Hello, readers! In case you missed it, this is one in five posts – number two, to be exact. If you missed the previous post, it’s best if you go back and read that one first, because the points build on each other.
You’ve read the previous post? Great! Read on:
A villain does evil things because he is evil, not the other way around
This is actually one of the first lessons that I learned. I began writing when I was very young and I found myself falling to the error of making my villain do a lot of terrible things to show how eeeevil he was. But no matter how many heinous acts I chalked up to his name, no matter how hard I screamed “Look! Look at how evil he is!” with the deeds I attributed to him, my villain just never really seemed all that scary and terrible. Yes, part of that was I had just begun to learn how to write fiction and my villain was a piece of cardboard, but when you compared him to the other pieces of cardboard that comprised the rest of my cast, the only real difference was that I as the writer was yelling “Look! Look at how evil he is!”
A villain’s true evil has to be inherent. His evil has to lead him to his deeds, not the other way around (unless of course you’re developing your villain by taking a normal or even a good guy down a dark road, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). Really, this leans heavily on point number one. Remember how I said insanity isn’t a motive? Neither is ‘evil’. Why did he kick that puppy? Because he’s evil! He’s evil because he kicked that puppy! Certainly, kicking puppies is a trademark of evil. But let me ask all dog owners out there – how many of you have risen early in the morning, groggy, and stumbled out of your room to find sustenance, or perhaps groped around in the darkness whether from coming home late at night or for some other reason, or perhaps you were simply not looking where you were going, and you kicked your dog when he got underfoot? I’ve definitely stepped on our kitten a few times because Vivi is tiny and pitch black and blends in with a lot of things. And while I am an overlord, I never mean to step on Vivi. It’s always an accident. The act isn’t really a hallmark of my evil, it’s just a sign that you can’t see a small black cat laying on a very furry black bathroom mat, especially when it’s dark.
However, consider some motives – “I kicked that puppy because it was in my way”. Not the most evil, but the average puppy is going to be pretty small and one could easily walk around it, let alone just step over it. This adds an air of narcissism, perhaps, certainly malice. Does it not feel more evil than simply, “I kicked a puppy”? Try this – “I saw a small, innocent, happy yet helpless creature and it brought me joy to bring harm to it.” Sinister, no? A little ASPD (anti-social personality disorder) in there, yes, malice, definitely. Does it not hint at innate evilness?
Beyond motive, writing your villain as evil because he does evil deeds is writing him in such a way that he always has something to prove. You want your villain to have authority. Remember Darth Vader’s first appearance? With the storm troopers and the theme song and the air of “Sh-t just got real”? Vader didn’t have to prove he was evil with anything he did. He forcechoked that guy because he was evil and we all knew it, immediately. What if Vader had to prove he was evil by forcechoking people? With Sidious around, also a great overlord, Vader would likely have to choke every guy in the galaxy before he received much respect…and then it would still be the wrong kind of respect. Not an authority. Not a force to be reckoned with. Just a crazy armored dude who chokes everyone he meets that needs to be avoided. Your villain doesn’t need to prove he’s evil. He’s just evil.
It’s a small difference, perhaps, and perhaps more of a mentality of the writer than any actions of the villain himself, but it’s an important difference all the same.