After last week’s 100 celebration (still happy) and my posts on blogging before that, it’s been a while since we did like an actual writing advice post. I miss those. SO, while I do have a post about reading planned for next week, I wanted to take this week and get down to our roots: How to write things. In this case, villains. Here we go. Sit back and enjoy the ride. (But remember to read actively.)
Villains are important to your story. There’s really no debating that. Someone (even if they aren’t evil) has to fill the role of antagonist and keep your hero on his toes by filling his life with conflict and strife. On the other hand though, villains are very hard to develop, and most first-time novelists are too focused on developing their heroes so the other characters kind of slip to the side. It’s okay to focus on developing your hero (he’s the most critical of all your characters) but taking just a moment to develop your villain can take your novel forward leaps and bounds.
I’d like to take that moment now for all you young adult (YA) writers.
The YA genre is written for (surprise) young adults. As a result, most all of the characters are young adults. Heroes, allies, minor villains. All teens.
Villains though? They tend to be… old. Grown up. Adults. Not all of them, but most; especially in the speculative fiction genres.
YA characters are young because (young) YA readers can relate to and learn from young characters best. Villains are a vital part of the contrast you want to create in your story. If we’re going to maximize our characters’ theme-teaching potential, we need our readers to connect to all of them, on some level. It will be easier for your YA readers to connect to a young adult villain.
Wait, what? But… villains are supposed to have evil laughs and insane amounts of terrifying confidence. My question: said who?
Insecurity is something that is very familiar for most YA readers. In fact, it’s something that’s familiar for most people. If they see it in your villain, they’ll see themselves in him. Once they’re connected to him, they’ll cringe and squirm inside when he makes his evil choices… and when they see the result of them, they’ll know that’s not what they want to do with their life. But you can’t teach that lesson without creating a strong connection between reader and villain. Nothing creates that connection like a genuine, realistic sense of insecurity in a character.
Of course, you have to be careful not to make your villain powerless. He can be insecure and powerful. In fact, his insecurity and fear can motivate him to unleash his power. They don’t have to work against each other… it’s your job to make sure they don’t. (A powerless villain is not a compelling one.)
Finally, your villain needs to be a dynamic character, not a static one. Basically, this means that need to change through his experiences in the story, just like your hero. I once heard it like this: A villain (just like a hero) should start the story saying “I couldn’t…” or “I wouldn’t…” and then end up doing that thing. This statement could reflect his insecurity “I couldn’t usurp the throne; I’m not powerful enough.” Or it could reflect his moral compass (which the story is about to destroy) “I wouldn’t slaughter and entire village just to keep my standing in the eyes of the king.”
Personally, I think that the second of the two options can be very powerful. Show the villain’s reluctance to commit some evil action early in the story. This moral action will cause the reader to admire him. Then, show how the story erodes his strength and eventually show him doing what he said he wouldn’t. Juxtapose that with the redemptive arc of you hero, and you will have a compelling story with a great villain.
And that means an enthralled reader.