I’ve often said that for me the most important element in a good story are the characters. I read a lot of genres. As long as I’m able to identify with the characters, almost everything they do is interesting for me. That’s not to say that a good plot isn’t also important. Because in the end plot and characters depend on each other. Still, you could give me an excellent story, and I would probably not really get into the novel if I don’t also find the characters interesting. (That has happened to me a few times.)
Of course, not only the protagonists have to be interesting. Almost every story has an antagonist. If it’s not a person, it could be a kind of power, the environment, the protagonist themselves or a barrier inside of the character’s mind they have to overcome. In this post, however, I want to focus on the villain.
I often hear that fleshing out your villain is just as significant for the story as fleshing out your characters, and I agree with that. It will add meaning to the story if your villain has a backstory. Or if – from the point of view of the villain – she is the hero of her own story. It is also often said that villains should be complex characters and have a few redeeming qualities. (Think of some of the Villains in “Game of Thrones). That has certain advantages I won’t deny. It shows us that the world isn’t separated into black and white, that there are nuances and in some cases, it can make us question our points of view, which is always a good thing. Also, a fleshed-out villain can be an interesting character. We see this in X-Men’s Magneto or in Darth Vader. Even though we see their evil acts and can in no way excuse them, there is a tiny spark in us that understands their development. We realize that they have not always been evil to the core. That can be powerful and often leads to those characters having almost as many fans as the protagonists.
What I have realized is that in reality, villains are not always understandable. Some of them don’t have a sad backstory. Quite the contrary: often, it’s people who went through a lot of hardship and suffering who have more compassion and a greater understanding of things. Some highly privileged people, on the other hand, seem blind to the struggles of others. And these people tend to be successful, become leaders even. They are shaped by their own narcissistic and violent tendencies. Some of the biggest problems our world faces today are racism, discrimination against minorities, and climate change. It should be clear to everyone who has empathy and decency that fighting these problems is essential to our survival as a human species. However, some leaders deny these problems even exist.
Is a highly narcissistic villain, who doesn’t mind seeing a world burn as long as he can keep his wealth and status, more realistic than the conflicted antagonist? Of course, in literature, there are many examples of the narcissistic villain (President Snow in “The Hunger Games”) or the villain who only wants to destroy (Sauron). I would argue that these concepts are also valid and can make a story highly interesting because the heroine faces a power greater than herself. A threat so frightening it will cost her everything.
That is one important point we have to keep in mind when we write a story. If we want to draw our readers in, it is mandatory to make the villain a lot more powerful than our protagonist. A struggle that is easily overcome is not engaging. Star Wars is a good example of that. The rebels never seem to stand a chance against the Empire or the First Order. That’s why this story is so epic. In N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, a single woman who is also an outcast is up against a whole system that tries to oppress her. These kinds of stories highly resonate with us because we can identify well with underdogs and rebels who don’t seem to stand a chance.
Another trope that I find very exciting when it’s done well is the redemption arc. Here an evil character goes through many trials and developments and finally manages to rehabilitate him- or herself. From my point of view, this often happens too fast and is unbelievable, but when it’s thoroughly fleshed-out, this can be very rewarding to read. An example of a redemption arc is Kylo Ren from Star Wars, even though many were not satisfied with his journey. An example from a classic novel is Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”. I believe many will agree that in this case, the arc is excellently done. Raskolnikov kills someone in cold blood at the beginning of the story and suffers from a conscience so bad, it almost costs him his sanity.
Novels told from a villain’s point of view are always fascinating because they offer new insights and turn our view of the world upside down. The German novels about the villain Galotta from the DSA RPG (published in the US under the name of “The Dark Eye”) universe come to my mind. Also “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire, which tells the story of the Green Witch from “The Wizard of Oz”. And “Wide Sargasso Sea” focuses on Bertha, the madwoman who lives in Mr. Rochester’s attic. Another fascinating read and a new take on one of Greek Mythology’s female villains is “Circe” by Madeline Miller.
So, whether you have a truly evil villain or one whose motives may be understandable, remember that they need to pose a real threat to your protagonist.
Please let me know in the comments who your favorite villain is and what kind of villain you prefer.