Thoughts on Villains

Out of all the characters that exist in a story, antagonists are the most difficult for me to get right. Too often, I find myself in danger of falling into the trap of writing an antagonist that is too obviously bad, usually to the point where the character just falls flat and becomes a 2D character. I did this a LOT during my early writing days, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a major reason why all of those early unpublished manuscripts I wrote were rejected by every agent I sent my work to. Even though I think (I hope!) that I’ve improved from creating antagonists that are “too evil”, it’s still something that I have to take a lot of time to develop. Along the way, I’ve picked up a few thoughts about what I like in a bad guy.

To me, villains in stories have a little more leeway than protagonists. Unlike a story’s heroes, the villains might or might not have a character arc, or they might or might not be empathetic or likable to the reader. Villains can come in a wide variety of flavors:

  • Some are like the Eye of Sauron. The muhahas of lit. Distant, generically evil, bad, probably not even human.
  • Some are Fascinating Crazies. Hannibal, or the Joker. In these cases, they’re interesting because of their mysterious, twisted views and their relationship with the protagonist.
  • Some are broken souls turned dark by some tormented past, but with shades of gray in their persona. They also sometimes have a character arc, one that might involve redemption (Anakin Skywalker, I’m looking at you). These are my favs.

No matter what type of villain is in my story, though, I always try to remember: From the antagonist’s point of view, s/he is the protagonist.

It’s more fun when the goals and aspirations of the antagonist are just as logical and compelling as the protagonist’s. Who’s right, the hero or the villain? For example, in Watchmen, the villain states that he is willing to kill millions, in order to save billions. Is this right? I dunno…. But I can totally see where he’s coming from, however twisted it is.

My favorite example is Magneto, from X-Men. He’s consistently ranked as one of the best villains in entertainment, and for good reason. Magneto starts off in life at a very different place than Professor X—the child Magneto lives in a concentration camp, where he has to see his mother get killed because humans want to use and exploit his mutant powers. He sees the ugliest sides of human nature. When he clashes with Professor X on how humans and mutants should co-exist by suggesting that mutants must band together and make humans their enemies in order to protect themselves, and when he uses his dark past as the fuel for his intense rage against humans, well….as the audience, you kinda feel for him.

Here’s an exercise I find helpful when building antagonists: Take the first time your protagonist conflicts with your antagonist and rewrite it from your antagonist’s point of view. Put yourself into the villain’s shoes. Make your villain the protagonist, and force him to justify himself. There’s nothing as intriguing, and as chilling, to me than a bad guy whose reasoning makes sense to me. It stirs the dark bits of my own soul (I’m pretty sure we all have dark soul bits), and that can be deliciously frightening.

But what about all those Eye of Sauron bad guys? The ones without much of a personality or arc, the ones that are just overarchingly evil? Well, I think they’re fine and they do happen quite a bit, especially in Fantasy/SF. In those cases, though, I think the story works only if there is also at least one Backup Antagonist.

I mean, in Lord of the Rings, you’ve got the Eye of Sauron…but then you’ve also got complex, more deeply developed Backup Antagonists. Like Gollum. Harry Potter has Voldemort/Tom Riddle, who is also kind of a muhaha bad guy…but supporting him is a colorful host of baddies, including Draco Malfoy, who tries to thwart Harry at every turn and then falters when he’s asked to do truly heinous things. These Backup Villains are what make both of these stories work for me, even though they have the generically evil, overarching villains.

I’m still deep in the learning process of how to create antagonists that really resonate with readers, but these are some of the things I’ve learned so far that have kind of worked for me. Great villains are harder to come up with than great protagonists, imho, but I think they’re also much more fun. I mean, who doesn’t love conjuring up a badass baddie? 🙂


20 Responses to Thoughts on Villains

  1. Julie May 3 2012 at 5:55 am #

    Great post, Marie! I loved the bit about “Backup Villians.” Thanks for tackling a tough topic!

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:27 pm #

      Thanks Julie! <3 And glad you liked the backup villains bit! 🙂

  2. Kheryn Casey May 3 2012 at 6:30 am #

    Magneto is one of my favorite antagonists too! I especially love sympathetic antagonists, which is why First Class is one of my favorite movies, and why Snape became one of my favorite characters… There should be more sympathetic antagonists and unsympathetic protagonists in YA lit, in my opinion. 🙂

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:28 pm #

      I looooove X-Men First Class so hard! And I totally agree.

  3. Amie Kaufman May 3 2012 at 7:18 am #

    Oh, love it! I definitely find it helpful to remember that the antagonist is the protagonist of a different story, but I hadn’t thought about writing the first meeting from his/her POV. I can immediately see how that would be helpful, and I’m going to try it. Thanks!

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:28 pm #

      Thanks Amie!!

  4. Catherine Stine May 3 2012 at 11:08 am #

    Hi, good post, and very true. Yes, from the villain’s POV he or she IS the hero/heroine. I recently did a post on villains, and the consensus was that people most liked the villains who could sometimes actually be seen as good! See my post if you like here:

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:29 pm #

      I’m so glad that most ppl like sympathetic/almost-good (or at least understandable) villains! They’re so fun to read about.

  5. jodimeadows May 3 2012 at 11:28 am #

    Love this post, Marie. And Backup Villains!

    I just . . . yes to all of this.

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:29 pm #

      Thanks Jodi! <3

  6. Marina May 3 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    This is a great post. I always try to think of a very good reason as to why my antagonist is doing what they’re doing. Sometimes to the point where I start sympathizing way too much with them. I actually have this problem with certain shows too, when I actually start liking the villain more than the hero. I don’t know it’s that a bad thing entirely though.

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:30 pm #

      I love it when I start sympathizing with my antagonist(s), and I definitely think it’s a good thing when that happens ile you’re watching a show. It means the antagonist actually comes off as a real person!

  7. Lexie B. May 3 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    I would try and make an intelligent comment but it’d pretty much just consist of me agreeing with everything you said. So. Yeah. This post.

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:31 pm #

      Aw, thanks Lexie!

  8. Laura E. Wardle May 3 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    Oh, this post. This post came exactly when I needed it. OH THANK YOU, WISE AND LOVELY GODDESSES OF PUB CRAWL.

    I’ve been trying to come up with a sympathetic antagonist for a couple of weeks now. It’s kicking my backside. Have made some progress, but this is just what I need to kick that developing up a notch.

    Thanks for the wonderful post, Marie! Oh, and I finished LEGEND just after 5 on Tuesday morning. Hell, it was SO worth staying up with. It just blew me away. FREAKING LOVED IT! Can’t wait for PRODIGY, which is already pre-ordered, of course. 🙂

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:32 pm #

      Laura, thank you soooo much! Made me smile. 🙂 So glad the post helped out, and sooo thrilled that you enjoyed Legend!

  9. Vanessa Di Gregorio May 4 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    FANTASTIC post, Marie! Especially the backup villains – I love when a story is more complicated and has more than one villain, you know?

    • Marie Lu May 6 2012 at 9:33 pm #

      Haha thanks V! Yeah, I love stories with more than one villain, and then watching those multiple villains interact with each other. 🙂

  10. Matthew Ferrill May 15 2012 at 8:57 am #

    I loved this post. It was insightful – just full of great information. I really liked the suggestion of going back and writing out that first fated encounter of protagonist and antagonist from the antagonist’s point of view. My method has always been to think of a turning point in my life, one of those moments where things could have gone terribly wrong, and them apply it to my antagonist. I think the idea of writing from their point of view would only enhance that process.

  11. Fatima Zahra Jul 25 2017 at 1:01 am #

    I love all your characters. I’m not sure if Thomas was intended to be a “bad guy”, but I admit, I did shed a few tears when he died. I could just sympathise with him so much. Yes, he did do something unforgiveable but he was so torn up about it, I couldn’t hold it against him; especially after he died for the cause.

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