Though the author seems mild mannered and well intentioned, watch out for this post. It’s written by Uthas, Feathermoon’s own personal evil incarnate (mostly), and when it comes to making a really awesome bad guy, Uthas does it well, particularly since he frequently plays those bad guys in game (rather than making them into fiction foes or rarely played alts for the sake of the story). As expected, this post is as much about creating a really believable, well rounded character as it is about creating the next iteration of really good Bad Guys, which makes it all that much better! Enjoy!
When I was a kid, one of my favorite games was So You Want to Be a Hero? I loved the idea of some official body of heroes that was taken only halfway seriously by everyone in the world. It had a meta-humor that appealed to me, but I was always disappointed that there wasn’t a companion game series called So You Want to Be a Villain?
I have always been far more fascinated with villains in stories than in the heroes.
This is a bit strange because I was a straightlaced Momma’s Boy growing up, always afraid of breaking the Rules. I don’t think that my fascination even comes from any desire to shrug off the shackles of conservative behavior and vicariously let my hair down. No, I think it’s because the villains were ACTIVE.
In the stories I read and movies I watched, the villains were always the ones with a plan, taking an active role in how the universe around them was shaped. The heroic side was always merely reacting to the bad guys, and because of this were often less fully realized than their black-hatted counterparts. The good guys were not only kind of boring, but even worse, they were PASSIVE. Think about the most popular of the heroes of the Star Wars trilogy – Han Solo. Why is he the most popular? He’s active and knowledgeable, because he’s just a little bit bad.
When I hit an age where I began to craft my own stories, it was often easier for me to focus on the antagonist of a piece than the protagonist, because in the common tropes of speculative fiction, it’s the antagonist that is actually be PROactive. They kick the story off and drive it to the necessary places. While occasionally stories appear in which the good guys are the driving force, this is far rarer than the reverse. They are generally just trying to get the world back to normal. As a writer, it was easier for me to guide a story through the eyes of the person shaping events, and in time, I (hopefully) became good at it.
My first real story based character in the World of Warcraft was a villain.
I rolled on an rp server a few weeks after the game came out in ’04, and quickly got involved in the forum rp scene developing there. There were many stabs at villainy back in those days, but I quickly became frustrated with them, because I thought they were all BAD. Not bad as in evil, but bad as in poorly done. My frustration led me to challenging myself to see if I could do better, and one epic storyline and a few thousands screams of exasperation from my victims later, I feel that I may have some tips for people when it comes to crafting villains.
Without further ado, here are my basic steps to crafting villainy.
1. There is no such thing as a villain.
Whatever character you are designing is first and foremost a person. They had parents, acquaintances, some type of life prior to the story that defines them as a person. Very few people in life define themselves as villains. The good guy or bad guy in a situation often depends entirely on who has the best PR. Don’t think of the character as a villain, think of them as a person with a role to fill in a narrative. Make them human, so that people will care when you kill them.
2. Give your villain a goal.
An overarching goal is possibly the single most defining feature any antagonist can have. It is what separates them from the rest of the flock of generic heroes out there. The villain has a goal, and possible a plan to achieve it. They do not exist to drywash their hands and laugh evilly. They want to accomplish SOMETHING.
3. Make your villain comparable in power to the threat they are posed by anyone trying to stop them.
Stories are boring if one side of a struggle is vastly over or under powered. Bells and whistles are not what will make your villain cool. It is their backing character that people will latch onto, not their fancy black Cape of Head-Shrinking. It’s important to note that power does not always come in the form of a magic sword or huge fireball. Just being smart, or tenacious, or willful can often give someone great power in a situation.
4. Eschew the evil laughter.
Unless your story is firmly rooted in the campy adventure style of the 30s and 40s, you don’t need to identify your antagonist as a villain by making them give off peals of laughter like lightning. That is one of the worst forms of telling and not showing that is possible for an antagonist. If you do your job well in telling the antagonist’s story, while people may identify with them, there will be no doubt in their minds what role the character has fulfilled.
5. No evil for evil’s sake.
If you have followed step 1, your villain has a goal. Make sure that every action they take sticks to that goal somehow. If they are despoiling the countryside, or putting the hero into an elaborate deathtrap, make sure those actions actually serve some kind of commonsensical end. If the motivation behind a villain’s actions isn’t clear, or is just non-existent, your villain becomes a cape-wearing caricature. That is not to say that every villain needs to be obvious in what they do, which leads us into . . .
6. Give us a little bit of mystery.
Never make a villain completely obvious. A good story is often the slow revelation of the villain. Just avoid mystery for mystery’s sake. The art of the reveal is a difficult skill to pick up, and is done poorly all over the place. 90% of long arc television shows have adopted this mystery for mystery’s sake writing style, and it’s terrible. Be more Count of Monte Cristo, less smoke monster from Lost.
7. Be ok with losing.
Villains are defeated. Most of the time, anyway. That is part of their role within the structure of a story, and it is very important never to forget it. At some point, your extremely cool dark character of forbidding terror will be foiled either by their own folly, or by the wits and strength of a do-gooder. Them’s just the breaks, and if you accept it, you can make that defeat just as compelling as every single other part of your villain.
Armed with this set of basic thinking points, pretty much anyone can come up with and narrate a compelling villain. Remember that the best villains are not the ones that are completely inscrutable in their evil, but rather the ones that we can all relate to. There is far too much darkness in the human soul to need to invent any extra.
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