The Villain’s Outlook

Whether you are pantsing or plotting, making sure that your villain knows what he’s doing is important. In previous novels, I’ve failed miserably at this—been so enthralled with my heroes and what swashbuckling, cape-swishing maneuvers they are pulling off to worry about my villains. In my stories, they were usually condemned to vague counter-moves … having no other vision in life rather than to thwart the hero, and no true purpose to what they did. Instead of the hero reacting, it was often the antagonists shoved into reactionary mode. The main problem was that I had no idea of the logic behind their actions. Did they have any? What was the point of capturing Hero in chapter five? Why were they sending spies out again?

I was preparing to revise a novel that’s been through a few drafts already. Each draft features a new villain, it seems, each one with a rotating faceclaim and slightly different motivations. However, since the hero and villain started off as frenemy acquaintances, I needed to know why the villain was doing what she did. So I started brainstorming what she was doing behind the scenes while my hero was off serving coffee as everyone’s favorite barista and walking his siblings home from play practice.

It worked. I could suddenly frame the villain and hero’s actions and reactions around each other, playing each one off the other like a chess game. When I came up short on motivation, I ended up putting myself in her shoes—literally. I grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote out the plot problem, and why these two were so opposed to each other. Then I wrote what I would do in that situation, considering I was more morally grey than usual and had few inhibitions regarding my goals.

Granted, if someone was reading over my shoulder, it looked slightly concerning. “I would start off slow, and send someone to visit, since I didn’t have time myself. And then if that didn’t work, I would have to start pulling strings to use their sibling as leverage, since all I wanted was a signature.”

It also helped make villains more understandable and empathetic. I’ve read the inspirational Pinterest boards involving writing tips, saying things like ‘every villain is the hero of his own story’ and ‘every villain thinks he’s the hero’, and all that helpful jazz and ragtime. It sounded like sound writing advice in theory, but I struggled to actually apply it in any sort of helpful fashion.

Making each villain mirror the hero became important to me. Instead of having polar opposites—a hero being charming and cocky, potentially a next door neighbor to Captain Carswell Thorne—while the villain had about as much charm as demasked Darth Vader—didn’t really do much for the villain representing a thematic argument that was supposed to be taken seriously in opposition to my main theme.

The concept that villains also have moral boundaries was new, as I kept trying to pour different elements in a figurative pot and expect the perfect antagonist to emerge from the smoke and bubbly potions inside. Not all villains can go around kicking puppies, cheating on their wife, and torturing the hero’s sweet little sister with a perfectly clear conscience and a timely chuckle. Villains too have definitive moral boundaries, and if they ever cross those boundaries—like most of us—they are sure to come up with some excusable reason for doing so.

what are your favorite tricks for making logical, empathetic villains? who are your least favorite villains in fiction?

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