By Eric Johnson
What makes the best villains work? The simple answer can be summed up in one phrase: lots of things. There is, however, an even simpler answer. Dread is what makes villains work. A good villain is a villain we dread, a bad villain is one we don’t. So how do you make your villain dreadful? Good question.
The most obvious question that needs answering is this: Why should my hero dread my villain? If you can come up with a convincing answer to this question, you’ve probably succeeded in making your reader dread your villain too. Hopefully, your villain will have some unique trait or traits that makes him or her more dreadful. However, there are a few basic dos and don’ts that will make almost any villain more intimidating.
First, the don’ts. It’s probably convenient to mention here that there are definitely exceptions to these guidelines. I don’t always follow them myself, but I think that even going against these concepts can be done better if you know what you’re contrasting. That being said, here is the little list of don’ts that I have compiled. Results may vary.
Don’t let the reader know that your villain is beatable. It may seem obvious, but I could probably think of several examples of stories that I have read, watched, or written where the villain is the underdog throughout the entire story. Everybody loves an underdog, they say, and that’s part of the reason why you want your hero to be the underdog, not the villain. It’s great to show that your hero is strong, but if the only way to do that is by showing that your villain…isn’t as strong, skip out on writing that scene.
Let’s say your villain has come face to face with your hero in chapter four of your novel. The villain has decided to kidnap the hero’s love interest. He’s not interested in keeping her alive for a dramatic rescue scene later. However, you don’t really want the love interest to die yet, so the hero channels his love for, well, his love interest, and soundly defeats the villain in a fist fight. Once this has happened, your reader has probably made a mental note of the instance. The villain just lost. They’ll come back in a dramatic way later, but why should we think that they’ll do any better in chapter eleven? This is not to say that the villain can never be outsmarted, outmuscled, or outanythinged, but I would recommend avoiding this when possible. Especially avoid having the villain lose when they’re in their element. Every time your villain is beaten, both the hero and the reader can rest just a little bit easier. That’s bad.
Don’t #2: Don’t let your villain go soft just to save the story. Admittedly, this one is hard to avoid. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a way around having the killer eliminate someone who is valuable to the plot before the hero ever has a chance to rescue said person. Even so, the more instances of softness you can destroy, the better. If you want to have the villain go soft for a scene, you definitely want a solid reason; you may even want to foreshadow this moment. Make the villain’s seemingly out of character moment somehow believable. Now I know that I have definitely written more than my fair share of these soft villain scenes, but truthfully, they probably made my villains a lot less dreadful.
Finally, here is the third don’t, the last of them. Don’t #3: Don’t let your villain be scared of your hero. What reason is there for us to fear the villain if the villain is afraid of the hero? It’s fun to have that scene where the villain jumps at the hero’s approach, but it definitely isn’t going to make your reader dread him or her. More likely, it will make your reader smirk or laugh. Even if this is the intended response, the overall effect may be negative.
You may be thinking of some great villains that are outmatched by the hero in some way or another and yet still work as villains. It’s true that it’s not always inappropriate to have the “jump back” type scene, but I would recommend being cautious in how you use it. It’s probably best not to use it in a place where we’re supposed to think the villain is strong. But I would also recommend caution in pointing out or especially spotlighting the villain’s weaknesses. If you do this we may think “Well the villain may be a genius, but at least the hero is twice as strong and a much better marksman.” This is not what I want my reader to think about my villain on most occasions.
Now that the don’ts are out of the way, here are a couple of dos. First, do keep your villain a step ahead of the hero, or at least at the same place. Some of the best middle-of-the-book scenes are the ones that can actually convince us that the hero will best the villain, but end up with the villain succeeding instead. In those scenes, the author points out that the villain is untouchable. This creates dread.
Next, do make your hero dread the villain. I love writing courageous heroes, but the fact of the matter is this, unless we recognize the hero is prideful, cocky, or somehow dangerously overconfident, we’re, oftentimes, not going to buy that the villain is dangerous if the hero doesn’t. If your hero dreads just one thing and nothing else, make that one thing the villain.
If your villain is holding the hero’s closest friend at gunpoint, and your hero still feels confident that he or she will succeed in stopping the villain, your villain probably isn’t the type to follow through on dreadful promises. You may end up with a reader feeling as confident as the hero. That’s bad. Another possible explanation for the hero’s confidence in this situation, of course, is that he or she doesn’t really care about the ally all that much, and wouldn’t be too torn up over their death. That’s another topic entirely, though.
So that’s it. Five things that I have to say about villains and the dread factor. I hope that you feel that your writing is somehow improved as a result of reading this. That was the point of it, after all. May your next villain be better than the last!