A while back a friend asked, “You know that quote that floats around, the ‘every villain is the hero of their own story’? Do you think that’s true?” More recently another friend mentioned he’d been reading a book on writing and the author had claimed,
“The antagonist needs to be developed well enough that you can understand how he thinks and what motivates him, but he doesn’t need to have a full character arc and undergo transformation, like your protagonist does.”
If any of you know me at all, you know that dug under my skin like a red-hot needle. Doesn’t need a full character ark? Developed ‘well enough’? I don’t just disagree, I disagree vehemently and I’m here to tell you why.
The world of entertainment overflows with examples of poorly-written villains. Shallow, one-dimensional characters with nothing better to do than take over the world, get rich, or kill the Hero for that one slight that one time fifteen years ago. Pick a standard villain from any Tom Cruise movie (if you can remember them). Did they leave much of an impression on you? Did you care about them? Were they anything more than a plot device, something for the Hero to overcome with cool gadgets and witty banter?
How about any James Bond film? It’s the same problem, dressed up in even cooler gadgets and even more monologues (and probably the same nuclear codes).
Did you care about any of these villains? Probably not (if you did, I don’t know whether to feel bad for you or be impressed at your ability to care for all and sundry). ‘Okay, but Mirriam,’ you might say, ‘it really didn’t matter. I still enjoyed X movie.’
Fair point. BUT. Think about a movie or a book with a villain that was so complex, so well-written, so three-dimensional, that he stayed with you. That he added to the story, that you were almost disappointed to see him foiled or defeated. (I’m saying ‘he’ but this post could also, obviously, go for any villainess you think of.)
You can sit through and relatively enjoy any new Tom Cruise action flick, but when a villain is written with care, you take a ‘fun’ story and turn it into something emotional that stays with you, because it creates emotional conflict inside you, the reader/viewer. You become attached to the hero (hopefully he or she is well-written) but you’re also attached to the villain, and you anticipate and dread the climax of the story because you know one of them has to go down and it probably ain’t the hero.
Or say you felt no sympathy toward the villain, not really. Their actions were evil; you wanted to see them gone. You hated them. They were everything you despise and you railed against the book every time they succeeded or gained an upper hand.
Villains should make you feel something.
They should be more than plot devices. They should be more than factory-processed clones of one another, spouting the same dialogue and acting on the same motivations.
Your villain is also one of your characters. He’s not exempt. I hear young writers talk about their characters ‘and the villain’ as if he’s in some other box in a corner, not really part of the main crew, and that mindset is extremely detrimental to writing a good antagonist.
Because here’s the thing – YOUR VILLAIN SHOULD BE EXACTLY AS IMPORTANT AS YOUR MAIN CHARACTER.
He is a different type of character. He’s there for different reasons. But without him, you would have no story. Without him, your hero would have nothing to fight for and nothing to overcome.
When you write a shoddy, one-dimensional, lazy villain, you insult your hero and your own writing abilities. Your hero should have what it takes to go up against the very worst. You should have what it takes to write the very worst. Otherwise it’s a sign you don’t believe in your abilities – or the abilities of your main character.
Over the course of several upcoming blog posts, I’ll be talking about different types of villains – the good, the bad, the beautiful – and discussing what makes a memorable addition to your cast of characters. In the meantime –