Well, after seeing a few interesting “villain” characters in some of the creative works I’ve looked at recently, I thought that I’d offer a few thoughts about how to write this type of character.
These points obviously only apply to stories that have a fairly clear “protagonist vs. villain” structure to them and, of course, these aren’t the only types of stories out there.
1) Morality and complexity: I should probably start with the basics. Don’t fall into the tired old trope of making your main character “100% good” and your villain “100% evil”. Not only does this turn your main character into an unrelatable and completely insufferable “goody two-shoes” character, but it also turns your villain into a hilariously silly cartoon character too. Yes, if you’re doing this for comedic effect, then it can work well. But, if you’re trying to write anything other than comedy, then you need to include some level of moral ambiguity in your story.
In short, your villain has to be more evil than (or less good than) the main character. It is a relative thing. If you want your audience to relate to your main “good” character, then they need to have flaws and at least a small amount of moral ambiguity that shows the audience that they are only human. Yes, they still need to do more good things than evil things and to display qualities like empathy, compassion etc… But if your novel feels like it is preaching at the reader or your “good” character is the type of puritanical person who would probably sneer at or lecture the reader in real life, then it is going to be off-putting.
So, in a compelling and realistic story, morality should be relative. Your villain should have some “good” qualities too – but should still be more evil than good. Your readers are intelligent people who have their own consciences and are more than capable of weighing good and bad and coming to nuanced conclusions. So, don’t patronise them!
Every story has a moral landscape and/or message of some kind. However, if you want this to be interesting or useful to the reader, then you shouldn’t patronise them by making this element of the story too simplistic. People read fiction in order to ponder complex moral questions (eg: “How would I react in that situation?”, “Were that character’s actions justified?” etc..) and to gain a more nuanced understanding of humanity (eg: “Why do people do evil things?” etc…). So, don’t patronise them!
2) Sympathy and seriousness: In general, the most compelling villain characters tend to be complex characters who the audience is just as likely to feel sorry for as they are to despise. Not only does this add an extra level of depth to their character, but it also adds a bit of realism and nuance to the story too. After all, villain characters are still characters.
The traditional way of doing this is to show elements of the villain’s tragic backstory that led them to become the villain and/or by showing the downsides of a life of villainy. But, if you want something a little less old-fashioned, then one of the best ways to write these types of villains is simply to make them the main characters of their own stories (which happen to be different to the main character’s story).
In other words, if your story was told from the villain’s perspective – would it still “work” as a story?
For example, the main character’s unfaithful boyfriend – Gerry- in the film “Sliding Doors” is both racked by inner tumult over the affair and presented in a vaguely “Macbeth”-like way, where he is in over his head and stuck in his other relationship (despite his attempts at breaking it off). Although he’s clearly presented as an unsympathetic character, there are enough moments of angst and nervous suspense for the audience to be able to pity him too. If the film was presented from Gerry’s perspective, it could easily be a suspense thriller, a cautionary tale or even a mild psychological horror movie.
To give another example – although Sarah Tyrell is presented as an antagonist to the main character in K. W. Jeter’s novel “Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night“, she is probably the most complex and well-written character in the novel. Because she gets her own story arc and the reader also gets to see her thoughts, backstory and motivations – she becomes more than just a “villain” and becomes much more of a tragic character. The segments of the novel that focus on her often read more like something from the horror, dark comedy or conspiracy thriller genre and could easily work as a stand-alone story.
If you don’t do this sort of thing in your story, then your villain character will be a lot more like Dr. Jadus Heskel – the cackling “evil for the sake of evil” villain in the computer game “Ion Fury“. Because the game has strong comedy elements, this type of cheesy “cartoonishly evil” villain works absolutely perfectly here and really helps to add a bit of melodramatic amusement to parts of the game. However, and this is the important thing to remember, these types of two-dimensional moustache-twirling villains only really work in the comedy genre. They’re too silly for the audience to take seriously.
3) Villain names: In short, if you’re trying to write a serious story with moral complexity, then you want to give your villain a fairly “ordinary” name. This not only hints to the reader that this is just another character who will be treated with the same dramatic weight and complexity as the main character, but it also adds some subtle suspense to your story by showing an evil character who appears perfectly ordinary at first.
Still, there’s something to be said for a good villain name. For example, in the tome-sized 1980s sci-fi novel I’m reading at the moment (“The Snow Queen” by Joan D. Vinge), the main antagonist is a ruthless monarch called Arienrhod. If you say her name out loud or break it down into two parts, then it has fairly clear connotations of fascism and harshness. Yet, you’ll probably read her name a couple of times before you work this out. It’s a really clever villain name that slightly unsettles the reader and makes this character seem evil before the reader even knows why.
However, if your villain has too much of an obvious “villain name”, then you’re stepping into the realm of cartoonishness and comedy (I mean, there’s a reason why Cruella DeVille – literally “cruel devil” – is in a children’s cartoon, rather than a serious drama film) and your audience won’t be able to take the character quite as seriously as they would do if they have a more subtle villain name or just have a fairly “ordinary” name.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂