Case Study: Using Villains to Shape Your Hero

Trindall Grove
A Return to Trindall Grove

In a previous article some time ago, I wrote about developing a character named Breldin, and how I created his home setting, the town of Trindall Grove, based on the way I wanted to shape his personality over the life that he’s lived.

I want to take this moment to return to Trindall Grove in order to reflect on Breldin’s villains, and to discuss the way I’ve designed them to push his personality as the story goes forward. I hope this can serve as a case study for other writers developing their own characters.

Breldin is a young fruit picker fascinated with the subtle magics which ripple through the forest garden surrounding his home. But the water of a dark lake corrupts many of the region’s animals, warping their appearance and instilling them with bouts of insane frenzy. Early on, possessed by the foibles of every young fantasy protagonist, Breldin decides to join a venture to visit the ruins on an island in the middle of that dark lake, where Breldin and others are forced into the waters and must from then on battle the corruptions of its magic.

Breldin’s story hinges on the contrast between his naturally curious, optimistic personality and the darkness which overtakes him when his body is transformed into a monster and his mind begins to blink out with bursts of rage.

Villain no. 1: The Traitor

When creating the character who forces Breldin into the waters, I want to find ways to maximize the powerful evil of that moment. I need a character who defies Breldin’s expectations in humanity, and who also reflects the dark underbelly of the happy society I’ve created around him.

My first villain needs to be a traitor. And a common criminal.

To make the character, Aldera, into a traitor, I need to give her personal ties to Breldin’s home, but to make her a common criminal, those personal ties need to be flexible enough to serve as a cover. By making Aldera a glass trader, and a friend of the family, she becomes a figure of implicit trust, an endless supply of amusing anecdotes, and a valuable resource for securing bodyguards during the venture.

Then she and her retinue of bodyguards force Breldin and his friends into cursed waters, transform them into monsters, separate them, and attempt to sell them as slave warriors in the hills – before Breldin, in a frenzy, manages to escape.

Villain no. 2: The Savage Prince

After he struggles to adjust to his new condition, the first villain that Breldin must choose to face is the one he believes to keep his friends as slaves in the hills. I want this leg of his journey to be short and decisive, an interlude from his personal conflicts, with the purpose of tempting Breldin to embrace his rage. I want readers to have a moment of happy fury, and a whiff of victory, so that I can bring them crashing down.

Ceilnik Montache needs an awesomely savage presentation to motivate Breldin to embrace his brute strength, but he also needs slightest air of sophistication to show that a person can be savage, and still be more, all at once. And like Breldin, his brutality needs to be fueled by magic to be considered an equal.

To do all this, I decided to make Ceilnik into a prince with a family squabble, who resolved it by declaring himself an outcast and embracing brutal blood magics. With muscles like an ogre, a massive serrated blade, and green veins to highlight the magic polluting his blood, Ceilnik Montache beheads several slaves with a single stroke and will get the comeuppance he deserves.

All of this so that Breldin may rescue only one of his friends in a fit of happy savagery before his mind blinks out, and he tears his friend apart.

Villain no. 3: The Manipulator

Before I continue, I should mention that I like my stories to come together fully: Character, plot and setting. The setting that I flushed out in my previous article has a history, and I want it to be relevant. The nation was founded by refugees, driven from their homeland, desperate enough to settle on a dangerous peninsula jutting out from the hills, which they tamed and cultivated for their new home.

Another nation drove them from their old homeland, so by my rules of worldbuilding, that nation must be a player in the current story.

Enter Yeldor, villain number 3.

Yeldor represents the gradual shift in the story from the deeply personal towards the epic. In this regard, he must be powerful, manipulative, and clever. To keep the shift from feeling sudden, he must have ties to the first two villains, using them to raise an army in the hills for an attack on Breldin’s home country. And finishing the knot of connections, his goal must be rooted in the magics beneath the forest gardens of Breldin’s home, and in the magics of the dark lake where Breldin was cursed.

And of course, for Breldin the monster to find the rest of his friends, he must uproot Aldera (villain no. 1) from hiding inside the city, and Aldera must send him to Yeldor, against whom Breldin must rise to the occasion.

Villain no. 4: The Accursed

And yet, something is missing from my three villains so far: Breldin’s empathy. Aldera and Ceilnik and Yeldor each have their own story, their own explanations, and their own arcs. The readers should understand them. But none of them are powerful enough to snap Breldin’s attention from the depths of his own inner turmoil, to make him feel that anyone’s suffering matters as much as his does. To have time to build on Breldin’s empathy, my fourth villain must actually be my first.

Oridionel needs to suffer from Breldin’s curse, in the worst possible way.

And to make his cursed transformation worse than Breldin’s, I’ve decided to let him rely on an equally dark curse to suppress it: Lyncanthropy. By binding his transformation with that of a werebat, he can appear normal when he needs to, terrifying when it’s appropriate, and be driven absolutely, unpredictably insane by the twisted magics competing in his head.

And to maximize that sense of empathy, for a while, in the early chapters of Breldin’s journey to the ruins, he could once have been Breldin’s friend, when their mentor secretly used herbs to hold those curses at bay on their journey to find a cure.

It all comes together.

Other Examples

How do you use your villains to shape your hero?

Can you think of any great examples in literature or film of villains being used to shape heroes?

Brian DeLeonard

Brian DeLeonard writes for the Article Team at Mythic Scribes where he contributes as a moderator. DeLeonard enjoys getting creative with his writing, and he is currently working on his Smughitter series about a sprite who turns pride into magic. After graduating from NYU’s business school with a degree in marketing and economics, DeLeonard spends his days at a standing desk with his laptop, clipboard and a box of crayons as the full-time father of four young children. Message him through his screen name Devor on the Mythic Scribes forums.

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Great article Brian! You should write an article about heroes and make the first category the lone barbarian. 😀

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

JSterlingS So do I.  It sounds awesome.


I want to read this story NOW.

Sunny Cynthia Johnson
Sunny Cynthia Johnson

Harry Potter, Frodo, Sherlock. A great hero needs a great adversary.

Stuart Evison
Stuart Evison

How can you have “goodies” without the “baddies” to make them so?

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani

The Hunger Games trilogy is a terrific example of villains shaping the heroes. Katniss and Peeta grow as characters because of the villains that they encounter, and what the villains put them through.

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