I recently have been engaged in a dialogue with fellow writer Kate McMurry (katemcmurry.com) that I’ve found so interesting – and relevant – that I thought I’d share a bit. Kate brought up the importance of the villain and postulated that a hero (and a story) is only as good as the villain and the antagonism they provide.
So the question becomes how do you create a solid, 3-dimensional villain?
Key – Motivation
Kate had an excellent point that establishing a believable and compelling psychological motivation for the villain can help a lot with answering that question. Thinking about it I absolutely agree with her that it’s difficult to accept a villain who’s evil seems to just spring out of nowhere with no catalyst. You could go the route of writing a villain who is inherently evil. And many writers do. I’ll absolutely admit to doing this and think that it is fine up to a point. For example – in my first book the antagonist(s) are a bit of a mystery that won’t get solved till later books. But even if the villain is a true psychopath, their history is usually explained.
Example – Magneto
An example of a well developed villain is Magneto in X-Men. I think that he is a more compelling villain because of his history. He was a Holocaust survivor and therefore a firsthand witness to genocide. As a mutant (therefore outsider/threat), he’s now in the same precarious position. Of course he wants to destroy the perceived threat to him that humans pose. And isn’t it even more delicious (in a horrifying sort of way) that his methodology is to try to exterminate them? Very similar to when the abused becomes the abuser. Magneto’s psychology and history make his threat seem more real, more dangerous, because it’s such an ingrained belief and fear you know that he won’t stop.
The timing of this conversation with Kate couldn’t have been more perfect. I am in the middle of writing the 3rd book in my Svatura series, and I’m struggling with getting enough tension and forward motion into it. I think giving my villain(s) a compelling back story and bringing them to life a little more is exactly what I needed. I’m still satisfied with how they’re written in Books #1 and #2 where I could leave them a little more on the mysterious side while I introduced the protagonists and the overall back story. I even have a little back story around the villains in there. But not enough. Now it’s time for some serious villainy.
Kate has given me a great start. She also happens to have been a psychologist and has given me a lot of great material to read through and pull ideas from. Since my characters are old as dirt in many cases, I also plan to research the history and psychology of their times and incorporate that as well. This was just the kick in the pants I needed to take the series to the next level!
**Picture me rubbing my hands together in anticipation. Can’t wait to warp (yes, warp – this is evil we’re talking about) my imagination around this.**
Note: Magneto picture from Flickr. Attribution: PatLoika