Let’s face it, reading and watching stories told from the perspective of “the good guys” can get kind of dull sometimes.
I don’t know, this might just be a British thing (possibly something to do with the fact that we always end up playing the villains in Hollywood movies) but there’s certainly something to be said for making your protagonists more than a little bit evil. Strange as it may sound, villains (especially slightly exaggerated ones) are often a hell of a lot more fun to write than heroes.
I think that the reasons why these characters are so fun to write include the fact that writing a villain is a “safe” way to express the evil parts of our imaginations, the fact that villains are often much more complex than heroes and the fact that it’s hard to be frightened of a villain (and all the things they represent) if you’re the one who has created him or her.
Writing villains is fun, fascinating, cathartic, funny and… well… often much more interesting than writing heroes.
Whilst there is something of a tradition of villainous protagonists in “serious” fiction (eg: Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” novels, Brett Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho”, George R. R. Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels etc…), villainous protagonists tend to be at their best in the comedy and horror genres for some reason.
Some of the best comedic examples of this can actually be found in British TV from the 1980s/90s – such as (the much-missed) Rik Mayall’s excellent performance as Alan B’stard in “The New Statesman” or Rowan Atkinson’s brilliant performance as “Blackadder” in the show of the same name.
Likewise, it’s no coincidence that horror series often feature the villain as the only real recurring character. I mean, just look at James Herbert’s “Rats” novels, the “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies, the “Saw” movies, the “Hellraiser” movies, the “Alien” movies etc…I’m sure you get the idea.
So, how do you write a good villainous protagonist?
1) Humour: Even if you’re writing a horror story with an evil protagonist, then they need to have a sense of humour (preferably an extremely twisted one). This might seem slightly counter-intuitive, but giving your villain a sense of humour enables your readers to laugh along with (or at) the villain and – whilst not completely sympathise with them – like them enough to want to hang around with them for the rest of the story.
There are countless ways to do this – from cheesy one-liners (eg: if your villain says something like “don’t forget your sunblock” before kicking one of the annoying good guys into an active volcano) to showing the villain unknowingly doing things that the readers find hilarious (eg: making their henchmen wear silly uniforms etc…).
But your villainous protagonist must have at least some humour surrounding them, otherwise your readers will probably just end up hating him or her.
2) Glee: In short, your villain must enjoy being a villain and take pride in their villainy. They must be the kind of person who was put on this earth purely to hatch diabolical schemes and gain as much power as possible.
Yes, if you’re writing a “serious” story then you can add moral conflict to your villainous protagonist and show them to be a tragically misguided person who thinks that they are actually the true hero of the story. But, let’s be honest, where’s the fun in that?
Evil for the sake of evil isn’t particularly realistic but -for some bizarre reason – it can be incredibly funny and/or horrifying to read about. So, don’t be afraid to make your villain proud to be a villain.
3) Small acts of evil: Proper moustache-twirling, card-carrying villainy isn’t a part-time job. It’s a vocation. So, sometimes the best way to amuse and/or horrify your audience is to show the small evil things that your villain does when they aren’t plotting world domination.
I’m talking about the small things here, the little acts of villainy that keep your villain going until their next big evil plot or dramatic showdown with the good guys. I’m talking about things like gleefully pointing out badly-parked cars to traffic wardens and all of these other smaller (and more realistic) acts of “everyday” villainy.
As I said earlier, this sort of thing can be played for laughs (eg: TV shows like “The New Statesman” have got this down to a fine art) or it can be done to send a shiver down the spines of your audience (eg: like King Joffrey in “Game Of Thrones”). But, either way, remember that your villain is a full-time villain and not a part-time villain.
4) Reactions: Sometimes the best way to add horror and/or humour to your villainous protagonist is by showing how all of the other characters react to him or her. This can include everything from love to hatred, but it adds depth to their character and it shows that their evil actions really make a difference in the world.
Not only that, if your villain is an absolutely expert at trickery, disguise and deception (like “Fantomas“) – then showing other character’s reactions to your villain can be one of the best ways of either creeping your audience out or making them roll around on the floor with laughter.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂