Villains Don’t Always Wear Black

Evil is live spelled backwards. The protagonist of a novel represents life; the villain, anti-life. How do you develop, strengthen and revise this important character?
Villains Don't Always Wear Black | Fiction Notes by Darcy Pattison

Count Olaf as the Ultimate Villainous Character

Harpercollins editor Susan Rich, who edited the Lemony Snicket series of fiction for children, comments about the villain in these books. “Count Olaf is reprehensible. He has barely any redeeming qualities. He’ll do anything to get what he wants. He reaps joy from his endless pursuit of the Baudelaire children. He’s thoroughly villainous.”

Among all the possible characters to populate a novel, the villain is one of the most interesting. The protagonist, or main character, receives the most attention in character development articles and books. But a good villain can bring a dull story to life. Francis Foster, publisher of Frances Foster Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, says, “A novel needs conflict. A good villain can make that conflict clear and strong. Villains add interest, excitement, edge.”

David Lubar, author of eleven novels and story collections, including Hidden Talents and True Talents, takes it a step farther. “There are both internal and external reasons to use a villain. Externally, this helps map the real world, which affirms the reader’s suspicion that there are unpleasant people out there. Internally, it raises the stakes. The hero can’t reason with a villain.”

Villain or Antagonist?

If nothing interesting happens without a villain, then we need to know what a villain is. Foster says, “Thinking of villains in the most basic, childlike language, he is the bad guy in the novel. The people that do evil things. They come in many different sizes and shapes.”

Rich says, “The villain is the nemesis of the protagonist, a no-good nick with ill intent. He’s nasty for the purpose of being nasty.”

How does a villain differ from an antagonist? An antagonist is a general term for the person who opposes the protagonist and villain is a sub-category of antagonists. Foster says, “An antagonist is someone that is against whatever is happening. They aren’t all villainous. You can be an antagonist, but still be good. On the other hand, a villain concentrates on bad deeds, on evil. ”

Are Villains limited to Folktales and Mock-Victorians?

It may seem that the term villain is outmoded. It applies only to folktales (monsters, witches, ogres, evil wizards) or to Victorian (Snively Whiplash) or outdated stories (outlaws like Jesse James). Contemporary antagonists tend to be more rounded, less patently evil. But editors insist that villains still populate contemporary books.

Rich says, “I edited Homeless Bird, by Gloria Whelan, which is contemporary fiction set in India. The mother-in-law in the story has much in common with Count Olaf. She’s wholly villainous, wholly self-absorbed. She holds the power to undo the hope for the life of our protagonist.” Adding a villain character to a novel does help make the story more powerful: Whelan won the 2000 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her novel, Homeless Bird.

Foster says an example of a contemporary villain is in Suzanne Fisher Staples’ novel, Dangerous Skies, which is set in Chesapeake Bay area. “The antagonist is pillar of the community, in that he gives money to the library and is from an old, respected family. He’s a bad character even though he isn’t generally recognized as this. What makes it so agonizing in reading and hard for the protagonist is that none of the adults see him as bad. They see him as a good man, but he’s not. He’s a villain.”

Create Antipathy instead of Sympathy for your Villain

Villains are bad guys who function in novels to escalate the conflict. But how do you create a convincing villain?

Lubar says, “Pure, unrelenting evil gets boring. That’s why Bond villains have pet cats. Give your villain a bit of depth and variety. In his excellent pamphlet, ’12 Things I Wish I had Known When I Started Writing,’ Ben Bova points out that, ‘No one actually sets out to do evil.’ This is a brilliant observation that has served me well in all my writing. (People who spend far too much time with books might recall the issue was also hashed around a bit by Socrates and Protagoras.) The bad guy isn’t doing bad stuff so he can rub his hands together and snarl. He may be driven by greed, neuroses, or the conviction that his cause is just, but he’s driven by something not unlike the things that drive a hero.”

When you create a villain, you want the reader of your novel to feel antipathy toward that character, rather than sympathy. To do this, you use the same tools that you use to characterize any character. Give the character a convincing backstory that explains motivations, then personalize them with depth and variety.

Foster edited Louis Sachar’s book, Holes, which won both the 1998 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the 1999 Newbery award. She says, “One thing about Sachar’s villains is that they are nuanced characters. He has a sort of darkly humorous approach, so his villains – even in Holes – aren’t cartoon characters.”

Foster discusses how Sachar creates both antipathy and sympathy for the villains. “You need enough enough explanation so you can understand the novel. In Holes, when you realize what the Warden’s history is, or when you look at Kissing Kate Barlow, you have examples of characters who seems justified in their actions. You understand why Kate turned bad. It makes the novel richer if you can follow the line of thinking or reasons for someone’s behavior. That doesn’t mean you always spell it out. But within the needs of the story, you need to know.”

Believable Character Motivations for Evil Characters

Sid Fleischman, author of numerous books, including the Newbery award winning novel, The Whipping Boy, says, “I do think you have to lay in, at least in a single broad stroke, a motivation for villainy. In the Three Little Pigs, we assume the wolf is hungry.”

Why is this character ignoring society’s standards of morality and doing something that is considered evil? Without this information, you run the danger of losing credibility in the story.

While most agree that the villain’s motivations need to be clear, some novels get by without this. Rich says, “Lemony Snicket never gives Count Olaf redeeming qualities. We’ll never learn that Count Olaf was mistreated as a child, or he is lonely, or needs a friend. He won’t be redeemed. He’s thoroughly villainous. I find that a redeeming quality; he’s likeable because he is so outrageously horrid.”

Because of her experience editing Count Olaf, Rich doesn’t agree that you must include specific motivations in every novel about a villain. “Resist the temptation to make him or her sympathetic. It’s not necessary. We don’t need to learn that the villain has a soft spot for puppies. That waters them down, rather than strengthens their character.” Count Olaf is a pure villain, through and through. And that is precisely what makes him a wonderful character.

The decision to include specific motivations or not must depend on the type novel you’re writing, and the specific needs of that story. Lemony Snicket’s stories are sort of mock-Victorian and following the Victorian tradition of melodramatic villains, he gets by with a pure villain. But even Holes, a modern-folktale story, requires a more developed villain.

Depth and Variety for Your Villains

After the broad strokes laying out the evil intentions and motives of the villain, it’s time to make him or her more specific. Look to the needs of the novel and the milieu of the story for ideas on specific villainy. For example, the Warden in Holes has rattlesnake venom nail polish. On his website, Sachar says, ” It’s hard to remember where different ideas come from, but I think it first started when I originally thought the Warden was going to be the granddaughter of Kissing Kate Barlow. And Kissing Kate always killed the men she kissed. At the time, I may have even considered that her lipstick might be poisoned. So, I wanted to do something along the same lines. Instead of poison lipstick, the warden had poison nail polish.”

Often writers have a difficult time creating specific evil in a novel. The writer is non-confrontational themselves, and it just feels wrong to include such bad things in a story for kids. Lubar says, “To do it right, I think you need to move beyond your own comfort level. If I create a villain who is basically just me at my worst, I’ll end up with a guy who jaywalks and maybe drinks milk directly out of the carton. Real villains do things I’d never do. (On the other hand, they obviously do things I’m capable of imagining and describing. But that’s another issue.)”

Tips to Write a Better Villain Character

“I think the main danger with a villain,” Fleischman says, “is going over the top. It’s easy to have him twirl his mustaches too much and chortle and sneer too sneeringly. You gotta make him believable. The villains in my novels chew up the scenery a bit more than others. I get away with these touches of whimsy because my novels are comedies.” In other words, avoid cliches and melodrama.

Often writers face critiques of their villains and the recommendation is to soften the villain’s evil ways. Foster says, “That usually means that the villain isn’t coming off as quite believable. The writer has put so much energy and emotion into creating the character that the writer has lost sight of how the villain is appearing. Usually, when a writer is asked to revise a depiction of a character it is to make it fit the needs of the novel better. It’s not because the editor is afraid of including an evil character in a novel.”

Foster gives an example. “When I worked with Louis Sachar on , There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, the teacher seemed too harsh to believe in the first draft. He was modeling her on real life experiences, but the depiction wasn’t working. Sachar did soften the teacher character a bit, not because I was concerned about being politically correct, or teachers who might read the book or reviewers. But it was important that the character was strong and credible. By going back to look at her again, Sachar took the raw passion of the first draft and refined what he was doing.”

Above all, credibility is the key to creating good villains. Within the story being told, this villain’s evil ways must be appropriate.

“Believe in your villain,” Rich emphasizes, “as much as you believe in your heroes.”

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