No Stereotypes, Puh-leeze!
The villain, antagonist, bad guy, girl, or Croc-a-cuda is as important as your protagonist/hero/good… entity.
Many newbie writers assume the antagonist must be pure evil. I did. Fourteen years ago, when I started writing SPIN, I made my bad girl, Wendy Wetz, as evil as evil could possibly be. She and Satan could have been fraternal twins separated at birth. I’m not kidding. I thought I had my villain nailed!
Then I read an article. Writer’s Digest or something like that.
It said that in order for villains to be believable, they had to have a redeemable quality. They had to have some good in them, or the potential to turn from their evil ways.
Think of some of the most memorable villains. Let’s start with Khan. With the reboot of Star Trek, we get to see this menace in two perspectives: young and old in alternate realities. My good friend, Todd, explained that Khan is a great adversary because he symbolizes a challenge that seems impossible to overcome. The Kirk/Khan, Spock/Khan struggle is reflective of David and Golliath. Everyone has giants to overcome in their lives. Todd notes that faith and tenacity help Kirk and Spock overcome this formidable opponent.
In spite of the fact he’s a ruthless killer who can squash a man’s head like a melon with his bare hands, Kahn has a passion. In the new movie, Star Trek, we see his dedication to his people. Yes, he wants revenge, but he also wants to give them new lives. He is undone when he is led to believe they are lost forever.
In The Wrath of Kahn, we see how his hatred toward Kirk twists him to insanity and loss of control. He is still all about his people. He cared for them on a forsaken planet for decades. But his obsession with revenge against Kirk outweighs his desire to live. Kahn’s hatred kills him. But the redeemable quality is that he put his people before himself and cared for them.
Darth Vader is a fantastic villain because he is a redeemed villain. His character arc is completed. Referencing my friend Todd again, Vader is the redemption story we all crave. Deep satisfaction comes with his redemption at the end of the Star Wars saga.
The Borg, from Star Trek Voyager and Next Generation, are in my opinion, the scariest villain ever created. Why? Because we see shadows of them in our reality. They are the Collective/Hive/Communist/Fascist element in our society. They are an extrapolation of taking those ideas to an extreme. They are one, yet they are many. They capture then incorporate their abductees into the hive. The individual ceases to exist. Their main goal is bringing all intelligent life forms into the collective. Resistance is futile. And we see that kind of thing going on around the world and even in our own country today.
Another element for creating a great antagonist is showing the reader why they are the way they are. Give them a backstory. With Wendy, after I read that article, I sat back and wondered why she was the way she was. In SPIN, she’s only 15. What did life do to her to cause her to be a ruthless bully? I came up with a backstory. She was raised by a single mother who had a very dishonorable career. The mother was self-serving, and Wendy practically raised herself. She didn’t know who her father was. Never had a father figure. She’d been abused by her mother’s “clients”. She was jealous of the protagonist of the story, Kisrie Kelley, who had a mother, father, sister and stable home life. And when an opportunity finally presented itself as a means of escape from her horrific home life, Kisrie got in the way and Wendy wasn’t about to lose out. While no one condones what Wendy does, why she does it becomes clear as we learn more about her. We learn what motivates her.
All bad guys have to have a motivation. Anikan Skywalker was driven by the anger over his mothers death, and the desire to find a power strong enough to preserve and restore life. That power ends up draining his. But we understand why he became Darth Vader.
It feels fake and contrived to have evil for evil’s sake. There is more story when the villain has an internal conflict between that seed of good and the pull to perpetrate vile acts. Far more interesting that the mustache-twisting, black suit clad guy in silent movies who ties women to train tracks.
And sometimes the best villains can be mostly good, but slightly off. Think serial killers and psychopaths. In the everyday charade, these people can blend in and be the kindest of neighbors. They tend to be intelligent and gregarious. But when darkness falls, or a full moon rises, they go on a merciless killing spree. Contrast. It’s what captivates. Dave Cullen’s book Columbine is a non-fiction account with almost two decades of research behind it on the psychopathic personality. People who knew those killers well, were surprised at the heinous massacre. It’s not a gentle read. It’s raw, real and heartbreaking.
So here’s my plea to you. No stereotypical bad creatures… puh-leeze! I have put books down for poorly constructed antagonists before. Don’t let that be your story’s fate!
Thanks to Todd and Matthew, for villainous insight from sci-fi fans!
With pen to paper,