Provided your story’s protagonist is also the hero, the only screentime your villain will score is time that is crucial for your hero’s story, whether it’s an interaction with the hero, a Meanwhile…, news of the villain, or something else entirely. Your hero bumped into the villain. The reader needs some dramatic irony from the villain so that a scene with the hero will be all the more intense. The reader needs to be reminded that while the hero is mastering her new magic powers, the villain is taking over the world. All that the villain does will be in the lenses of the hero. There are, of course, variations on this but typically, this is how the villain is shown.
Of course, we already know that a villain should never be introduced for the sole purpose of giving the hero someone to fight. However, because of the way the story is told, the villain may be seen only in relation to the hero, and that makes the villain’s most important relationship the relationship he has with the hero. When we say hero and villain, I believe what typically comes to mind is Good versus Evil.
The Evil, full of loathing, seeking to destroy all vestiges of light; the Good, with his holy indignant, fights with righteous fury to preserve all that is innocent, bitter enemies. Or some variation thereof.
But remember how villains are people too? Making a villain The Evil is like making a hero The Good – no one person is the embodiment of all that is good and pure and lovely and when we make someone like that, the reader cannot relate to them because they’re unrealistic and almost definitely the hero is a Sue. But in many ways, the same follows for the villain.
Now, what will help you with your villain as a person is if you reconsider his relationship with the hero. A relationship as old as GOOD VS EVIL: BITTER ENEMIES would be friend versus friend: a difference of opinion.
However, there are many ways to take
Wait their chess pieces are all the same! How do they tell them apart?
…sorry. There are many directions to take the friendship route; the main hero and villain in the gigantic story I’ll one day write knew each other from school, and while the hero considered the two of them to be friendly rivals, the villain saw her as his bitter enemy rival. As he descended into the path of becoming my main villain, she just saw him as her friend making poor choices, reaching out to help him. He saw her as trying to thwart his strides towards glory.
When deciding your relationship between hero and villain, don’t try to just slap a little label on it and call it good. “Yeah, they’re bitter enemies.” “Oh, they’re old friends. It’s all just a chess game to them.” “They’re strangers.” Relationships are complex and layered. While you could just say that they’re strangers, and that’s that, remember that you’re going to have to work up some pretty good motivation on both sides as to why they would therefore care to fight each other. This may be easy, or it may not be, but I would recommend thoroughly exploring it regardless. Even if if the relationship seems like a simple matter, if you take the time to examine it at every angle, you may discover depth. Consider the story of Moses.
We’re going with the Prince of Egypt depiction because this telling does such an excellent job of reminding us of one important factor: Moses and Ramses were brothers. They grew up together.
When we just read the story of Moses in the Bible, or hear a re-telling of it, what we see is The Protagonist, Moses the prophet, and That Silly, Stubborn Pharaoh. We get halfway through the plagues and it’s like, geez, Ramses, you know this is only going to get worse, right? Are you some kind of moron or what? Do you really want to tick off the this God figure that is proving that he can make your life rather difficult?
But how does it change the narrative when you do imagine Moses coming home after years of absence, after just disappearing one day? I think that Prince of Egypt probably has a good guess on it, Ramses so pleased to see his brother finally back. I mean, I guess he could have been pissed like, “Oh, you kill some guy and disappear and then you think you can come back?” and there’s no real way to know. But for the sake of this literary discussion, let’s say the narrative is that Ramses was pleased to see Moses, and Moses says, “Yeah, nice to see you too so how about giving up all your slaves? We cool?”
When we forget that Moses and Ramses grew up together, Pharaoh starts to feel like a stranger. “Hi, we just met, and this is crazy, but here’s God’s plagues, free the slaves maybe?” And Pharaoh does come off as kind of an idiot. But the layer of stubbornness when you see that they’re brothers and how hurt Ramses must be from Moses disappearing, reappearing and trying to destroy the Egyptian empire by freeing the workforce, the story develops tension and depth.
The relationship could be delayed. What’s more iconic than
“[Luke], I AM your father!”
“No, that’s not true! That’s impossible!”
“Search your feelings. You know it to be true.”
hm? Changed the whole dynamic afterward, and the whole hindsight on everything that happened up to that point changed too.
Consider also the difference between fighting The Overlord because You Are The Chosen One, and fighting your older brother who betrayed your family with the hopes of not having to kill him because even if he’s murdered thousands, he’s your brother and you love him, and that one guy who was always showing you up in class and sports and other things in which one can show up another and now is finally your chance to show him up. Those are all different. The motivations may run deeper in some heroes because of the relationship – and same for the villains as well.
Consider how your villain might tailor his actions based on his relationship with the hero. Maybe they ARE friends, even if they are also enemies, and you have some MacGuffin of great sentimental value to the hero. The villain could destroy it, or just capture it, and it’d be much easier, and probably smarter, to destroy. But because he knows it would break the hero’s heart, he opts to capture it instead. Or perhaps, there’s a character that needs to be neutralized and because the villain is so spitefully hateful of the hero, instead of just killing said character, he throws her into his dungeons and tortures her until he breaks her mind to give her a fate worse than death just to spit in the eye of the hero. (although I guess that’s…a lot more severe than spitting in his eye.) Again with a personal example – when a different hero kills my overlord’s right-hand man, he could have just left it at that. Overlord Guy would have known what had happened when his minion never returned. But no, that’s not what Other Guy did – he sent back in a burlap sack the head of the right-hand man with a note sending his love attached. Overlord was fairly impassive about the package. That little action speaks loads about their relationship, no? And little actions like that will help to flesh out your characters, add depth to the story, and add a little seasoning.
Take some time to figure out how you want your hero and villain to play the game against each other. You can always have them be Good vs Evil: Bitter Enemies, but that doesn’t mean that how they taunt and fight won’t be personalized between the two of them.