This is different from other rants I’ve done before, which mainly concentrated on avoiding clichés like Dark Lord fortresses, stupid villains who blab everything right before the hero kills them, and so on. This is on actually improving villains and making them interesting (at least, I hope so).
1) Give them motives that differ in degree rather than kind from the heroes’ motives.
If they bother to think at all, authors often come up with good motives for characters, ranging from the frivolous to the extremely practical, the personal to the political, and everywhere in between. I have no idea why this common sense jumps out the window when it comes to villains’ motives. While every other character in the story is motivated by something like money, vengeance, love, the need to protect a friend, and so on, the villain wants to take over the world because he’s EEEEEVIIIIIIL, or because he’s the kind of violent, virulent racist most modern readers wouldn’t pay a fig of attention to if they passed him preaching in the street.
That’s where most fantasy villains become caricatures for me, really, is at the motivation. The author doesn’t bother exaggerating the degree of their desires, which I think would work (more on this in a second). She gives them motives that clash too strongly with modern morals for any readers to be on their side. She makes them insane, which by now is trite, and insists that they don’t have to make sense. She might not even bother explaining why he wants the world, sometimes, or how he could have made progress towards his goal with everyone in the world hating him. It’s just there. You’re not supposed to question why the author made someone evil.
Well, I do question. And I think it would work a lot better if the author did make the villains motivated by money, vengeance, love, and the desire to protect a friend. The problem is that it’s gotten out of hand, and turned from something only affecting an ordinary person to something affecting hundreds or thousands.
Think. The people who have the most impact on our own world tend to be political leaders, businessmen, financiers, war leaders, and so on. Yet when we want an example of evil, most people turn to Hitler or Stalin; we don’t start saying that everyone whose actions affect someone else is evil. Most people don’t believe that everyone in power secretly sits behind a door rubbing their hands and cackling. They’re humans. Apply that insight to leaders in fantasy worlds, and come up with their psychology. Now pinpoint the part where their desires expanded and started becoming a problem. And say why it’s a problem. The “rightful” king might feel it’s a problem he’s been forced off his throne and put in the dungeon. Yet if he had started suspecting everyone else of treason because treason took down a neighboring king, and torturing people to insure that they were no traitors and because peasants are not quite real to him, then his “usurper” might feel he has a right to usurp the throne.
2) Make them empathic.
I mentioned empathic villains in the “putting your character through hell” rant, because they are such great tools for that. An enemy who knows the hero will make him jump through hoops like no one else will.
But even shoving that aside for a moment, show them having the ability to empathize with people. It could be through compassion. It could be through charm. It could be through persuasion. It could be through long study, which leads to them hand-picking their trusted lieutenants and advisers. Whichever way you choose to play it, an empathic villain is much more interesting than yet another emotionless super-genius whom the emotional heroine will take down, or a villain blinded by his own disbelief in the power of love.
It’s one of the greatest—and, in fantasy, least-explored—mysteries that someone can commit heinous acts and yet love, and have people who love him. It’s, on the surface, something that does not compute. Yet love doesn’t cancel out evil, and its presence in a person is no guarantee that he hasn’t also done something awful, either in the past or a few moments ago, and no guarantee that he won’t ever do something awful in the future. Stop using love as a cure-all, and write a villain who knows, and shares, that emotion and others, yet has his reasons for going ahead.
3) Make them impulsive.
So, if your villain is empathic and has motives and goals and desires like anyone else, what made him the hero’s enemy in the first place?
Impulsiveness—whether it’s a quick temper, a tendency to jump to conclusions, impatience, or something else—is a great answer. Fantasy villains are usually masterminds who plot for years to get their hands on the throne, on the money, on the world, on what have you. (This is, I think, why a lot of authors characterize them as cold-blood and unable to empathize: because they find it hard to imagine someone plotting for years who isn’t that way). Villains whose lives change because of an “oh shit!” moment are much more rare.
Wanna build interest? Think of the way that such a moment could happen, and that consequences from that moment could spiral out to engulf everyone involved in action and reaction, evil and good, political parry and thrust, that go on for years. It will require outlining—assuming you use an outline—and plotting of a different order than that which accompanies weaving a villain’s web. But so? Authors tend to do this all the time with their heroes, who are usually the impulsive ones, or the ones whose lives change because of a “chance” encounter.
I love mastermind villains, but too many authors assume they have to be unemotional, except for greed and hatred. If they find it too difficult to part one characteristic from the other, I’m all for the brash, too-quick, accidental villains to show up.
4) Show the villain learning the same lesson as the hero, with different results.
Here’s the word that I emphasized during the point, and will emphasize again, since so many authors don’t get it:
That means that I don’t think villains who exist only to be the hero’s foil, and fail at the lessons he learns, are interesting. Oh, yes, it’s sooooo fascinating when the hero learns the variations to the swordmaster’s techniques perfectly, and the swordmaster, who turns out to be evil, somehow forgets his own pointers. Only not. And it’s soooo deep when the hero has a problem with pride, but then learns to be humble, while the villain loses due to his own arrogance. Only, again, not.
I want to see a situation where the hero and the villain are close to each other in some traits, skills, desires, whatever, but both still obtain results that will work from those traits, skills, desires, whatever. Otherwise, it begins to seem as if the author is setting the hero and villain up as complements to very obviously make them play off each other. And I am Unhappy when I see a character that exists for one reason and one reason only. If the author had been more imaginative, she could have found a way to tell the story without that—as the story of the hero’s internal struggle with himself, for example, instead of a boring, one-note external enemy. And when the hero and villain are of equal intelligence, skill, determination, whatever, and the villain fails, the author usually has to resort to transparent plot-contrivances to make it so. The villain deciding to dash in where angels fear to tread when he’s always been cautious before is a popular one. So is the villain “forgetting” how to do something just at the crucial moment. Problem is, he’s known how to do the something all his life, so the author afflicting him with amnesia now is as convincing as a strip joint in heaven.
Quit it. The villain can still be villainous based on how he reacts to this particular character trait, skill, desire, whatever it is, but I want to see him reach a workable compromise with it. It just happens to be the wrong workable compromise.
5) Show villains who are convincing candidates to give the hero Stockholm Syndrome.
Supposedly, heroes can be tempted and fall in most fantasies.
I don’t believe it.
Why? The hero’s temptation is impossible, first of all. He’s being tempted with something that he doesn’t really want, or that we know the villain can’t deliver. He doesn’t spend enough time with the villain to make the possible corruption convincing. He suffers physical pain that doesn’t alter his mind. And so on, and so forth. Authors again set up a situation that could hurt their hero, and then flinch at the final moment. Perhaps their whole intent was to play “Gotcha!” with the audience, but I don’t think so; most of them want a reader to feel suspense and terror when the beloved protagonist is in danger. But I don’t, when I know, as opposed to suspect, that nothing is going to happen to him. If I can reason it out beforehand, such as the villain tempting the hero with resurrecting his dead wife but me knowing, thanks to earlier chapters, that the hero is opposed to necromancy, my knowledge becomes iron-clad, and I watch in boredom as the expected denouement unfolds.
But a villain who is really empathic, reasonable, and seductive, as opposed to angry, raving, and wearing black a lot, is a different matter. This is the one arena where I would be willing to read about insane villains. After all, the really frightening madman is not the one who could cut you to pieces—lots of fighters in a fantasy world have that power—or the one who gibbers and points to things the hero can’t see—mages and seers also do that—but the one who can lure the hero into his madness.
I love mindfucks. The villain convinces the hero to start blurring the lines of his principles and the opposite side’s in his mind, or invites him over to madness and makes it seem attractive, and I drool. There’s a mindfuck of the highest order. There’s the place where horror starts leaking into fantasy. Real horror for me is not vampires and werewolves. I can get vampires and werewolves out of my head. Something that gets in my head and scratches itself a place, and which I can’t get out…oh, yes, that makes for a good villain.
It’s a thin line to walk, probably the thinnest of all the villain lines. The reason so many authors fail is because they mean the villains to sound convincing, but they don’t. They’re just spouting the usual villain dialogue and psychobabble clichés that so many villains before them have spouted. You’re going to have to work to get this right.
There’s one thing that might make it easier, though.
6) Write from the villain’s POV.
And I mean “not in a way that makes him think about how evil he is, or basically good and going to defect to the Light Real Soon Now.” Treat him the way you would an ordinary character. Just write him. How does your hero see the world? Hopefully he’s not perfect, he has his flaws, but you still enjoy writing him; the differences in his beliefs and yours don’t affect that. Now imagine descending into your villain the same way.
But then he might not be a villain, just someone who sees the world in a different way.
Yes, I know. Isn’t it wonderful?
7) Give the hero and the villain something to respect about each other.
There’s an old tradition of “honorable enemies,” but there, the villain is often the only one doing the respecting; he admires the hero’s nobility or some such rot, while the hero looks at him and sees nothing but evil. (Who’s the more empathic person there?) And they usually feel themselves doomed to future conflict, which the author almost never does a good job of building up.
Instead, introduce some honest respect into the relationship. If possible, separate it from the traits they have in common, as per point 4. A hero could admire the villain’s swordsmanship and still think he’s a son of a bitch, without truly admiring him for what he is outside the sword. A villain could think the hero has fine taste in wine and clothes, yet still despise him. That comes down to envy and not respect in the end.
Go out there. What does the villain do to get out of trouble time and time again? Does the hero come to grudging respect, particularly if he’s astute enough to realize that he’d respect the villain without reservation if she were on his side? Does the villain think the hero is an amusing buffoon until he gets out of one of her traps, and then start finding him amusing for his cleverness instead? What makes them equal, or nearly so?
Next rant is on nitpicking, from the looks of the poll.