The Art of Villainy

I have always liked Villains. In many stories they are the most interesting and the most memorable characters in the book. In addition, they are usually helping to drive the story.

They are action.

In many traditional tales (whether traditional means way back when or more modern versions) our intrepid hero is just going along with his or her life. They may not be happy, but they are still usually just plodding along.

Then, the Villain Appears.

Sorry, that needs to be more dramatic.

THE VILLAIN APPEARS!!!!! (Please add your own thunderous drums and other appropriate sound effects, thank you very much)

And when the villain appears they do something. Kidnap or curse a princess, demand more rent than your hero’s family can pay, create a trumped up charge for an arrest warrant or plant evidence. What villainy they get up to will clearly depend on your story. Crooked cops don’t generally create magic curses and evil sorcerers don’t generally bother planting evidence for a warrant.

Or maybe they do, it’s your story.

However, whatever it is they do, it often kicks the story into gear. It is the reason your hero, dissatisfied with their lot or not, actually decides to make a change. The Villain is action, the hero reaction.

Which makes the villain kind of important.

You may be telling the story of your hero, how they face the battle before them, defeat their enemies and emerge victorious at the end. You may love everything about your hero and could really care less about your villain. Why would you? After all the villain is just there to kick your beloved hero in the rump and get them moving. Once that’s done you can forget about them until the final showdown, right?

Possibly, but you have to remember: Villains are people too.

Mostly. Even if they aren’t human, often times they are people.

Which means they do things for a reason.

Technically something like an avalanche doesn’t have a motivation for falling on a pack of skiers. It doesn’t think ‘Oh I think I’ll make skier-sicles today, that sounds yummy.’ but it also didn’t decide just to fall on it’s own. Plates could have shifted, a storm might have done some damage or a giggling maniac with a wheelbarrow full of dynamite could have gone for an explosive day out on the mountain side. (Officially in that one your villain would be the dynamite throwing loonie).

With something like a natural disaster as the villain in a fight of man against nature it might not matter why the avalanche fell. But if you know why then you could possibly use it. Someone could give a warning others didn’t heed. You could expand your story so it isn’t just about rescuing people from the snow, but about preventing another avalanche, or dealing with whatever the root cause of the avalanche was to begin with, whether you want to slip a commentary about mining or global warming into an otherwise straightforward rescue attempt, or if you just want a chance to write in a crazy guy with a wheelbarrow full of dynamite. Figuring out why the avalanche (or other natural disaster) occurred could open up possibilities in your story.

However, lets leave the man versus nature aside and go back to a people type of villain. People do things for a reason. Very few people do things for absolutely no reason at all. Even if your villain is crazy there has to be an underlying motivation for them to do something. It doesn’t have to be complex, it can be as simple as greed or envy: your hero has something the villain wants so the villain takes it. In this case the villain is selfish (and either very little impulse control or was taught to just take what they want withe by his family or the society in which he lives.)

It can also be a little more complex.

Let’s give Bob a break this week and go with an Evil Sorcerer named Bernard.

Our set up:

Bernard, the Evil Sorcerer lives in a castle in the middle of nowhere. Once every five years he sends his minions through the villages in the rest of the kingdom. Sometimes they kidnap one or two children, sometimes a larger bunch and sometimes none at all. The children taken are never seen again.

Okay that gives us something for our hero to fight against. A child from his village is taken. It might be his child, or younger sibling or his sweetheart’s younger sibling. Let’s say that our hero, Biff, wants to marry a beautiful girl in town named Bunny. But her father does not think Biff is worthy. But then the Evil Sorcerer’s minions kidnap Daisy, Bunny’s younger sister. Bunny’s father Doug says that if Biff can bring Daisy back, he can marry Bunny. And so off in hot pursuit, Biff rides off to the rescue.

Where he will face many trials and tribulations, especially if you remember that you have to make your hero suffer.

But this is not about our hero, it is about our Villain.

We know he lives in a castle and takes children once every five years. But why? I know you may still be obsessed with Biff and his quest to save Daisy and wed Bunny. But why the evil sorcerer kidnaps the children every five years is going to matter.

First and foremost, your readers are going to want to know. If you give them a reason that sounds plausible, they will let you get on with your story and see where it ends up. If the villainy makes no sense then they could just put the story down, offer you an eyeroll and walk away.


Is there a beast that must be fed once every five years? If so you can use it to keep Biff on a tight timeline so that he can get there before Daisy has been eaten.

Does he need child labor? Is he trying to repopulate the lands around his castle and therefore raising the children and then giving them land within his domain?

And, while we are at it, how does he choose which children to take?

The thing is, it is very unlikely that Bernard is going to wake up once every five years and decide to randomly kidnap children. And his reasoning is going to shape what Biff finds when he finally manages to get to the castle.

To figure out what Biff finds and what shape the battle takes, we need to spend a little time with Bernard.

So to Bernard…

Bernard the sorcerer lives in a castle in the middle of an enormous forest sheltered by steep mountains and vast rivers which not only provide all of the food he needs, but protect him from invaders (like our intrepid Biff). Every five years he sends out his minions to scour the kingdom for children who possess magic. Magic develops in a child at the age of five and the king’s administrators takes children for testing and placement at the age of six. The king has given the order that any child with magic should be killed immediately, although the administrators claim the children are taken for a special corps within the castle so people think it is a reward and not a mass grave. Bernard kidnaps the children, teaches them to use and control their magic, thus saving them from the king who fears magic more than anything else in the world. (Why is another story, or an addition to this one). Some stay with him in the castle, others grow up and travel to other places seeking other children with magic to find and protect. Bernard himself is one of the children who was kidnapped by the ‘Evil Sorcerer’ who commanded the castle before him.

So that is Bernard and that is why he does what he does. It turns out Bernard may not be as evil as we thought at first. But then again a lot of evil is a matter of perspective. Doug and Bunny think he is evil because he kidnapped Daisy. Biff thinks he is evil at the start. How he feels at the end will depend on what happens along the way and how much he ends up learning. This story could end up with Biff killing the sorcerer and Daisy skewering Biff with his own sword in retaliation for the sorcerer’s death.

Or Biff could learn the reason for Daisy’s capture in the first place and decide that the best way to get Daisy home (so he can marry the fair Bunny) is to take down the Evil King (who he might have thought was good at the beginning of the story).

But that tale has yet to be told. Although I am certain I will get around to that one. It has been bouncing around in my head for a while. The Bernard part, not the Biff and Bunny one.

In this case, I justified the evil of my Villain (mostly because it suited the story I wanted to tell but also because it let my readers know why a sorcerer was kidnapping children every five years).

You can have your villain be evil through and through. Thee is nothing wrong with that. But chances are, something turned your Villain evil. You can use that. If your villain wakes up on a Tuesday and decides they want to torment someone ‘just cause it’s Tuesday’ then the reason your villain turned evil can help you choose who he wants to torment.

Does his current victim resemble one of the boys he knew when he was young who tormented him because he was different? Does she resemble the girl who never knew he existed? Is he a member of a club that wouldn’t let him join?

Taking a little while to figure out why your villain is the way they are and why they do what they do, even if you don’t add even half of it into your hero focused story, will let you work in triggers for action, details and it will make the villainy seem more plausible. Whether the reason for the attack is profit or retribution you need to know it. Knowing it will make your villain more believable and possibly more memorable. It will help convince your readers to continue along the path of your story to see where it ends up. And who knows, understanding your villain’s reasons could even send your story down new and exciting paths, which is fun for both you and your reader.

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