Venomous, Vengeful, and Vicious: Villains We Can't Help but Love.
by Cindy Tran
Every good story has a villain. Every great story has a villain that the readers try to hate… only to soon realize that it’s impossible not to love them.
Hi. My name is Cindy, and I’m obsessed with antagonists. I think that these characters offer a fresh (though somewhat extreme) perspective of the world that heroes, in their perfection, could never share.
Here’s the thing: If you really dig in deep, you’ll find that villains aren’t actually so much different from heroes. Often times, the bad guys just view the world in extremes, black and white. Whereas the hero follows everything in perfect moderation, villains burn with the fire of vengeance.
Take a look at Marissa Meyer’s Renegades trilogy, one of the best examples of using villain POVs to foil heroes--and demonstrating that they’re not as different as they might seem. In this series, the readers get to alternating points of view, one from Adrian, a Renegade (hero), and the other from Nova, an Anarchist (villain). There’s a whole beautiful backstory about Nova’s quest for vengeance, but the root of the matter is that she quickly finds herself entangled in the crossfire of the war between good and bad. And when that line starts to blur, she begins to question her crumbling allegiances.
Here’s why this story works:
1. The reader should be able to have empathy for the villain.
Sure, the way the villain is trying to accomplish their goal might seem unforgivably horrible, but what’s the backstory? What’s driving this villain? Is it grief? Rivalry? Revenge? The more the reader can understand the villain, the more empathy they’ll have for them. Things start to click--and that’s when the readers start to realize that maybe, in a different world, perhaps the hero and villain could have been friends.
In the case of Renegades, Nova believes that she has lost both her parents at the hand of Adrian’s father. Her dying uncle is all that she has left, but even he’s been imprisoned by the Renegades. So maybe infiltrating an enemy organization is a bad thing… but isn’t it more forgivable now that you know why she’s so desperate to accomplish her goals?
2. The blurrier the lines between good and evil are, the better.
Real life has a ton of complexities and moral grayness, and so should stories. Forcing the reader to pick a side, especially when it is not clear who is right or who is wrong, creates high stakes. The blurrier the lines, the greater the emotional turmoil.
In Renegades, it quickly becomes clear that “good” and “bad” are not black and white. The heroes do some questionable things. So do the villains. But the point is that no one’s hands are clean: the only difference is that one side is perceived publicly as heroes, while the other is shunned from society.
3. The villain might just be an extreme version of the hero.
Maybe they’re both trying to accomplish the same goal--like uncovering the dark history of a loved one. But whereas the villain is willing to tear the whole world apart looking for answers, the hero might have a more thoughtful, selfless approach. The same tragic backstory, but something in their circumstance made it so one grew up bad and the other grew up good. Their nurture fuels their choices: Victims of circumstance don’t often realize they’re victims.
Nova despises the Renegades with all her being. After all, they’re the ones who took away the only family she had and paraded themselves as saints when in reality, her people are suffering underground because of their neglect. Once she infiltrates the Renegades, however, Nova begins to realize that maybe all the terrible things she was warned about as a kid weren’t true. There are darker secrets to uncover, but her realization of how much her upbringing played a role in her prejudices is a turning point in the story.
4. They’re really powerful (and good-looking) and they know it.
Villains usually have some redeeming qualities. Maybe they’re really beautiful or really powerful. Something attracts the reader to them. There’s that layer of excitement that comes with rooting for a villain when they exude confidence during confrontation despite every obstacle that stands in their way.
It’s hard not to fall for Nova, even in her quest for vengeance. She’s graceful, a nimble fighter, and we see her beating Adrian to a pulp (okay, not to that extreme, but it was pretty satisfying to see his shock at being bested).
Now that we know what readers want in a villain, what are some ways to put these steps into action?
Here are some questions to ask yourself to as you begin outlining:
Why is your villain bad?
What is their origin story?
What prevents your villain from being a hero?
Bonus points: Did the protagonist contribute to your villain’s tragic past?
Blurring the Lines
In another life, could your protagonist and antagonist be friends?
Can a reader easily see from the villain’s point of view?
Could your reader want the villain to win sometimes?
Would you be able to convince the other characters that your villain’s endgame is justified, even if the way they’re pursuing it is extreme?
Bonus points: Is your villain all alone in their quest for glory whereas your hero has a team backing them up?
What does your villain look like?
What is striking about your villain’s appearance?
What is your villain’s power, and are they skilled at what they do?
Bonus points: Does your villain have a sense of superiority?
Along with these questions, there’s also the possibility of breathing new life into the archetype. Maybe you reverse the roles and make the villain a protagonist. Maybe you pull a V. E. Schwab and don’t tell the reader who the villain is. Maybe you lure the readers into thinking that the villain is the bad guy until it becomes clear that it’s actually the hero who’s in the wrong.
Combing the factors above gives you the textbook villain. Sometimes your ideas are unique enough that you don’t need to do anything else, and in that case, you’re very welcome for the villain template. If you’re stuck though, maybe try to subvert the cliches. Take the trope and turn it into something we’ve never seen before.
After all, the best villains are the most unexpected ones.
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