To celebrate the release of The Golden Sword, NLJ, has written a guest post about how to write a great villain:
How to Write a Great Villain
When I first became a writer, the hardest thing for me to do was to create conflict for my main character. I identified too much with her, and I was a perfectionist. I couldn’t bring her to make any mistakes or have any regrets. And the inhibition stifled my stories.
While I was in film school, I attended a film critique class taught by Leonard Maltin. Paul Haggis visited as one of his guests, giving a private screening of his movie, Crash. Afterwards, he was available for Q and A.
I told him about my dilemma with writing and he gave me some very sobering advice. He told me that, in regards to the main character, I had to reach into myself and find 3 decisions that I would never want my character to make, and 3 fearful experiences that I never want my character to endure. Then, I had to put those very things into the story. It terrified me, but I tried it out. And I immediately saw the fruit.
Years later, I saw the Dark Knight, and was blown away by Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker. I started soaking up information on how to make a villain who was memorable and chilling. I soon realized that the information bore a lot of similarity to Haggis’ advice. It was a great help to me while writing my first novel, since my story was a fantasy with dark elements. In truth, all fiction genres need a great villain.
If you are aiming to write a well-crafted villain, here are three essential steps that I’ve learned:
Look in the mirror
There is a great book called Owning Your Own Shadow by Robert A. Johnson. In it, the author says that everyone has a dark side to their psyche and the only way to control it is to first embrace it as part of who you are. We all have primal, dark, disturbing aspects of ourselves that we hide from the world. And normally, we should hide them. But having a dark side does not make us monsters. It is part of the human experience.
Writing a villain is one of the few opportunities for that dark side to come out. Surprisingly, it’s not hard to find. It emerges when you are alone long enough or when someone has crossed the line with you. Each person has some familiarity with their dark side because they take the time to hide it from the rest of society. Explore it while you are writing, but …when the writing is over, be sure to put it back where it belongs.
I meet so many horror writers that are the sweetest, most cheerful people ever, and it confused the crap out of me. Finally, I started asking them what the deal was. I got the same answer every time:
“It gets all the bad stuff out of me.”
No wonder they stay so happy!
Coddle your Wicked Darlings
As mentioned in step 1, having a dark side does not make us evil. Acting on it does. But if we are not acting on it, we should not judge ourselves for having dark thoughts, even dark desires. It is part of the human condition. Along the same lines, you cannot judge the villain you have created. When you judge your villain, you turn him into a 2 dimensional character. He becomes a cartoon with a handle bar mustache that ties innocent women to railroad tracks. The rest of the world will judge and condemn your villain and they are supposed to. But for you, it will be different. You see, your villain doesn’t think he is a bad guy. He has a perfectly logical explanation as to why he is doing what he is doing. Your job is to know what that reason is, and to understand where he is coming from. You are not necessarily supposed to agree with him, but you are to empathize with him. This will make him deliciously awful.
Let me give you an example: In the Quick and the Dead, Herod (played by Gene Hackman) is supposed to be one of the greatest gunslingers in town. He competes in an elimination tournament with other gunslingers and the loser in each round typically dies. The next opponent on his list is the illegitimate son he abandoned years ago, and Herod feels conflicted. At first, he tries to get the kid to withdraw. That doesn’t work. Then he tries to humiliate him into withdrawing. That doesn’t work. Finally, they have their showdown. Herod kills the kid.
We already didn’t like him before. But we HATE him now. Why? Because in his mind, he thought he did everything he could to save his son’s life. He thinks he gave his son every opportunity to live. It’s not true, of course. He could have backed out of the match himself, hence taking personal responsibility of his own choices. But in his mind, his own pride was not a factor and not a conflict. The writer took the time to really understand Herod’s values and the way that his mind works.
Open your Nightmares
Since you are already dipping into your dark psyche, and you are already accepting it as part of yourself, this part is pretty simple. Do you know all of those wicked things that you have always wanted to do but would never ever do because you’re too nice of a person (or because you hate conflict?) Have your villain do those things.
I don’t recommend just finding the goriest thing you saw in the last slasher film and trying to top that. It’s pretty cheap. Here’s the thing with realistic villains: A lot of the time, they have a very legitimate emotional need that is relatable to anyone. But they go about attaining that need in a very dysfunctional and unhealthy way.
If you were lonely, and you were desperate for love to the point where you didn’t care about societal propriety, how would you “obtain” love? Would you brainwash someone? Kidnap someone? Keep them as a pet? Would you assumed another identity to appear more loveable? In the context of writing, enjoy your dark playground.
NLJ is an author, screenwriter, inspirational speaker, and former children’s educator. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Film Production from the University of Southern California, and furthered her education to include children’s literature, personal development, and psychology. Her debut book, The Golden Sword, is book one of her four part series, entitled the Chronicles of Drenyon. Her hobbies include daydreaming, exploring, and eating chocolate.
In the land of Drenyon...
There is a maiden who is so desperately lonely that she befriends a frightful-looking tree that lives outside her village. Her name is Anya. Her tree is enchanted, and every day she listens to its strange and troubling fables, unaware that they are prophecies in disguise. One day, she returns home from visiting the tree and the first of the fables comes to life, causing her entire village to burn to the ground. Now it's up to Anya to use the other fables to save the rest of her kingdom from the same destruction. And according to these fables, there is only one weapon that has the power to save her people: The Golden Sword.
Click here to buy The Golden Sword from Amazon