Does your story have the perfect hero? You have conflict, motivation, even a plot to challenge them along the journey to their goal, resulting in inevitable, but well earned character development? You've done hours upon hours of planning, and yet... something still seems to fall flat. Then you realize that in all the time spent prepping your story, the least of it was spent on your villain- the antithesis to your hero! Perhaps you avoided it. Maybe it didn't seem that important. Maybe it seemed too hard. Whatever the case, you know that writing a great villain is important. These 8 exercises will help you to do just that.
1. Dissect Some Great Villains
Take some of your favorite villains and break them down. Write out what makes them villainous. What reasons do they have for being villainous? What are their motivations? What traits might they have that are endearing? How do they serve to directly oppose your hero? Create a list of these traits and compare them to villains of your own. While you shouldn’t directly copy a villain’s “trait set” so to speak, you can draw inspiration and use some of them as building blocks for your own nefarious foes.
2. Create Five Likable Traits
…And then give them a flaw we can’t forgive. Villains aren’t always disgusting, revolting, savage beasts that we can’t bear to look upon. Sometimes, quite often actually, they can contain a number of endearing qualities that make them somewhat more palatable. List a few of these possible traits out. Are they attractive? Perhaps they are clever in an admirable way? Maybe they are even selfless in some aspects of their lives, or caring of some particular individual. Whatever you do, remember that they are still a villain, and at the end of the day, write one or a few unforgivable flaws. Play with this and see what you come up with.
3. Create Three Empathetic Traits
Give your villain empathetic traits. These are the things that we feel for. So they are evil… but with these traits we can see how/why they are evil and on some level, we can really understand. “It’s not their fault, not really.” “They are a product of circumstance.” “They were conditioned by their environment.” “That could have been any of us.” These traits create a sense of humanity for the villain. Examples of these traits may be “He was raised in a broken home.” Or “She had an abusive stepmother” or “No one tried to reach out to them about their depression.” Take simple, human traits and build on them. Explore the way they may have shaped the character.
4. Create Three Life Changing Occurrences
People are often shaped by significant events in their lives. Sometimes something happens that sets them on a path, or changes their world view. Sometimes these things are for the worse. Dive into your villain’s upbringing and write at least three short scenes that help to define who they are. These may change, and some of these may be thrown out entirely, but give yourself a base to work with. Give your villain some depth.
5. Play With Ideologies
There are so many word views out there, good, bad or indifferent. Pick one. Study it. Now look at it from a different perspective. Find ways to benefit from it. Create an ideology out of that ideology and grant it to your villain. Something as simple as “Survival of the Fittest” can serve as a starting point for this research. Or you can go deeper. This requires a dive into theology and philosophy, but as a writer, research and knowledge is important, so don’t shy away from it- Educate yourself!
6. Play With Leverage
Create ways in which the villain can leverage something against the hero or other characters in your story. This approach requires a takes on a more “brains over brawn” sort of stance, but it can also deepen the plot as well as the villain’s “power” over individuals in the story, thus making him more of a challenge to defeat. What can your villain do to keep people in check? How do they keep the Hero from defeating them more easily? How does he use this power to get what he ultimately wants?
7. Mirror Your Hero
As you are defining your villain, ask yourself how he is the anti-thesis to your hero. If you can’t give a good answer to that then it’s time to start tweaking. Change your villain’s ideology. Make what they somehow fall into direct contact with your hero’s inner conflict. Give your villain something that is difficult for your hero to deal with in some way. If done creatively, this will create a deeper complexity to both the hero and villain of your story.
8. Write a Story from the Villain's Perspective
Lastly, take a villain you created (or a villain you admire) and write a short story from their perspective. Are you able to convincingly portray them as a hero from their perspective? If not a hero, then are his motivations and ideologies more relatable? While your villain doesn’t need to be justified that they are right in what they are doing, despite their many flaws, they often do feel justified. While the audience and hero can clearly see what they are doing is wrong, the villain in their own twisted view of the world feels that what they are doing is right, or perhaps necessary for more noble ends. In either case, being able to do this will allow you to better write a believable villain.