By Angela Ackerman @angelaackerman
Characterization is a struggle for many writers, and often the most difficult role to work with is that of the villain. We know we want the reader to dislike him and root for the hero instead. We also know that he must act as a counterbalance to who our hero is inside. And we especially know that while our villain needs to be fully formed, he can’t steal the show.
Because we’re writing the hero’s story, it can be tempting to paint the villain with as few strokes as possible. Being direct and succinct in showing who the villain is and what they want means more air time for the main character, right? Well, yes...but it also can lead to cardboard Muah-ha-ha type villains who come across as cliché.
So how do we create a three dimensional, credible villain? And how do we make sure the reader dislikes them because of who they are, not because we tell them to? The answer lies in debunking a few emotion-related myths.
Myth #1: Villains Don’t Feel
Some writers believe that because villains cause deep suffering, they must be immune to emotion. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Villains feel. They love, lust after, fear and worry. They show determination, pride and doubt. If they didn’t, they would not have goals and desires or feel moved enough to act on them.
Heroes and villains are more alike than it might first seem. Both act based on their Internal Landscape (what a person feels moment to moment), and they each have a unique Emotional Range (how deep those feelings run). But, what might make the hero upset may not phase the villain at all. The Emotional Range also influences their moral code. Imagine a line in the sand. The villain will cross that line and do things to achieve their goal that the hero would not. Showing the emotions of both the protagonist and antagonist is important, so always make sure they always bleed through.
Myth #2: Villains Should Only Express Negative Emotions
Again, this is false. Villains should be as rounded as any other character and therefore experience a range of positive and negative emotions throughout the story. Villains are just as capable of love, respect and sympathy as the rest of us, if it fits with their Emotional Range. Powerful, positive emotions also give the opportunity for readers to identify with the villain on a human level. Hold it, did I just say identify with? You bet! Credible villains aren’t sadists in the sense that they are driven by positive feelings just like you or I (Satisfaction, Love, Happiness, Desire, etc). Showing the villain’s root emotions (positive and negative) reveals their motivations to the reader, and promotes a deeper understanding of who they are.
Myth # 3: To Be A Villain, They Must Always Display Strength
On the outside of things, this might appear to be true. After all, the villain’s role is to chose a path and not be deterred by the hero. So while this in itself shows an inner core of strength, it is the writer’s ability to also show the villain’s weakness which will make the antagonist a fully formed, believable villain.
How can weakness reveal strength? Simple. Each of us, hero, villain or reader, has a Wound. This wound is an experience from our past that hurt us enough that we have altered who we really are in order to protect ourselves from being hurt by it again. We have hardened ourselves in some way and actively avoid situations where the experience might repeat itself. Hollywood Screenwriter Michael Hauge refers to this as Emotional Armour.
Wounds are powerful. The villain’s motivations will be rooted in protecting himself from the pain in his past. So, if you give readers a glimpse of his weakness, you provide a window into his personal suffering. In this way the villain shows vulnerability which will create empathy in readers. By using emotion, we help the reader understand a villain’s need or desire, but completely disagree with the path they take to satisfy it.
Obviously the hero should have center stage, but the villain has a powerful role to play, and their motivations and actions must always be credible. Taking the time to understand who the villain is and what their Emotional Landscape looks like will pay off by providing a worthy adversary for your main character defeat.
Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. This show-don't-tell brainstorming tool contains lists of body language, thoughts and visceral sensations for seventy-five emotions, ensuring writers will find the right description for any emotional moment.