This week’s post is from Arianna Fox, author and girlpreneur. She writes young adult fiction and brings insight into what it takes to write a sympathetic villain.
“A story is only as good as its villain.” – Luke Taylor
Ever since the dawn of storytelling, from literary manuscripts to cinematic film, there is always some sort of antagonist — some kind of character that is against the goal of the protagonist. But all technicalities aside, ever since the beginning of storytelling and even dating back to “tell-stories-‘round-the-campfire” days, there has always been some kind of character that causes conflict with the main character of the story — because without conflict, a story can get boring fast.
While antagonists are not the same as villains, the most common thought of antagonists in literary manifestation is often in some evil, world domination-seeking tyrant with mutant powers in a superhero book, an elusive criminal mastermind with an eye for trouble in a mystery novel, or even a terrifying, haunted ghost with a bloody vendetta in a horror story. Whichever the type, there will oftentimes be a villain in a story, even if the reader doesn’t realize that he or she is even a villain just yet.
Now, when I mentioned the word “villain,” your mind might have immediately jumped to characters like Magneto from X-Men or the Joker from Batman; characters that are memorable and definitely unforgettable. Who could forget Magneto’s thought-provoking “Mankind has always feared what it doesn’t understand,” or the Joker’s historic “Why so serious?” But what makes them so memorable? Is it their costumes and stage makeup in the case of a movie, or simply their written descriptions in the case of a book? Or is there more to it than that — more that makes them such a three-dimensional character that you eventually come to love in your own way?
The answer is yes. Yes, there is always another layer to a memorable villain, and it all starts with a relatable and sympathetic backstory.
Backstories, Backstories — What Would We Do Without Those?
Just like how your main character and/or protagonist needs a brilliant backstory and some deep flaws to make them relatable, you want to do the exact same thing for your villain. It might sound strange; aren’t you supposed to hate and “boo” the villain, so to speak? Sometimes, that may be the case, but oftentimes the best villains are the ones we can actually relate to and like in our own way. After all, real villains in the real world all have pasts that drive them to do what they do — and bearing that factor of realism in mind, so should our fictional villains.
For example, I mentioned the comic book (and movie) villain Magneto from X-Men. He is a very memorable villain, especially in movie form (played by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender). He may seem like a ruthless killer with powers to control all metal, but his backstory goes quite beyond that. He was in a German-occupied Poland during the Holocaust and was forcibly separated from his mother at a concentration camp. He finally was able to see her again, but she was killed by the head Nazi who drooled at testing young Erik Lehnsherr’s limits — and as he and his mother were very close, he raged furiously.
Now that you think about his backstory, you can almost understand why he did some of the things he did — although there’s certainly no excuse for his cruel and evil actions. But hey, you relate to him and sympathize with him — and that is exactly how a well-written villain is born.
Sure, the example I gave above is from a movie, but it works just the same in a novel or short story — or any type of literary manuscript, for that matter. After all, movies are all written by scriptwriters who create dialogue and setting, just like books.
Another thing you would want for a well-written villain is a flaw — just the same as what you most likely hear all the time for your main characters. “Give them a flaw so they’re not perfect!” “Give them a flaw so readers can relate to them!” “Give ‘em flaws! They aren’t angels, you know.” It’s so often talked about that it might even be considered cliché — but it’s important nonetheless, and dare I say it, even as important for your villains as it is for your heroes. If it is your goal to create a relatable and sympathetic villain, then that is a key priority. The flaw can be manifest as physical, emotional, or mental and can be either the same flaw (with a different outcome) as your hero or an entirely opposite flaw.
Professional author, theme park designer, and course teacher Steve Alcorn echoes this in his Udemy course Novel Writing Workshop, “For example, giving them both the same flaw will allow you to contrast what happens when the protagonist overcomes [their] flaw, but the antagonist fails to overcome [their] flaw.”
Everyone Has a Reason for Everything
When it comes to creating realistic motives for villains, Gabrielle Pollack, a writer and staff member of the writing forum Story Embers, writes in her article Why Realistic Motives Alone Don’t Create Believable Villains, “Villains wreak havoc because they view humanity as worthless, and they’re masters of adjusting this belief to fit their agendas.”
So, whip up a believable backstory, season your character with a relatable flaw, and make sure their motives seem like they’re “justified” — even if they truly aren’t. Everybody makes mistakes, but those that justify those mistakes and don’t learn from them are the ones that could truly start down a long, dark path.
So next time you create a villain, think about their backstories, their flaws, and their motives — and a large piece of the literary puzzle has been put in its proper and perfectly-fitting place. After all, a story is only as good as its villain.
Arianna Fox is a multi-award-winning girlpreneur, double author, motivational speaker, actress, voiceover talent, and teen influencer. She is known across the region as a little ball of joy and energy, and her ideas are revolutionary as they are wide-reaching. For several years now, Arianna has devoted her life to reaching out to others to spread messages of hope, inspiration, and self-confidence. Making a positive impact upon others and helping them rock their lives to their maximum potential is part of this upcoming girlpreneur’s goal for kids, teens, adults, and all. You can find her online at www.ariannafox.com and @afoxauthor on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (Arianna Fox on LinkedIn and YouTube). Her books include The Princess Chronicles and False Awakening.