Thursday, July 23, 2009

Know the Complexity of Your Villain

I'll admit it. For me, creating villains is one of the most rewarding things about writing. I noticed yesterday as I wrote a scene that all my great villains are complex. This is one of the reasons I'm rewriting my book instead of revising it. The first version had all simple villains. And too many of them. This new version has one main complex villain - and he's the kind of guy I'm starting to root for. Why? Because he used to be a good guy, and I feel bad for him.

Simple Villains
They are just that: simple. If you had to sit down and write their backstory, it would probably be boring, if not completely nonexistent. They were pretty much born evil. They want evil to rule for the sake of evil. They might even have that mwhahahaha laugh in some scenes. These characters exist in melodramatic works, and are oftentimes comical. But if handled well, a simple villain can work in genres other than comedy.

I have one simple main villain in my novel. I never show him. He's just there in the background running things with his evil, malicious hand. He might have a backstory. He might be sympathetic, but I don't explore that. His right hand man, however - the one my hero interacts with - is where all the fun lies. Because his motivations are complex.

An interesting blog post, A True Hero Makes The Movie, speaks about a story's strength building directly from the strength of the villain. The more evil a villain, the stronger the hero must be to conquer him. Thus a stronger story. I'm not sure I agree with that completely, but it's an interesting concept. This would mean that it doesn't matter much if your villain is simple or complex. Maybe it doesn't, but we can leave that for another post.

Complex Villains
I like complexity. Some of the most exciting moments in fiction for me are when the story dives into the reasons why a villain is evil. Sometimes this is the story. Sometimes that complexity exists simply to deepen a character. There are, of course, varying degrees of complexity. My friend Natalie let me read one of her novels, and it blew me away that her villain almost made me cry. She tells part of the story from his point of view, and by the end of the book I realized he was never evil to begin with - at least now that I understood him. The misunderstood villain is perhaps the most tragic character of all.

I stole my picture today from an excellent post, How To Write A Complex Villain. Melissa Donovan gives a writing exercise on where to get ideas for your villain's complexity. Seeing the villain in everyone around you is quite fun! Although maybe a little dangerous.

But one of my favorite exercises to discover the complexity of my villains is to write from their point of view, as in a journal entry, a letter, etc. Like my friend's book, some novels use the villain's point of view in the actual story. I have yet to do that, so it's important for me to completely understand my villain before writing too far in. Melissa Donovan has another exercise for this in her post, Become Your Nemesis.

Ask Yourself
Maybe all of this is old hat to most of you, but the reason I've decided to touch on this today is because at one point I though my villains in my current novel were complex. But when I sat down to write out their story I realized I didn't know what really made them tick. It was weakening my plot, my hero, and my writing. Like I said before, I do have one simple main villain. If I made him complex, the story would get too messy.

So lay out your villains and ask yourself what you really need to know about them in order to strengthen your story. Do they need to be more simple or more complex? Does your reader need to know all the backstory? Remember that sometimes you do, even if your reader doesn't.

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. I wonder if my villain is too simple, but I guess my first readers will let me know. Right? They'll fix everything!

  2. Great post! Love it!

    I always, always try and humanize my villains. They aren't born evil. There is a reason they do bad things . . . at least for the most part.

    My villains - not usually the mustache twirling villains of yesteryear - are normally good people who experience a life changing event. It is 'that' event which shapes them and pushes them down a path they normally wouldn't go. I mean, we all have choices in life, and so do our characters. Sometimes, we make those choices without thinking. Sometimes there is regret, and sometimes, not! It is the 'not' moments that drive my villians forward. They were good people once upon a time. They just made a decision that set them on a different path in life.

    Are they redeemable? Sometimes. : )


  3. Thanks for the links!

    My WiP sounds like it's set up like yours; a main, complex villian and a simple one too.

  4. That is such an awesome picture.

    And a great post too. :-)

  5. Great post!
    I love my villains. They're real people to me, with real motivations and plans.

  6. I think it's more realistic characterization when we think not of "villains" but instead of people with goals that conflict with the protagonist's. If, that is, we want realism. Sometimes the bad guy is just a plot device or a prop, and that can be a lot of fun.

    "Flat" or "simple" villains work best, I think, when they're part of the setting or the premise. For example, think of the Corporation behind everything in the "Aliens" movies. It's there all the time, it's evil, but it's faceless. We meet minions (evil robots mostly) and pawns (the aliens themselves for most of the films), but we never come face-to-face with the CEO or the board of directors. Which, as I say, is completely fine. But if you've got a complex protagonist, I think he needs a complex antagonist, who can certainly be the real villain's minion.

    Fabulous post, Michelle!

  7. I have a hard time making my villains really evil. I'm not sure if this is complexity or not, but I know sometimes I just need to make them BADDER. (Is badder a word? *grins*) Anyway, when I struggle with this, I pull out the notes I took at a conference a couple of years ago. It was called something like "10 Steps to Creating Believable Villains" and it really helps me.

    Maybe when I do this, I'm making them more complex too? One can hope, I guess.

  8. make me do a lot of thinking, especially on my new WIP. I need to add more depth to my villain pronto!

  9. Justus: Yes, your readers will fix everything. Of course!

    Scott: I like how you use the term "humanize". That's a lot of what I mean when I say complex. Some villains are best not humanized, though, and it works. It sounds like you have a good grasp on your bad guys! I also stem a lot of my villain's complexity from one or a set of things that happened to them in the past where they had to make a choice.

    Mariah: Hey, that sounds great, then! My first novel has a set of villains, and they are all complex or at least hinted at being complex. No main faceless bad guys. It's so interesting how everything is set up differently in my second book. Good to know I'm not following the same structure!

    Icy Roses: That picture really is great, I agree!

    Megan: Yeah, I love my villains too. They are usually my favorite characters.

    Scott B.: I'm always aiming for realism, so it does feel better to say "people with goals that conflict with the protagonist's" - it's just fun to say villain, haha. And shorter. Your point is great, though. My 'villain' in Monarch is pretty creepy, but he's got that glimmer of hope, and that's what I highlight to give him depth.

    I like your example with the "Aliens" movies. Perhaps this goes back to literary and commercial? That's a scary place to go, but I'm thinking that with all the "between the lines" and character focus of literary stories that villains tend to be more realistic and complex than in more commercial fiction where there often isn't a time or a place to explore a villain's deep motives. Thanks for the thoughts, Scott!

    Elana: I like the word Badder. That's just fun. Hehe. So are you going to do a post on those 10 Steps? Because you can't mention that and not share. At least email them to me!

    PJ: Whoa, good luck! I thought your villains in Emerald Tablet were set up quite nicely. Talk about a complex world and situation!

  10. This is a really interesting topic, Michelle. I've had to deal with this a lot. In my book, I have my main antagonist, and I have my protagonist. But, my protagonist doesn't always seem very likable. In fact, he often seems like a complex antagonist for most of the other characters. Because of that element, I decided to make my true antagonist less complex. He still has a back story, but it's simplified, and I just accept that he's evil without delving into his psychology. Like you, I love complex villains, but in my case, I avoided it to keep some balance. Now, I'm excited to write a new villain for a new story that can have more dimensions!

  11. Wonderful post, Lady Glam! I'm all about the villain. I love me a good villain. Gwa ha ha ha! No really, I do believe the villain makes the story. And especially the villain inside the hero. (That reminds me of that 80s song, The Devil Inside. Ha ha!) My bad guys are just misunderstood good guys. And I half-way love them more than my heroes. Thanks for the great links and the wonderful, inspiring post!

  12. Reading this post brought one particular example to my mind... Frankenstein and his monster. I would say that both are complex villains. I can sympathise with both, although my loyalties really lie with the poor monster. :(

    Is there such a thing as a complex hero?

  13. The villain in my story is not a person. It’s really an impossible situation my MC finds herself in. Although there are baddies (and good intentioned characters) that prevent her from accomplishing what she needs to do, it’s a ‘man vs. environment’ tale.

    So if I apply backstory to my villain, would that be a realistic and believable situation?

  14. LOL I’d like to rephrase...

    Would creating a realistic and believable situation for my MC to overcome be considered enough of a villain?

  15. Charlie: You don't need a villain to have a good story, you just need a character in conflict as portrayed through dramatic situations. "Man against nature" is as old as "man against man." Heck, it's probably an older trope. So as long as you can solve for x, y and z in this sentence:

    "my protagonist needs x to accomplish y, but z is in the way"

    then you're probably doing fine.

  16. Charlie, fiction doesn't have to contain villains at all; it should have some conflict though, which can come in different forms. A human struggling to survive in her environment (whether nature or society or both), or struggling to exist in a hostile-to-life universe, or struggling to overcome her own self-destructiveness--all of these can mean lots of dramatic tension. Think Kafka here.

    Good vs. evil has always smelled like a moralizing religious concept to me, and I don't have any interest there; I typically deal in grays, not blacks and whites. Most of my books have no villains, but all the characters are flawed.

    Villains are in certain kinds of stories; other kinds use other characters. With my own writing, I don't even like using the protagonist term as I sometimes have more than one character who could fit that, so I'd rather use the main characters term.

    I think the protagonist/antagonist story structure is a popular one because creating tension in that situation may be easier: many writers have already written that way, so lots of storytelling bugs have already been worked out. The template for writing these is known; if you write something with less of a known template, it's harder to pull off. But not impossible. You've just got to think up and then apply your own guidelines....

    However, I think most new writers should probably stick to what's already known to work. They need something "other" to write about if they veer away from tradition. I think that many writers know how to say things; fewer writers have something to say; and even fewer know how to say things AND have something to say; and even fewer know how to say things, have something to say AND say that something exceptionally well. If you (impersonal) are a writer who falls into the last two categories, veer as early as possible!

  17. Perfect post for me right now. I'm working on fleshing out some scenes with my villain. Apparently I made him so likeable that my betas want more of him. Not sure if thats good or bad but I'm gonna take the numerous requests as a sign. :)

  18. "I think that many writers know how to say things; fewer writers have something to say; and even fewer know how to say things AND have something to say; and even fewer know how to say things, have something to say AND say that something exceptionally well."

    This is so very true. But you have to start somewhere, either with a desire to write or a desire to tell a specific story. Craft is what gets us past that point, I think. And you're right, that real artists can turn away from the traditional forms early in their careers. Nicely put, F.P.

  19. Complex villains are the best. They really test you as you read, make you ponder things you wouldn't otherwise.

    Great post!

  20. Michelle, some of the best advice I ever received was to write something from my villian's point of view. It really adds the flavor. I learned so much in that excercise, that now I write from each one of my character's view points...just to get to know them better. If they're too weak, then I toss them out. I love your dragon picture, btw!

  21. Scott and F.P., I’m here to learn and I appreciate you taking the time to respond in such detail. Thank You.

    I didn’t realize I was following a known template, my story unfolded as I wrote it. I didn’t set out one day to write a book; I had a vivid dream which I eventually wrote down and later embellished. (You can all breathe a sigh of relief that I wasn’t tinkering with nuclear energy in my garage.)

    I should stick to the tried and true if I want to progress as a writer. I get that. The “rules” are a great place to start, especially if I want readers to actually enjoy my stories. I have a ways to go before I can break them. For the most part, I’m (now) following them. However, I’m writing from the heart, whether it good or bad. I’m not sure what category I fall into.

  22. Davin: I'm glad you shared that about your novel. I know that what you've done with making your 'villain' less complex has worked quite well. I had to stop and think, now who's the villain in Davin's story? He's a very quiet one, I think, because as you say your main protagonist creates a lot of tension himself. Your new book has one of the most interesting villains I've ever heard of - if it's what I'm thinking, anyway.

    L.T.: I love the villain inside the hero, as you say. That's where all the TRUE tension lies, in my opinion. That's a post right there!

    Time: I love Frankenstein. It's an excellent example of how villains and heroes can blur the lines. Great thinking!

    Charlie: A story doesn't have to have a villain. It just needs tension. Most often, that tension comes in the form of a human. Haha. But I love stories where most of the tension comes from inside the hero, and I also love man vs. nature stories. They really bring out a character's inner strength. So to answer your question, which others already have, but I will too, I think that yes, creating a realistic and believable situation for your MC is absolutely enough of a 'villain'.

    F.P.: Good thoughts. I agree that creating tension between two characters (protagonist/antagonist) may possibly be easier than other kinds of tension. I simply get the idea for my story and write from there. If a typical villain comes into play, I'll work with him/her. But I do believe it's my job to make that villain or antagonist as believable as possible - simple or complex. I also like to write a lot in the grays, and all my characters are flawed. If a writer goes too black and white they start delving into melodrama.

    Have you ever written a story and it just takes you into a more black and white place than you intentioned? That's what has happened with my second novel in the first drafts. Now it's getting more gray and I love it!

    Karen: There's nothing wrong with a likable villain - as long as your readers like your hero too. I think if your is confused, that's another matter entirely.

    Eileen: Yes, I like to think of that way - villains as testing us. That's a great way to put it! And I think the more complex the harder we're tested.

    Amy: I didn't want to mention the Snowflake Method again, but I can do it here in the comments. That is what first taught me how to write from ALL of my character's POVs. It's part of the process. I learned so much the first time I did that, and now if I'm ever stuck I pull up a blank document and start explaining things from that character's POV. It works almost every time.

    Charlie: You don't have to fit into any category in my opinion. In fact, putting your work into a specific genre, and yourself into a category can get you nowhere really fast. I like that you got a great idea and just started writing. Everyone must begin somewhere. Scott's point is perfect that Craft is what must get us past the novice stage. Part of the Craft is rules, so you're good to learn what 'rules' there are (I like to think of them as guidelines) so that you can break them later.

    I don't think there's any problem with following a traditional form. It's how we tell the story that matters. I'm sure you're doing a wonderful job!

  23. Hi Charlie--I didn't know how new you are when I wrote that post. I really like when writers try something different, so I always encourage that. But I also recognize that some people have trouble doing different things when they don't have enough experience yet. Sometimes I forget that as I've been a rule-breaker since forever! I seem out-of-touch with many others there.

    These three bloggers here cover the basics in a very comprehensive way, so you should stick around and keep reading.

    I think your story sounds fine as it is, and I actually meant it's not been done as much as more traditional stories. To me, Kafka isn't a traditional writer--though, at this point, his works have been around long enough that others have since written using "Kafka templates." What you said about your story reminded me of Kafka (his characters are often being affected by their environments rather than affecting their environments), so you might want to check out his work.

    I think you could keep going with your story, and if you find the conflict is too vague, you could always restart at the beginning and in a new draft make the antagonistic forces more concrete.

    I've adopted a no-pressure philosophy, like I've found that pressuring myself to write great first drafts makes me NOT write first drafts. Like I don't pen them to The End then.

    Now I let everything come out, no matter how bad, and encourage others to do the same. If a first draft doesn't come out well, it isn't the end of the world. You could always revise it a lot or write another completely new one based on the same story. I know the thought of lots of revision work may be daunting, but it must be done in many cases.

    If I have to pick and choose, I choose revising over re-first-drafting: even if I (or whoever) wrote a completely new first draft, that would still require revision. In my opinion, most writers should spend more time revising than first-drafting; they must work in "revising mode" to learn how to revise well and then ultimately revise a work well--that's more important than first-drafting well. I've always considered myself a rewriter rather than a writer.

    By the way, I'm originally from Brooklyn, but I lived on Staten Island for half my formative years. Strangely, I rarely come across too many writers from SI, though there seem to be plenty from Brooklyn.

    Thanks, Scott :o)!

  24. "Have you ever written a story and it just takes you into a more black and white place than you intentioned?"

    --Hi Lady--I must plead a "I can't articulate this anymore!" defense here because too much of my writing happens subconsciously now. I don't like to think about "my processes" as thinking too much paralyzes me with indecision. And I've forgotten most of my specific intentions for my earlier works especially (though not my overall intentions).

    I mention my earlier works because I like to think (fantasize) that I now write to my intent more often--that seems like the case. In my nonfiction though, I sometimes come out sounding dogmatic, and I hate that; when I get very tired, I stop focusing on specificity and clarity so much, which normally is my primary focus, and then I forget to include as many doubt qualifiers, like probably, unlikely, maybe, possibly, and so on. Then I sound more black and white.

    Though, hmmm, now that I'm thinking about it, usually when my fictional characters think and speak in black and white ways, they get punished by the other characters, mocked, or corrected in some fashion. So maybe that answers your question....

  25. I like the idea that the stronger you villain, the stronger you hero has to be. I need to examine my villains motivations. I've know I needed to for a long time, but I keep avoiding it.

  26. F.P. Yeah, that answers my question. I like to focus on process, and I don't. It's a tough tug and pull for me. In the end, I forget process in my first drafts and then delve more into process as I revise and edit. Black and white isn't necessarily bad. I like the sense of it in my second book, but I'm also happy with the gray areas which are getting to be more and more.

    Candice: Nice to see you around! It's so easy to avoid checking motivations. Oftentimes I think one motivation is enough, but then it can feel stereotypical and unrealistic. Tough stuff!

  27. I love this post...very interesting to sit and think about it. I think I like complex characters in general - and especially the villiam.

  28. I've actually been going back and adding more depth to all my characters, but I haven't gotten to the villain yet. Thanks for the tips. LOVE that photo!

  29. Great post. I love my villain, too. I think he's a very unique character, and my novel includes his loss of childhood innocence, his descent into madness and murder (fueled by love), and his missed opportunity for redemption. When you have back story like that, it's important to unfold it very carefully so it fits into the context of the rest of the novel.

    My challenge has been building up my protagonist so that he's equally interesting. It took a while, but I think I finally have it fleshed out.

  30. I'm just read a few chapters of "Bird by Bird" that explains how important it is to know your characters... I mean really know them. By the author's point of view, it seems knowing your characters' backgrounds and their personalities is extremely important - even if you don't necessarily use those backgrounds in the story. The author must know everything there is to know about the characters.

  31. Thanks for the reminder. All of our characters need to have believable reasons for acting the way they do. Just being "evil" doesn't cut it.

    Have a great weekend!

  32. Christine: Yes, complex characters are always my favorite. But I do think that a good balance between simple and complex always helps.

    Sherry: Good luck with adding to your villain! I'll bet it's going to be fun.

    Rick: That sounds like some great conflict! I can see how balancing your protagonist with that might be difficult!

    Shorty: Oh, yes! It's so important to know your characters, even quirks that never make it into the novel. All of that creates a presence in the story that nothing else can fill. I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters.

    Jill: Yes, I just got to the point where I realized I didn't know my villain at all. It was very disconcerting, but I feel better now that he's told me everything about his past, haha.


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