Writing Villains With Impact by Alex Bryant
Villains. Let’s face it, while your hero can be inspiring and empathetic, it’s a well-written villain that always steals the show. Some are flawed but redeemable, while others are pure evil. But whatever the case, every good villain manages to hypnotize their audience through sheer force of personality.
But what actually is a villain? And how can we write one that can shoulder the weight of the plot, steal the reader’s heart, and incite their fury, all at the same time?
We often use the word ‘antagonist’ interchangeably with ‘villain.’ But technically, this isn’t quite right. ‘Antagonist’ literally means the character opposed to the main direction of the plot, in contrast to the ‘protagonist,’ who is pushing the plot forward. But in fact, the villains of virtually every action, crime, or mystery story are the ones driving the plot forward. Take James Bond as an example – each film’s plot is driven forward by the villain working towards their evil ends, while Bond himself does everything he can to stop them.
So if the villain isn’t always the antagonist, who are they? And why do they find themselves in this nefarious position? I’d suggest that the answer lies not in what the villain does, but in the principles they embody. No matter what kind of villain we’re dealing with, they’ll always be fundamentally opposed to the hero when it comes to some kind of principle that’s central to the plot.
This will often, but not always, be a moral principle: the villain is self-serving and unafraid to hurt others to get their way, while the hero always acts for the greater good. But this isn’t always the case. Take Javert from Les Misérables: a fiercely moral policeman who’s just trying to bring the hero, escaped criminal Jean Valjean, to justice.
A clash between the hero and villain’s principles will, of course, lead to a clash in their actions, which drives the plot forward. In any story, the hero and villain will find themselves, again and again, standing in each other’s way, with ever-escalating stakes, until one of them eventually triumphs. But the clash in actions, the external conflict which is easiest to spot when thinking about the plot, is only half the story. There’s also the internal conflict between the principles themselves taking place. We see this internal conflict taking place in the hero’s own mind; they wrestle with their own ideology as they try to come to terms with the villain’s.
One of my favourite story theories, Dramatica, suggests that we should stop thinking about villains altogether, and start thinking about ‘impact characters.’ The impact character may or may not be a villain, but they’ll always be a character who presents the hero with a fundamentally different principle. The ideological clash between the hero and the impact character will cause the conflict which drives the novel. Sometimes, the hero will learn from the impact character and adapt their own principles; sometimes, they’ll hold firm and reject the impact character’s philosophy completely. Either way, this journey of discovery generates both the hero’s internal development and the external plot progression that gives any story its drive and meaning.
The original Star Wars trilogy provides one of the most brutally obvious depictions of this relationship between hero and villain, and the journey the hero goes on. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are similar in countless ways, growing up in obscurity, before being discovered to harness the great potential and taken under Obi-Wan Kenobi’s wing. Both are headstrong and ideological, determined to change the world. Not to mention that Darth Vader is (spoiler alert) Luke’s father. The one crucial way in which they differ is that Darth Vader chooses the Dark Side of the Force, while Luke (eventually) chooses the Light. Luke’s journey towards making this choice in the face of countless temptations from the impact character, Darth Vader, to follow in his footsteps, are what drive the character development of the trilogy, while the countless violent clashes between the Empire and Rebels provide the external plot development.
Thinking about an impact character instead of a villain helped me understand my own villain and his relationship to my hero in The Identity Thief. From the beginning, I knew that my hero and villain would have more similarities than differences. I wanted to create a hero that behaved mostly villainously, and a villain with strong principles who you couldn’t help but sympathise with. My hero, Cass, is a clever but manipulative Year 8 (that’s ages 12-13 for everyone outside the UK!) student who’s not afraid to use every dirty trick in the book to keep her head above the murky social waters of her school. The villain, Cuttlefish, is a grandstanding sorcerer who changes his appearance to manipulate others to their doom. But while Cass ruthlessly hurts others only to shore up her own social standing, Cuttlefish is working towards a loftier, if slightly insane, goal.
However, as the story is told through Cass’s eyes, she manages to pull the wool over the readers’ eyes too. Most readers don’t notice Cass’s treacherous ways until they’re pointed out by…you guessed it, Cuttlefish. It takes a villain – an impact character – to hold up a mirror to the hero and show them the principles guiding their every action, for better or for worse.
So as you’re developing your villain, think: How does my villain impact the hero? How will they shake my hero’s principles to their core? Will, my hero, learn and adapt to the villain’s principles, or will they hold firm to their own? If you answer those questions well, you’ll have created a villain with a true impact.
The Identity Thief is published on 29th Feb 2020 – learn more right here!