Back when I was single and had roommates – three, different ones each year! – one of them very politely let me tell her stories. ALL THE STORIES. She let me read her a story I’d written, the whole thing, and tell her the story of my saga. Guys, my saga takes literally days to tell, I don’t call it a saga in vain. She was a real sweetheart, she was the one who would make Sweedish meatballs and approach me and beg me to eat them (instead of ramen, since my cooking skills are poor and my motivation to cook even poorer) which was adorable since they were tasty and I would have happily eaten them.
So I’m telling her my saga and I say, “And that’s when we meet Vince. He’s a villain.”
She immediately balls up her fists and says, “Oooh, I hate him!”
This is puzzling to me. Vince has not done anything except that I said his name and that he’s a villain. She doesn’t know any of the things he’s done, why he’s a villain, what he looks like, his agenda…and she hates him. I had to pause the story to tell her she wasn’t allowed to hate him yet.
Why did that happen? Because “villain” is often a tag for “the guy that you’re supposed to hate” or “the guy you are supposed to want to lose”. So once we have the villain tagged, we can just ignore who and what he is and hate him, right? No! No you can’t do that! First of all, you can’t always trust the author to tag his or her characters correctly. I mean, I know of books where the author tagged “hero” and the hero was constantly doing horrible things all of the time. He wasn’t a hero. Other times, the tag is meant to be a talking point. When you tag someone as a villain but their morals are just a darker gray than everyone else’s, that makes you think, doesn’t it? Who is the real villain? Are there real villains?
Yes, but that’s the thing. Villains are people, too.
It was an interesting experience to watch her view on villains change as I told her she wasn’t allowed to hate Vince until I told her his entire story. Vince doesn’t start out as a villain, y’know. He is driven insane by my evil overlord, plays the part of a villain, regains his sanity, and turns away from evil’s side. And once she knew the whole thing, she still didn’t like him, and that was okay, because he did some pretty terrible stuff while working for Etheromos, my overlord. But she didn’t just blanket hate him.
She did despise Etheromos, though.
But her hatred of Ether is much deeper than it could be, would have been, with her proper understanding of what it means for him to be a villain.
I don’t know if she would have liked those dozens of hours of storytelling back, but I definitely taught her how to see the people in others, even the evil ones.
And that brings us to the attitude with which to write villains. You can’t go in thinking you’re going to write a villain, going to write the bad guy. I mean, what if you were going to write a character with the thought, “I’m gonna write a black guy now!” The focus becomes on this character as a race, not a person, and you’re probably going to wind up with some racist stereotypes going in at that angle. The version of a racist stereotype for a villain is a crappy cliche – not offensive, but still poor writing. (Could be offensive to people who care a lot about villains – like me. When I see a really crappy villain, I do get a little offended that someone would shame the name of villainry like that, but I’m weird so whatever.)
You have to go in thinking that your villain is a person. I know I’ve said that your villain is a person about a million times, on just about every blog post, but that’s because it’s the single most important thing you can remember to improve the way you write your villains. Remember that they are a person, and stop thinking about them as a villain when writing. Describing them to someone else, or explaining the plot, sure. But not when you’re writing. When you’re writing, they’re just another main character, who has goals, wants, a moral code (that might be mostly empty), a personality. And none of those have to be built around the idea that this guy is a “bad guy”. Don’t. Let your villain blossom naturally.
Approach this with the right attitude – don’t worry about writing someone to hate, don’t worry about tagging the villain. Just put the right pieces into play, the right motive, and the rest will sort itself out, beautifully.