April 11, 2013 by KWills
When working on a story, I find the who, where, when and what to be fairly easy. Even the how comes together after a bit of thought and research. The question that is often hardest is: WHY. Heroes and villains need reasons for the things that they do; reasons that go beyond, “She’s good” or “He’s evil”. It is possible to write a convincing character who does good purely and simply because it is the right thing to do, but that sort of saint/hero combo needs to be used sparingly. Most characters will need more than an appeal to their better natures before they will leap into danger for your readers’ entertainment.
Villains, unlike heroes, can never be evil “just because”. That may be the reason they give for their actions – it may even be what they believe – but there has to be more to it than the pursuit of pure evil, or else the character becomes a one-dimensional joke. In order to understand my villains, then, I began to write a short outline of the story as it would be if the villain were telling it. Here’s where the justification comes in (and about time, too) as the character explains why her every action is logical, reasonable, and right. Does she throw obstacles in the path of the heroes? Of course she does – they are trying to wreck her brilliant plans! Throwing prisoners into a lava pit? The screams are very relaxing, and being the head of a vast empire is stressful. Relaxation is a fundamental right.
Villainous characters will work best when they believe in their own actions. Maybe they feel that they have been wronged, and deserve redress. Maybe they think they are special, more important than others, giving them the right to do as they like. Maybe they genuinely oppose what the heroes are out to do, and fight back at great personal risk. Maybe they have a personal grudge against the hero, and can’t let it go1. Maybe they are mentally unstable, and seeing the whole world through a different lens2.
Whatever your villain’s motivation, if needs to be clear in your own mind. You don’t have to explain it in your novel unless you want to, but you yourself must know your villain’s justification for her actions. Once you do, writing scenes with the villain will be much easier, and the story will have a stronger internal logic. You may even find yourself sympathising with your villain at times. In “The History of Haplow House” I have a petty, entitled snob as my villain. He is deliberately unlikeable, but after getting inside his head, I found myself feeling a little sorry for him. Especially at the end, when all his carefully constructed plans fall apart.
Characters don’t have to be nice, or sensible, or even sane, but they do need to be reasonably consistent. And they do need to be able to justify their actions, even if only to themselves. It’s the rest of the world that has things wrong.
As Horace Vandergelder said, “90% of the people in this world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contamination.”
1. Be careful with this one, though. Bearing grudges is the mark of a small mind, and may cheapen your villain.↩
2. Be even more careful with this one! Research the daylights out of any medical condition you are going to write about, especially if you give it to a villain. Talk to real people, not just medical textbooks.↩