Craft a Compelling Villain

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was a pretty good film, taken on its own. The dramatic tension, the score, and the cinematography all lent it an epic feel, and it was well-paced, with much better dialogue than the preceding two films and a plausible sequence of events that didn’t leave us scratching our heads. But it missed its opportunity to be a great film, for the same reason a lot of books miss the opportunity to be great books.

For those who aren’t familiar with Star Wars (side note: if you’re a writer, you should familiarize yourself with Star Wars, even if it’s not really your thing–it’s such a cultural touchstone), let me quickly recap relevant points: The three prequels–The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith–tell the story of the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, a talented warrior who is seduced by power and becomes the big-scary-bad-guy that is defeated in the original films. We first meet Anakin when he’s eight or nine years old, and we see him grow up, become a Jedi, and ultimately defect, even murdering a dozen children and harming his beloved wife in his quest for power. We see his human side too, and we understand that his fall is driven by his inability to cope with his mother’s brutal murder and his paralyzing fear that he will lose his wife.

The problem is that we don’t ever like him very much.

He’s cute, if a bit annoying, in the first film, but morphs into the most obnoxious teenager you’ll ever meet in your life by Film #2. He’s a a bit better in the first half of Revenge of the Sith, but it’s too little too late. If the movie had shown the step-by-step seduction of a beloved character–if we wept for Anakin’s fate–it could have been a masterpiece. As it was, it was a decent film rendered better by the degree to which it improved over The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

Why the long-winded analysis of a popular movie? Because I’ve seen this same mistake made time and again in novels that I’ve edited.

Now, you don’t always need a complex villain, especially if the villain is largely absent. But if you’re at all exploring the villain’s motivations, you’ll miss your opportunity to craft a great work of fiction if the villain isn’t compelling. Here are a few mistakes I frequently see:

1. The villain’s motivation is power or money.
Sure, lots of people want power (or money, which is essentially a form of power). But that’s an inadequate explanation for a character you’re looking at in any depth. People want power because they crave control, and that’s usually not a character flaw that springs up in a vacuum. Why is the villain desperate for this sense of control? Did he grow up in a disempowered community? Was she abused? Did he lose someone close to him to violence or a brutal disease? Did the protagonist legitimately wrong her? Is she angry? Is he afraid? Why?

2. The villain always does bad things.
Humans are complex, capable of both atrocity and generosity. (For an interesting read, check out information on the Stanford prison experiment.) If you want to make us feel for the villain, show us his good side. Maybe he’s kind to his waitress or willing to stop by the side of the road to save a dog. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It just has to show us that she’s not a caricature. For a movie that does this well and will really make your head spin, watch Crash.

3. The villain’s motivation is stated, not explored.
It’s one thing to mention offhand that she hates Russians because her mother was killed by a member of the Russian mafia. It’s another to explore it piece by piece in her voice zone–a flitting ghost of a memory of her mother, the horror she felt the day she found her shot to death, hearing a Russian accent and thinking at once that it’s her mother’s killer, before calming down. Make sure to do this with grace and subtlety, and don’t bog down the story with memories, but make it clear that her actions come from a place of deep emotional baggage that hasn’t been properly dealt with.

4. The villain is wicked from the beginning.
Now, many times the action of the story doesn’t start until after the villain has shown his true colors. And you don’t need to change this–sometimes, for pacing reasons, it’s the way it needs to be. But if you’re painting a complex villain, realize that there was a time when he was innocent and would have been horrified if he’d known the atrocities he’d commit in the future. This past innocence doesn’t have to factor heavily in the story; in truth, it doesn’t even need to be explicitly mentioned, unless it’s central to the plot. It is, however, important that you as the author realize this, so that you can enter into a place of sympathy with your villain. If you’re not saddened by what he’s become, chances are the reader won’t be either.

Can you name a villain that you absolutely love? One that’s brought you to tears? Why? Join the conversation!

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