How do you write a villain who is capable of throwing your protagonists world into turmoil, but doesn’t turn into a moustache twirling caricature?
A villain (or any other character) must be the protagonist of their own story– it just isn’t the story you’re telling. The key to characters and world building and everything is to make it clear that the story is simply a window of time in a world that existed before and after the story. The characters had lives before and (if they survive) will clearly continue living their lives after it. You need to know all of the decisions in your villain’s life that have put them in the position they are at the beginning of the story and all of the decisions they will make to put them in conflict with the protagonist at all of the key junctures during the story.
I personally, find it easier to plot my villains that my protagonists. They often have clearer goals and it’s easier to have the protagonist react to the villain’s decisions than the other way around. You’ll be shocked how easy it is to create an outline based on your villain’s arc rather than your protagonist– and then just make sure your protagonist’s motivations and goals put them in conflict.
So, to illustrate my point I’m going to use Lucifer. Everybody say “Hi, Lucifer!” Awww, look, he’s blushing– at least I hope he’s blushing. So, in case you’re less than familiar with our esteemed guest, he’s an angel. He used to be the first among angels, the light-bearer and Morningstar. He was God’s right hand dude. In events that are not particularly clear to anyone other than Lucifer and God– Lucifer stops being God’s right hand dude in Heaven and falls to our world where he becomes the tempter of Man. Our protagonist (let’s call him Bob) is a young man of prophecy on a divine quest to find and return the Sword of Heaven.
How do we keep this story from becoming a predictable good vs. evil, find the sword, and save the world thing?
- There’s a lot of wiggle room in Lucifer’s back story– always leave yourself wiggle room.
- Lucifer is the protagonist of his own story. If the story is about the Sword of Heaven– Lucifer must have his own quest line to protect the sword from mortal hands and his own set of decisions to make and motivations to make them.
- Lucifer must have knowledge the protagonist does not about the sword and events of the story. You can have a blindly ignorant protagonist at the beginning of the story who discovers knowledge– but your villain must think they have some of the answers (they can be mistaken or mislead, but they should be acting from a point of “knowing”)
- The best (or at least most devastating) villains (in my opinion) are those that are within a fingernail’s grip of walking a similar path as the protagonist. There should be one event, one decision that prevented the villain from walking that path. In this case I would NOT make that event Lucifer’s fall. I’d make that one thing within the time frame of the story and something that brings Lucifer directly and personally in conflict with Bob– like say, a mortal (Bob) touching the Sword of Heaven will undo all of the angelic intervention Lucifer has done to keep his adopted mortal son alive and if Bob succeeds, the boy dies.
- Every single decision Lucifer makes MUST make sense from his perspective. If it looks like sheer evil from Bob’s perspective, that’s a bonus.
- Write a rough draft of the conversation that happens between Lucifer and Bob at the ultimate climax of the story as either the first thing or very close to the first thing you write. Don’t worry about getting it right. It helps to know where the characters and the plot are going to ultimately end up. You will likely end up rewriting it from scratch when you get to that scene because there’s no way to know the characters well enough to nail it at that point, but it can provide the motivation and guidance to push you through.
None of these have to make Lucifer out to be a good guy. He can be doing horrible and evil things– there just has to be a reason that makes complete sense if you were telling his story rather than Bob’s.