I was having a hard time figuring out what to write about tonight, when I pulled up this old post from the Blacklist in my saved notes. The whole thing is worth a read, but it was actually number 7 that inspired this post.
I already shared my sometimes extreme tendency to emote with my characters. I think most writers grow attached to our protagonists and their friends pretty easily. I even shared with you about my first novel that I never finished. Part way through the writing of that, I determined that in order for it to be emotionally real, one of my heroes needed to die. I couldn’t imagine bumping off any of the incredible characters I’d grown so attached to, so I wrote in a new character, so that I could kill him later. The trouble was, as I continued writing, he just got more and more awesome. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I stopped writing that novel when I got to the part where he was supposed to die.
That attachment to our characters is part of the reason it’s so hard to write a good villain. It doesn’t matter how badly I behave, I’ve always got an excuse. I’m not a bad person… really! If you just understood it from my perspective… And that’s the secret to writing a great villain. Often times, we want to push our villains to be really extreme. What’s the most terrible thing they could do to our main character? What horrible thing can they be contemplating? Something so terrible that the hero has to stop them at all costs!
That level of intensity in the conflict is good, but it can easily create a really two dimensional and cartoony antagonist. So, once you’ve figured out all the terrible awfulness that your villain is about, here’s a trick to make them human again:
Write a chapter in their voice and from their perspective.
You don’t have to keep it in your novel, this is an exercise to help you understand them. Be sure you bring them face to face with their terrible choices and give them a chance to explain to someone who’s opinion matters to them: a love interest, a child, their mother, etc. Make them as human as you possibly can. Really get inside their head and figure out what it is that’s brought them to this place, because that’s the secret. No one becomes a monster over night. And even the most terrible monster doesn’t think they’re a monster.
When you’re done, if you don’t have deep compassion for your villain, you probably did it wrong. 🙂 Give it another try. It may require an uncomfortable level of introspection, but coming to grips with the humanity of your villain will strengthen your story significantly.
If you decide to write a villain chapter, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment or send me a note on twitter and let me know how it worked for you.