Developing Villainous Characters – Part 1

Due to finals, graduating, and spending time with the extended family, I’ve missed about 75% of Eliza’s villain month over at Tales of a Fantasy Scribbler. I did want to participate, but couldn’t commit due to my, uh, other commitments. So here is the first of my three-part series on developing villains, as my way to contribute.

First, research villain archetypes and decide which is the basis for your villain.
To do this, read Stella Cameron’s wonderful villain archetype summary or Tami Cowden’s sixteen villains, and pick your villain’s basis to your heart’s delight. Every character, and therefore villain, most likely fits some sort of generic archetype, at least to help you begin molding.

Now, the nice thing about Stella Cameron’s villain archetype summary is that it suggests generic back-stories that help explain why the villain is the way he is. Use this to your advantage by using this as a template and adding your own details to the mix. Tami Cowden’s sixteen villains, in comparison, has brief descriptions of the villains based on their generic motive and how they might pursue their villainy.

Keep in mind that the best characters have the most detail. For example, we’re fascinated by Hannibal Lector because he is so precise, and unbelievably detailed about his heinous crimes… it is art to him, the ultimate luxury. The luxurious and sensual nature of his descriptions about murder and cannibalism are what fascinate us, despite ourselves. Such a little detail, but a defining one.

So once you’ve determined your archetype, the next step is to add details that make the villain believable, rather than shallow and silly. To do that, you need to…

Give the villain a motive.
This is very similar to #1, but now you actually have to provide the details behind the archetype. Are they a spurned lover? Were they thrown out of their family/job? Do they just not take insults very well? Or all three? Personally, I think the more motive you give the character, the better.

It’s not enough to say he is the ignored second son, for instance, if you’re writing about a bitter villain out for revenge. Sure, maybe the family didn’t treat him the way they treated the firstborn. That happens. But what if the firstborn stole the villain’s girlfriend? Or actively turned his parents against his younger brother, depriving the brother of nurturing, thus turning the younger brother into a villain?

Then again, sometimes it’s nature rather than nurture which turns our character’s villainous. Maybe your villain, for some reason, feels entitled to everything, and when she doesn’t get his way, it’s a personal insult. Or, perhaps she is just the jealous type, and never learned how to control it.

Of course, now that we have a skeleton, of sorts, that gives us an initial definition of your villain, here comes what I think might be the most important step when working on your villain. You need to make sure to…

Devote as much time defining the villain as you do the hero.
The hero and villain are supposed to be antagonists of one another, right? (You should be shaking your head yes.) A synonym of antagonize is “oppose,” meaning they must be opposite and balance one another. But if one character is weaker, then the duo is weak altogether. If you spend three months developing the hero, I hope you’re doing the same for the villain, for the following reasons:

  1. One strong character cannot carry an entire plot.
  2. If you over-develop your hero and under-develop your villain, your characters will fall flat because of the lack of balance.
  3. One weak main character can ruin your plot.
  4. When your readers ask why your character did/did not do something, it’s better to pull out a journal full of details about the character, rather than to sit there blinking.
  5. It’s fun to develop the villain! My next post will go into more detail about why this is, even for those of us who don’t like to hurt our characters (therefore making our villain weak and laughable).

Do you have any other tips and hints for developing villainous characters? Leave a comment and let everyone know about it!