Interview with a Villain

Every book has one, in one form or another. No, I don’t mean a villain like from a James Bond film who lives on an island shaped like a skull. Your book might not even have a true villain per se, but you do have an antagonist. If you want your story to be compelling and interesting, you need to spend at least as much time on your “bad guy” as you do on your “good guy.” It might not even be a person, but if it is, here are some things I’ve learned about making a good counter to your protagonist (main character):

Goals – “What’s my motivation in this scene?”

Every antagonist has one, and no, “because they’re evil” isn’t good enough. Don’t be mistaken, the motive doesn’t have to fit with societal mores, but it does need to be believable. It has to make sense for that character. So ask yourself, or better yet, ask your character what he or she wants, and more importantly, why. You can actually get quite a lot from this if you paint the full picture. Imagine the scene where you’re meeting your villain. What is the character wearing? Is she waiting for you, or are you waiting for her? If he is waiting for you, does he stand when you arrive? Who chose the venue? Are other people staring? If so, how does the character react? The more detailed your imagining, the fuller the character will be to you, and thus to your readers. For example, let’s take a villain from a story just about everyone has either read or knows about: Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Apologies to Ms. Rowling for the butchering that follows. I hope you have a good sense of humor.

Voldemort met me at a popular London café overlooking the Thames River. His pale skin, serpent like nose, and trademark flowing, black robes made him easy to spot. He was sitting at a table with a view of the bustling river traffic, a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended. His now-famous wand sat on the table next to some kind of Asian inspired salad. I think he smiled when he saw me, it was hard to tell, and invited me to join him. A cup of tea was waiting for me, but the wait staff was nowhere to be seen, so he poured the tea himself. I didn’t drink it.

Bishop: Thank you for meeting with me, Voldemort.

Voldemort: Certainly. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t wait for you. They have the most exquisite quinoa salad here.

B: Not at all.

V: I’d ask if you want anything, but the wait staff is, well, indisposed at the moment.

B: I’m fine, thank you. Let’s get to it, shall we? Voldemort, tell me, what do you want?

V: I want to kill Harry Potter, of course.

B: Okay, I got that. But that’s really the short term goal, isn’t it? I mean, what do you really want?

V: Ah. Well, I’m so very glad you asked. I know it’s terribly cliché, but I want to rule the world. My personal twist is that I also want to be the most powerful wizard ever. Harry Potter is just the one who can best deny me those things.

B: Now we’re getting somewhere. Why do you want to rule the world?

V: Well, everybody everyone wants to rule the world.

B: I had no idea you were a Tears for Fears fan.

V: Two of my favorite things. Seriously, though, I suppose I could say it’s the power I want, but that’s so simplistic. Really, I’m a good old fashioned racist.

B: You’re a racist?

V: I know, I know, that word has such a negative connotation. But you see, my racism isn’t as simple as skin color or religion. You muggles, quite frankly, are inferior to us wizards.

B: Could you explain?

V: Happily. As wizards, we wield truly immense power. We can violate your pathetic laws of physics. We have flying cars, for crying out loud! Your scientists have been promising those to you since the 1950s, yet the only ones I see are magical. Mud-Bloods, those wizards born from the horrible mixing of a wizard and a muggle, are just a sad half breed. While it elevates the muggle half, it pollutes the wizard blood beyond repair. Muggle-born wizards are just freaks of nature. No, it’s pure-blood wizards who can, and should, be the ones to rule. We’ve had magic in our families for countless centuries, and I know it’s overplayed, but might really does make right.

B: It is a bit cliché.

V: For good reason. With rare exceptions, the one with the bigger club, and the ability to use it, wins.

B: Okay, so you’re saying wizards—

V: Pure-blood wizards.

B: Sorry, pure-blood wizards should rule the world, and you being the most powerful, should rule them?

V: Exactly. You muggles, are an inferior species of the human race, like the Neanderthals—

B: Actually, I think it’s pronounced Neander-tal

V: AVADA KEDAVRA!

And….scene. Obviously I had fun with this, partly because parody covers me from a lawsuit, but also because it kept you reading. Regardless, you see that he wanted more than to kill the kid with the lightning bolt on his face. You need to understand not just your villains’ immediate goals, but their long term motivations. When you go to the store, it’s not just to buy food. It’s because you have to eat to live, and odds are you don’t or can’t raise enough food on your own to sustain yourself. The disparity isn’t terribly complicated, but it has a big impact on your story. It doesn’t matter if your antagonist is a normal everyday person, or a scary, murderous monster. In fact, if you want your villain to be a monster, having a good motive is key. Which is more frightening: A raving lunatic walking the street hunting people (insert generic horror movie monster here), or a true sociopath who is well organized, has a goal (however twisted), a detailed plan to achieve it, and goes about executing said plan in a cold, ruthless manner (Hannibal Lecter-esque)? Odds are you picked the latter. At least according to movie ticket sales, book sales, and cultural impact.

Tom Hiddleston, probably best known in the U.S. for his role as Loki in The Avengers and Thor movies, said, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” Hearing that quote for the first time was an aha moment for me. It made sense. Villains never think they’re the villain. Oh, they might recognize that society will see them that way, but THEY know the truth. I won’t take up your time by making a list, but I will suggest you make one. Look at your favorite book, movie, TV show, what have you, and think of the antagonist in it. I’d be willing to bet (but please don’t email me offering a bet because you found an exception to this) that they’re doing what they felt had to be done. It might be their own ideals, looking for vengeance (justice in their mind), because their dog told them, or anything else. Regardless, they have their reasons.

No, your villains don’t have to be likeable. But, if you make them understandable, and there is a difference, you’ll make your reader really love to hate them.

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