Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Villains Part One:
Putting the Ill into Villain

Villain motivations and characterization

By Tina Sikorski
2003, Tina Sikorski 

t's fairly easy in any speculative fiction genre to make a very generic villain, one out to destroy the world/kill the good guys/rule the universe just... because. And in fact, most readers will accept that motivation. Evil is evil, simple as that. But maybe you're sick of those stories, and are wondering how to breathe a little more life into the antagonist(s) of your piece.

As always, the place to start is with asking why. Chances are you've already done that a few times and not come up with a coherent answer, or you wouldn't really be wondering how to breathe that life into the guy -- he'd already be breathing just fine on his own.

You could start with the easy one: revenge. It doesn't have to be a particularly logical revenge; all it takes is the villain feeling as if the world owes him something, or that the protagonist (or victims, or whomever) are somehow responsible for keeping him from attaining his less villainous goals. Many people think, for instance, that if Hitler had become successful as an artist the Nazis would never have become the affliction to Europe and beyond. This may be utter hogwash, but that's no reason to not borrow the sentiment.

Maybe your villain was actually a fairly nice guy who only ever wanted to be a painter, but who found himself passed up again and again, often by people whose idea of a deep and meaningful painting was to splash an entire canvas with white except for one thin, red line. Or maybe he was a serious sculptor producing realistic and beautiful fantasy works, only to have the local city hall decide to buy something that requires an explanation for anyone to have a hope of deciphering what it depicts. I know if I were a sculptor, some of what the 'modern art' businesses choose to display might drive me batty enough to target them for their seriously painful, and probably fiery, downfall...

Then -- and this is a trick that works for me, at least -- build the character as you would any other, but build it before he became a villain. If you really have a hard time understanding the inside of villainous heads, this can be particularly useful. You still have to get him from point A to point B, but it might be easier once you understand the non-villainous things that drive him. He's an artist. He's frustrated to the breaking point. But unlike most of us, instead of going home and drinking or ranting to a friend on the phone or explaining that all works of art like that should be blown up, maybe he goes home and starts researching a way to use magnesium and a fuse to melt that stupid-looking sculpture into slag. Villains usually start small. And then the next company that pisses him off with their acquisition of art like that? Well, maybe that one he burns something a little more important than a sculpture... like the office of the person who made the decision to buy it. Sooner or later, you'll have a raving maniac. That's the point where you put him into the book.

Revenge isn't the only possibility, of course. One way one particular character of mine became involved with the Forces of Evil [TM] was actually out of the best of motivations: she was driven into their arms because the so-called good guys were all talk and no action. Maybe your villain had her share of troubles -- or had family who did, or friends -- and some allegedly good group of people provided her with no help, or possibly even made the situation worse... so she sought other alternatives. Sooner or later, one of two things would happen: her association with the people in the grey area of morality would lead her to try to break away, or she'd decide -- maybe even still with good intentions -- that only by holding that kind of power can you really affect change in the world. That the type of change your villain is after may not be what others want would presumably be the problem. Or that she's willing to let the ends justify the means. There's no reason your villain has to be a raving maniac, after all. Subtle villains tend to last longer.

Grasping for power from a desire to never be hurt again is actually a good, solid place to start a fairly sympathetic villain. Maybe your villain grew up under fairly unpleasant circumstances, and was determined to hold power at any cost. Sooner or later, that tips even the most understandable person from 'grey morality' straight into evil acts. When you will do anything to keep someone from having power over you, you find yourself destroying an awful lot of lives.

One of my characters actually is taking that route right now. She grew up under less than pleasant foster conditions, and escaped to the streets. There the rule was that if you wanted something, you traded something of value in return: favor for favor. When you're young and relatively powerless, sometimes you only can trade things you really ought not have to trade.

In her case, she traded both her body and her skills.  She had learned how to be a fairly accomplished thief, and she was beginning to learn magic. She was sent on some types of 'assignments' that were both more risky than she would have chosen for herself and, in a couple cases when she failed, got in trouble with the person she owed the favor too. As a result, she is now extremely sullen whenever she owes someone a favor and they ask her to repay it in a way she doesn't like -- which made it hard for her fellow characters to get along with her.

However, she's very competent, not a bad person -- yet -- and much more powerful than she used to be. Sooner or later she will stop needing favors; she'll be able to pick and choose what she does to have a comfortable living. But... because she has developed such an extreme reaction to the idea of people holding power over her, she is beginning to pursue power for its own sake. Deals she makes now to gain more power are less careful of other people's property and livelihoods. It would not take much for her to be less careful of lives as well. She could easily become the kind of power-hungry villain that graces many a book... but in the course of telling her story, I could point to exactly why, which is ultimately more satisfying than hand-waving and "just because!"

All of these characters started out potential heroes. At the very worst, they would have ended up neutrals -- characters that probably would take no steps to be particularly heroic. But something -- revenge, fear, or frustration -- changed their paths. Writing the person before that happened and watching the slow descent into true villainy will give you a well-rounded villain that both you and your readers will be able to understand.