Hopefully most of us sitting down to write a novel wouldn’t be considered villains. Yet, more often than not, we must write villains. We must step out of ourselves and into a set of evil shoes that our parents, our religion and our society have taught us to avoid. We must know what it is to be evil because, as we all know, you can’t write what you don’t know.
While sometimes it seems that evil is simply evil for no reason that is most certainly not the case. Villains—or I should say, well done villains—cannot be motivated by the “they’re just like that” mentality we’re often presented with.
I’ve seen writers brush this idea off, citing villains like Red Scull from Marvel’s Captain America as an excuse of why they don’t have to develop their villains. But take that into account. Which villain would you rather take credit for? Red Scull, a flat, evil guy with no real motivation or another Marvel villain, Loki, a rich, multi-layered baddie with motivations to spar? From the shallowest mean girl to the darkest dark lord, villains need motivations.
To find those motivations have to spend some time thinking like your character. You must know their past, and their goals and desires. Beware! Don’t trick yourself into thinking that knowing your character is an orphan who wants to take over the world is enough. Just like a hero, they need depth. Lots of it. If you don’t have it, it shows in your writing.
I’ve found that a great way to add depth to your villains and heroes alike is to simply ask “why” and keep asking until you can sum up their response with a base response. If you don’t follow what I’m trying to convey here try doing it with a baddie you already know. We’ve already mentioned Marvel’s Loki and Red Scull so let’s take a look at them both:
In Captain America, Red Scull wants to take over the world. Why? Because he thinks he’s a god. Why? Because he’s insane. Why? No one knows. End of exercise. He’s a flat, dull character.
Now let’s look at Loki. In Avengers he wants to take over the world, an identical goal to Red Skull, but very quickly we see how much better developed Loki is. Why does Loki want to take over the world? Because he wants to punish and show up Thor. Sum that up as vengeance. That’s a good base motivation but that’s not all that drives Loki. Why does he want vengeance? Because he wasn’t chosen to rule Asguard (read: jealous). Why not? Because he’s a frost giant—the only one among the Asguardians. He doesn’t belong.
Now we see all sorts of great, deep motivations. Vengeance, jealousy, the desire to fit in. These are powerful emotions even non-megalomanics can relate to.
Now take your villain. Instead of trying to guess the answers to those whys you get to put the answers in place. Keep asking why until you can sum up the characters response in two to four single visceral words. Love. Jealousy. Hate. Revenge. Fear. Everyone can relate to these sorts of emotions. Even if you’ve never acted on them you know how you wanted to. Remember what those emotions conjure up, hang onto them and put yourself in your character’s shoes. Bring yourself mentally to the point that a normal, healthy, polite person would you’d turn away from that emotion and instead have your villain keep going. Brush aside those inhibitions that society has created to form civilization.
Likewise, if you already have a scene or action in mind (or on the page), you can work backwards asking why questions. Once you understand the emotion the action is coming from you can hold onto it as you write, tweaking the dialogue and descriptions and, without the need of any gratuitous exposition, reveal your villain’s layers. Imagine a moment where the villain belts the hero across the room. Instead of saying “Fool! You’ll never trick me!” He snarls, “Liar! You’re trying to trick me. Just like all the others!” as a single tear traces down his cheek. Which is more powerful? Which tells you more about the character?
It’s a lot of work. It can be emotionally draining sometimes but if you can get the hang of finding the emotional motivation for your character and writing from that place, you’ll be thinking, not just like a villain, but a deep, well rounded character who will be liked and enjoyed as much as your heroes.
What villains do you feel are exceptionally well written? Why? What do you think their root motivations are?
S.J. Abraham is a writer working towards traditional publication. He’s a geek to the core and seeks to write stories that will inspire younger geeks to embrace their nerdy side and never look back. He writes a fiction blog at geekywriting.blogspot.com
Images are copyright of Marvel. Courtesy of Marvel.com