much as your hero needs negative traits, your villain needs redeeming qualities. Your villain must be equal to your hero, not just in skill or power but in how they are developed. In this way, you should know more about your villain than you reveal in the story, and your story will be stronger for it.
–Elizabeth and Nadia