Today I want to talk about a subject that I haven’t really addressed much before: Bad Guys. And there’s a reason for that, because for a long time, I struggled with creating good antagonists for my stories. They were weak, and weak villains make for weak plots. It’s not easy to write a gripping novel when your bad guy is a pushover.
On Monday, I discussed five ways to spot a good character – and this applies to villains as well. If you have a great protagonist, but your antagonist sucks, it creates imbalance in your story world, and makes people wonder why the good guys are having such a tough time winning. This is why it’s important to give your hero a worthy opponent.
In order to understand what makes a villain great, I need to ask a question: why do we fear them?
Some might say it’s because they’re cruel, or vicious; unfeeling, or distant. But I would argue that, often, the most fearsome antagonists are those whom we can see ourselves in. The ones who are not so charred that they cease to be human.
Part of giving your hero a worthy opponent is in creating a character who readers will fear—not because they are simply evil, and are always doing things to prove it, but because they can be taken seriously by their humanity. Good villains don’t need to constantly reiterate the fact that they’re “the Bad Guy.”
Today, I want to share with you guys seven things that can be seen in good bad guys. (You know what I mean.)
1. An Understanding of Emotion
In Monday’s post, I discussed the importance of letting your characters be real with their emotions. And, believe it or not, that goes for the bad guys as well. If you take a minute and think about it, a lot of the best villains are the ones who aren’t blind to emotion. They get it. And they know how to use it. Knowledge of emotions and manipulation skills make for very intimidating antagonists. And there’s no rule that says villains can’t feel emotion, too. Maybe it’s the guy’s job to go around assassinating specified targets, but he has an emotional breakdown when his dog gets hit by a truck.
2. A Display of Human Characteristics
Just because they’re evil doesn’t mean that good villains aren’t humans. A good number of them are. And even if they aren’t, certain human characteristics often give them a fair boost in the scariness department. Because, remember, the most frightening villains are the ones who reflect humanity. Why? Because we understand them. And so we fear them.
3. Possession of a Good Quality
There’s no rule that says the only ingredient in a scary villain is pure evil. Just like flawless heroes don’t resonate with readers, 100% evil usually doesn’t either. One of the best antagonists I’ve read was von Linden from Code Name Verity. The guy was a freaking Nazi, but he was deeply sensitive and caring for his young daughter. While capable of obscene cruelty, as one would expect of a Gestapo Officer, whenever his daughter was mentioned, it was clear you’d struck a chord. He wasn’t without heartstrings to pull. Allowing a villain to have good qualities doesn’t make them seem weak. On the contrary, it often doubles the fear-factor, because now we see the other side of the coin. It’s all part of making them real. Twisted, but human.
4. Solid Motivation
He’s not a bad guy because he wants to be. He wasn’t hired for the job. Even the most sinister villains believe in something they’re fighting for. Remember, every villain is the hero of their own story. No antagonist sees himself as the antagonist. Just like the hero, he has something he’s fighting for. It’s his twisted (but still believable) motivation that makes the difference. It is what drives him to commit his various atrocities. Villains who lack solid motivation automatically lose any claim to being a truly formidable foe.
Villains aren’t stupid. At least, good ones aren’t. If they’re expecting an attack from the hero, they don’t just “forget” to lock the back gate, or post their most useless and easy-to-kill guards. Formidable antagonists have a plan. They know how to be an evil overlord without getting pushed around by the hero. In order to write good villains, you’ve got to learn to think like one.
6. Traits in Common With the Protagonist
Not all good villains have this quality, but a lot of them do. Even if it’s something as simple as a past connection, such as going to the same college, or enjoying the same literature. The strong point in this quality, (and why it made it onto this list), is that a shared trait gives the protagonist the opportunity to see himself in the antagonist. This can be a powerful tool when it comes to creating character arcs. And perhaps it’s not necessarily a common trait, but simply something that both parties agree on.
7. Well Suited for the Story
Finally, a good antagonist is one that fits with your story. Darth Vader would not make a good villain in Lord of the Rings, any more than Sauron would fit into Star Wars. Bad guys only flourish if they are compatible with the world and plot. You can’t just mash all of these qualifications together and tell yourself you’ve got a good villain. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. He’s still got to be right for your story. Which might mean adjusting some of the measurements of the ingredients. Don’t hem your bad guys in. Just as with protagonists, you’ve got to give them a chance to reveal themselves.
Who are some of your favorite antagonists and why? Leave a comment and tell us!
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