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Creating a believable villain

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by ChronoSam, Jan 14, 2019.

  1. ChronoSam

    ChronoSam Acolyte

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    So, this is something I want to learn too: Do you have any resoureces and tips on how to make a realistic, believable character.

    I know that the villain must not be someone who is made of pure cartoonish evil, but rather more human and even relatable to some extent.

    How do you guys make your villains and what books/resources/tips would you make on how to create one?
     
  2. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

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  3. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

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    One much-used and effective approach (from Darth Vader to Saruman and on back into antiquity) is to show somehow that the villain was not always evil but was somehow corrupted along the way. They might even in some twisted way think they are doing right. They could feel persecuted. They can be filled with despair over their choices and agonize over the things they do.

    Or they can be quite oblivious to the fact that they are on the wrong side of things, being perhaps dogmatic or doctrinaire in their viewpoints—far more evil is done by the well-intentioned than those who recognize they have embraced evil.
     
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  4. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Sage

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    I don't really do anything special to create my villains. I create them the same way I create my other characters but try to make their goals more selfish and their actions less moral.
     
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  5. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Staff Leadership

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    The villain is always the hero in their own story. Even Darth Vader never woke up in the morning and thought to himself, "Today I will be especially evil." They have their goals and in their minds they are right. A black-hatted mustache twirler is, at the end of the day, shallow and boring.

    Personally, we don't even like to use the word "villain" too often. We prefer "antagonist," they who stand in the way of the protagonist's goals for whatever reason. For us, good people can do terrible things for the right reasons, and others can do the right thing for the wrong reasons. That's just life. It's complicated, and so should be your antagonist. Think of them as a person, first. A person with goals and motivations.
     
  6. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

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    Antagonists don't even have to do bad things. Consider Buzz in the first Toy Story. He's a little irritating but certainly a good guy. And he is Woody's antagonist simply by existing.
     
  7. Jeremiah Reed

    Jeremiah Reed Dreamer

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    Whenever I write my villains, I keep in mind Tom Hiddleston's quote, "Every villain is a hero in his own mind." A believable villain will have a reason for what he is doing that will seem like a good thing in his mind. Take Black Panther's Killmonger, as an example of a good modern, realistic villain. Despite his extremist views (waging a world wide war against literally everyone and subjugating the world), his motives for doing so are relatively pure. In the film, he believes that black people from across the world are living in misery and Wakanda is doing nothing to help them and to, to an extent, he is right. The only problem is that Killmonger goes too far with aspirations of world domination.
    Give your villain a reason for what he is doing that other people would agree with but would disagree with the villain's methods.
     
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  8. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    There's nothing wrong with having a cartooniish villain/antagonist. It's about finding an antagonist that fits the tone and needs of your story, and sometimes that's a two dimensional cartoon. The trick, IMHO, when taking this approach is you have to make them interesting and deliciously fun to read about. If they've only got one note, that note better make you smile instead of cringe.

    As for creating a more complex antagonist, it starts with giving them believable and compelling reasons for doing what they do. If you can get the reader to think that if they were in the same position as the antagonist they might do the same thing, then you've got a good start. Now you have to decide if you want the antagonist to be likeable or despicable or something in between. If you want to make them likeable, then you lines in which they won't cross, basically redeeming qualities. If you want them to be despicable, have them do despicable things in pursuit of their goals.

    One type of antagonist is the reflection. They're basically the same as your protagonist, but where the protagonist tends to try and make all right decisions, they instead make the wrong decisions. Think Malfoy vs Potter. Though Malfoy tends to be more of a two dimensional character, he's got a little more depth hinted about that, from what I've seen in the movies, isn't explored.

    If you want examples of really good complex antagonists, take a look at Cersei and Jaime Lannister. Everything they do is driven by compelling and even sometimes noble reasons, for love, for family, and when Jaime earned the less than flattering name of King Slayer, he did it to save the people of King's Landing from a mad man.

    Give your antagonist motivations that are every bit as good as your protagonist's and you'll have the beginnings of a very interesting character.

    For reference he's a post I made yesterday about giving your character's goals. I think it applies to antagonists as well as protagonists, but instead of succeeding and learning from their trials, they fail and flop.
    Character goal?
     
  9. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Personally, I’ve always hated the “hero of his own story” approach to creating a villain.
    There's plenty of evil people in the world who do bad things out of self-interest. To deny that people like that exist strikes me as unbelievable. What makes these types of people interesting is the "why". Like with any character, it's a matter of motivation. And the motivation doesn't need to be "relatable" or "morally ambiguous" or "sympathetic", it just needs to work for the story and, more importantly, it can be understood.

    With my WIP, my villain's motivation is love. Specifically, he sees himself as unworthy of love and acceptance and this sense of self dictates how he acts. No sensible person should relate to him or think that he may be in the right since he's a self-absorbed, cruel, selfish and (by his own admittance) pure evil criminal but if you understand that initial motivation, everything he does makes sense. And hopefully that consistency makes him "believable" to readers.
     
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  10. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Sage

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    It doesn't really matter how you create the villain as long as the villain can present a challenge that will push the hero to their limits.

    As long as you avoid the trap of making your villain an evil doer who wants to take over the world (or the kingdom or Empire), a scheming property developer who wants to turn a beloved landmark into a luxury housing estate or a sadistic brute who gets his kicks raping and torturing young girls your villain will be both believable and a worthy adversary for your hero.
     
  11. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

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    It is possible to create a totally evil and inhuman villain and still make him believable—C.S. Lewis did it with the character of Weston (who is pretty much possessed by Satan) in his novel Perelandra. Weston pretty much demonstrates that 'banality of evil' with which we're all familiar, but that makes him all the more chilling. I would never attempt to emulate that. Lewis just did it too well and I suspect anything I did would be far too derivative. But it certainly gave me ideas for the whole handling of evil thing.
     
  12. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Staff Leadership

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    Sometimes apathy is the greatest of evils. Would be interesting to explore.
     
  13. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

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    I tend to get bored with psychopath and soulless-demon type antagonists who are completely one dimensionally evil, but I'm also not a huge fan of the sympathetic villain thing. Antagonists that are likeable, non-evil characters can be great, and they have their place, but they're a different type of character from a true villain.

    The villains that I tend to like the most, in other people's stories and my own, are usually proactive, driven characters that have the power to do very horrible things to the protagonist and are willing to do them, preferably in a creative, dramatic way that will be fun to watch. The process for some of my favorite villains in my own work has basically been to take an interesting character that wasn't relatable enough to work as a main character (either because of being too evil, or too overpowered, or both) and put them at odds with a protagonist. Villains are a great opportunity for using all those cool powers that make things too easy for protagonists.

    I also love the drama that arises when the villain has some sort of personal connection to the hero. Having some sort of relationship between the two characters can create great inner conflict for the protagonist and make any scene where they interact with each other WAY more interesting. (Although it's worth noting th at the hero usually carries more of the weight in this relationship. Like in the case of a "shadow" villain, they may not care much about the hero at all, but can still creates a lot of inner conflict by making the MC think about their own flaws.)
     
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  14. Night Gardener

    Night Gardener Sage

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    I'm sure there's a definitive answer to this on some academic level, but this is how I think about the key differences between being an antagonist vs. a villain. I'm limiting the scope of this to 'evilness' and not just being a counterpoint or source of conflict to the MC, like the brilliant Toy Story example mentioned already.

    In my mind, an "antagonist" is a character I could find relatable with under the right circumstances, a villain is a character I cannot relate with at all. It doesn't mean the villain is a cartoonish, 2 dimensional character or a personification of mindless, primordial evil. Far from it.

    A villain has goals, ideals, methodology, and actions I can't align myself to at all as a reader (and a reasonably sane and rational human being).) One of the more noteable examples are serial killers that kill for really, really bizarre ideologies: Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill from 'Silence of the Lambs" work for this discussion.

    Both the cannibal and the skinner-tailor are characters I can't relate to, or really wrap my head around. I'm not a cannibal or interested in making bespoke couture clothing out of women's hides. While Hannibal becomes an antagonist to Clairice after they meet in prison, he is a villain to *me*, the viewer/reader. Buffalo Bill is a villain in a slightly more abstracted way, because he almost becomes mythic or elusive like a classic bogeyman, until the end.

    Heath Ledger's Joker, however, is an antagonist because to me what he's saying and doing is something I can actually identify with on some levels. I disagree with the hostage-taking, murders, robberies, etc BUT philosophically there's part of me going "ok yeh he makes some interesting points about modern culture and power dynamics that may merit further introspection."

    These 3 characters are NOT cartoonish or flat... They are complicated, interesting and dynamic.
    Villains are almost forces that need to be subdued or destroyed, and I'm actively hoping the MC can do this. Antagonists might be misguided, but at least I'm wanting to maybe understand them better.

    Every one else has given great advice on how to develop antagonists for your protagonist, so hopefully thinking about what mostky quantifies villainy to me can help you in some way.
     
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  15. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I'm pretty sure a villain has to be a character while an antagonist doesn't. Beyond that, a villain is supposed to exhibit villainy - that being evil or criminal behavior (degree of evilness doesn't matter). An antagonist just needs to oppose the protagonist.

    The meteor in Armageddon is an antagonist but not a villain.
    Vito Corleone in the Godfather is a villain but not an antagonist.
    Darth Vader is both a villain and an antagonist.
     
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  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Au contraire, mon frère. Have you seen this picture of that dastardly meteor?

    [​IMG]

    But seriously, you bring up a good point about villains and antagonists not necessarily being the same character. In many stories they are, but not always.
     
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  17. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

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    The way I look see antagonists and villains, one is more of a structural element and one is a certain character type.
    To me, "Villain" basically just means a character that's evil, (usually one with a lot of power) and while that type of character often makes a natural antagonist, they don't have to fill that role.

    In my view, Lecter, Buffalo Bill, and The Joker are all villains, which makes me ask whether you and I may be functioning under different definitions of relatability. You seem to be taking about whether their underlying motivations are understandable and human, but what I'm thinking about is more their morals and competency. I wonder if that says something about the types of characters we like...
     
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  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I have a hard time talking about villains--or heroes, for that matter--outside of the context of an actual story. That is, Villain (or antagonist, if you prefer) is an abstraction we create to facilitate discussion among ourselves (we humans, that is). Like any abstraction--I use the word in the narrow sense of something abstracted from a larger sample--there's no end to how it might be viewed. I'm keenly aware of this because I'm a historian, and we deal with the tension between the general and the particular all the time. Some of us love wrangling over generalities, others of us prefer to put our heads down and look at particulars (we huffily call this "doing real history" but that's just posturing).

    Anyway, to respond to the OP, I'd encourage you to think first about your story, then about your protagonist (individual or group). What, in the context of the story, does the protagonist want? Now invent something to oppose that. Whatever you come up with, call that the villain. You can handle the villain's backstory any way you want. Hero wants a magic macguffin. The villain is someone who wants it more, has more resources, and is more ruthless. Or, the villain is a volcano that will destroy the macguffin. Or the macguffin takes alarm and flees. Or the villain is the hero's parent, who opposes getting the macguffin "for your own good." usw. But the villainy only makes useful sense within the context of story. Two guesses which sort of historian I am.

    Postscript, for your consideration: I wonder if other cultures have other definitions of heroism and villainy (here's a place where abstraction is useful). I suspect it's universal (RIP, Joseph Campbell).
     
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  19. LordWarGod

    LordWarGod Dreamer

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    A believable villain is one that thinks what they're doing is for good and justice. Adolf Hilter genuinely believed what he was doing was for the good of mankind and for Germany. Never once did he think he was the bad guy in all of this. Every villain is convinced that they're the good guys and the others are the bad guys. There can also be villains who know what they're doing is bad but convince themselves that it's for the better for everybody, like Thanos who decided to kill half of the universe to stop entropy from happening.

    The only exception to this is probably a psychopath or a sadist, who know they're bad but they relish in the idea of being bad or simply do not care that they're bad. They will do bad things because it makes them feel good or excites them in some way. Usually it's the idea that a person is in pain and suffering that gives them this feeling.
     
  20. Alora pendrak

    Alora pendrak Scribe

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    I think the key to makeing a good villian is makeing them a reflection of what the hero could become should they let temptations and darker desires they have manifest themselves into truely evil acts but at the same time their personality should be somewhat opposite of the hero as well despite the similarities. A good villian also unintentionally helps the hero come to a realization about themselves and their situation. For instance Killmonger from Black panther showed Tchalla that keeping Wakanda isolated from the rest of the world wasn't the right decision. So my suggestion is look at your protagonist and see who could possibly stand in the way of their goals and be a threat to everything they believe in or value.
     
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