Too often in fiction, writers take the easy road of having white-hat versus black-hat stories: heroes are handsome and likeable, villains are ugly and mean, and it’s plain from the beginning who the audience is supposed to root for. These stories can be done well and are often enjoyable to read. But they also make it difficult for writers to surprise readers, and limit the types of stories that can be told.
Very often in real life, a person doesn’t know who their real allies and opponents are at the beginning. People can seem one way, and then turn out to be very different. When the same holds true in fiction, it can make stories more gripping, twists more astonishing, and readers ever more eager to turn the page. This is not to say that all characters have to be morally ambiguous. In contrast, giving villainous characters likeable traits and heroes annoying ones highlights the important parts of their natures while enabling readers to more fully interact with them as people. It’s easy to give heroes unlikeable traits at the beginning of a book – this is the basis of character development. It’s harder to treat villains well, to keep them evil while giving them just enough good qualities to make their offers seem tempting, their lies attractive, or their goals reasonable. Here are three ways that authors can do it.
Give the villain a sense of humor
We all like to laugh. We may fear and hate serious, black-caped villains who threaten to destroy the world, but we don’t ever feel ourselves being tempted to join them. A villain who laughs, in contrast, who quips and jokes and is fun to be around (at least when they aren’t busy plotting how to bring down Our Hero), is dangerous to the hero’s soul – and to ours. It’s easy to be swayed by someone who is funny, because funny people are likeable, and we tend to agree with what (and who) we like. When evil is dark and serious and foreboding, it’s easy to notice it and avoid it. When it wears cheerful colors, a bright smile, and invites you to come along and join the fun, it’s much harder to refuse. Writing humorous villains, then, is a way of presenting a far greater temptation to a main character than they might otherwise face, and is a way of setting up a conflict that will be far more powerful for readers in the end, when they realize that the laughing villain is truly as dangerous – and needs to be stopped just as much – as the one who wears black and sneers at the world.
Give the villain a group of trusted friends or family
We’re all used to reading about lone villains who have isolated themselves from the world and hate everyone in it. It’s easy to fight against people who are fighting against everyone else – knowing that if the Lord of Darkness falls the entire world will rejoice is a powerful motivator to the hero. What if, instead, the villain is part of a small group of people who all trust each other, like each other, and work together as a team? The mafia would be a good example of this. Loyalty to one’s family is a good and honorable thing, and having readers see that loyalty gives a sense of depth and complexity to characters that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Murder is just as wrong when it’s done by a lone vigilante versus a mafia hitman with a wife and children, but a traditional hero would probably feel guiltier about bringing down the second than the first. Even if the hero doesn’t respond differently, if a reader sees the villain having human bonds and caring about other people – even if they’re other bad people – it can make their evil deeds seem more forgivable or justified. This then becomes an opportunity for discussions about the nature of morality and what, truly, the hero is fighting for.
Give the villain a brain
The famous Evil Overlord List is a classic example of how often this recommendation is not followed. Villains who are boring, trite, or maniacally-clever-but-make-stupid-mistakes are hard to take seriously. Heroes have to fight them, but there’s no doubt of what they’ll do. In contrast, villains who are smart, capable, and one step ahead of the hero make readers sit up and take notice. We tend to like people who are able to make things happen, who are movers and shakers, who are able to enact their will on the world. When someone evil is also capable and creative, that spells doom far more quickly than a villain who wastes time or resources, and/or is constantly narrowly escaping being caught by the cleverer hero.
Smart villains, villains with human ties, villains who make us laugh – these are the truly dangerous men and women we find in novels and meet on the streets. These are the ones that we not only need to fight against, but guard our hearts and minds against. These are the villains that make readers think, and heroes struggle.
How have you seen smart, connected, or funny villains used in stories?