Villains and antagonists

Picture of a city street at sunset,.

You’re coming to the end of the month, and you may have the uneasy feeling that a couple of your characters have not taken on a life of their own. The villain is the one who most often suffers from this zombification.  That’s because too many bad guys aren’t people at all.  They’re a Big Bad Darkness.

The statement, “Every villain is a hero in his own story” is variously attributed to Tom Hiddleston, Holly Black, and George R.R. Martin.  But the Big Bad Darkness doesn’t think she’s a hero.  Sauron, for instance, is into being bad.  He’s a disembodied eye, with no motivation except to rule everything.   Dormommu of the Dark Dimension in Dr. Strange is equally uninteresting.  And even though in the Harry Potter movies, Lord Voldemort is at least recognizably human, he’s not nearly as much fun as, say, Lucius Malfoy.

That’s because those guys aren’t actually villains.  The anonymous, implacable Force of Evil who often plays a part in fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers is either a comic foil, a monster, or the plot equivalent of really bad weather or an earthquake.

The best villains aren’t all bad.

Often, you can get away with having a Dark Lord in the background if there is a more human representative serving as the day-to-day antagonist.  Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings is a good example.  He was a friend to Gandalf once, and only thought he could use Sauron as a way of gaining power.  And the climactic scene in the trilogy occurs when Frodo loses to Gollum, not Sauron.  Sauron’s collapse when Gollum falls into the fire with the Ring is like the clouds blowing away after a thunderstorm.  It’s not the real fight.

Like Saruman, your real villain should interact with your protagonist in meaningful ways.  He or she should be human, with human traits.  Making your reader care about the villain starts with giving her a strong motivation for what she is doing, a motivation that is believable.  A bad guy who just wants to be evil is as uninteresting as a hero without flaws.  Put yourself in your malefactor’s place.  Give her a mother, a father, a backstory, a puppy, and a couple of other good traits.

And make him equal in power to the hero.  Then, when  your hero and your villain face off at the end, the outcome will be in doubt, and your reader will care who wins.

Tomorrow:  What the heck does your protagonist want?

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