The problem with villainy

Don’t stare at the word “villainy” too long, it starts to look really weird.

That’s not the actual problem with villainy, by the way. But good luck not staring at it now.

No, the real problem comes with creating truly memorable villains – what makes an antagonist stand out? Even more complex, how do you make multiple villains that interweave throughout a story, each antagonizing a different plot thread?

Can a single character be a villain in one plotline, and a hero in another, simultaneously?

If you’ve watched enough TV, read enough books, you know the answer is yes. Those are my very favorite kinds of characters: the ones who are capable of almost any role, depending on the situation. For the purposes of this post, I’m calling that type a “chaotic villain” – though what I’m talking about is often called an anti-hero. But how do you create that kind of character, with that much range of swing in the spectrum of “good and evil,” while still making them feel like they have some kind of consistency as a person?

I think the answer is to ignore the spectrum, where your chaotic villain is concerned, and instead focus on their personal motive. The spectrum is all about perception of actions – the actions themselves are all about motive. First, you ask what they want and why – their core goals, their highest ambition, their greatest fear.  Then based on that, you ask what it is that makes other characters (and by extension the reader) perceive their methods as villainous or heroic. If you have a wide enough range of characters, each one will perceive a single action differently – not only because of the varying values they themselves hold, but because each may (read: should) have entirely different information about the chaotic villain.

Let’s say, for example, the chaotic villain burns a house to the ground. Depending on what your other characters know of the villain, and knowledge of what may or may not be at stake, they could rise up in outrage (there were people in there! catch him and punish him!), be driven to villainy themselves (my sister was in there! I’ll kill him!), ponder his actions carefully (I’ve been wrong about him before), or even applaud him (I know everyone in the house was dead when he got there, and that he’s preventing a worse force from obtaining secrets in the house). These are just a few reactions to one simple action – the true tally can (should?) be infinite, depending on the size of the story and the facts you choose to add to the situation.

These are the things I’m thinking about as I solidify my villains for book 1 and beyond…


One thought on “The problem with villainy

  1. It’s probably a silly example, but in the Encyclopedia Brown series of children’s books, the world in the books had a diverse cast of characters. Certain neighborhood kids featured in the books might be his clients in one story, or the culprits in others. Only a couple of “cliche” characters were universally antagonistic.

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