For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves.
A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls. You can read an excerpt from the novel here.
How the Story Works
The problem with creating villains is that the word usually makes us think of characters like Sauron from Lord of the Rings or Darth Vader—i.e. characters whose evil exists on a grand scale. Most stories simply don’t have room for that kind of character. Imagine dropping Darth Vader into the stands of a little league baseball game. In almost every scene I can imagine, the situation overwhelms the character. In other words, Darth Vader will not remain the dark Imperial lord but will instead inevitably become simply another cranky parent. So, the key to creating a villain is to find opportunities for villainy in your story’s particular circumstances.
Ziegler has created an occasion that often brings out a certain kind of villainy—a wedding. But rather than writing a bridezilla, which would be both predictable and understandable (wedding planning being slightly less than relaxing), she creates a character for whom things should be easy—the mother of the groom. In this scene, watch how she gives this character, Mrs. Caldwell, opportunities to play nice, to reach consensus, and then lets the character play the villain instead:
“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”
“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.
“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.
“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said.
“Yes, but this wedding also includes a big strong boy who needs nourishment,” Mrs. Caldwell said.
Darby, Delaney, and I exchanged puzzled looks. “What big strong boy,” I asked.
“Why, Burton, of course.”
“Yes, but this is Lily’s house, and she needs nourishment, too,” I pointed out, my voice rising a little. “Burton can eat vegetables, but she can’t eat meat.”
“Yes, but the meat eaters who will be attending the wedding will far outnumber the vegetarians.”
Over and over again, the novel and the other characters give Mrs. Caldwell the opportunity to give in, even slightly, and not only does she refuse to do so but her refusal becomes pointedly selfish. Her villainy may be of a lesser scale than Sauron’s, but it breaks against so many commonly held conventions about civility that the reader roots against her. If a reader is wishing ill toward a character, then it’s probably fair to say that the character is the villain.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create a villain and give him/her opportunities to act maliciously, using the passage from Jennifer Ziegler’s novel Revenge of the Flower Girls as a model:
- Create an occasion. Though villainy can happen in private (sabotage, vandalism, theft), the most dramatic forms tend to happen in public, in front of an audience. So, create an opportunity for people to come together. You can use an event (wedding, funeral, birthday party, holiday) or something more practical (meeting, dinner, classroom, workplace team). You should also flesh out the people or type of people who will be at the occasion.
- Create an opportunity for compromise. You’ve brought your people together. Now, make them come to a mutual decision about something. The decision can be mundane (what to eat, where to go, how to proceed). Anyone who’s ever sat through a meeting knows the frustration of dealing with somebody who obstructs for no good reason.
- Create the villain. Approach this from the character’s action, not personality or motive. So, don’t worry about why the character does the malicious thing. Just find the malicious thing and figure out motive later. In truth, motive isn’t that important. For instance, in Othello, we know that Iago is angry at being passed over for a promotion, but that’s really just a way to get the reader on board for the incredible, unexplainable evil that he causes. So, figure out how your character could obstruct the decision that’s being made. What contrary position could the character take? Or, how could the character delay the decision-making process?
- Give the villain chances to do right. Notice how Ziegler’s characters give Mrs. Caldwell plenty of rational reasons to abandon her position. They appeal to ethics (“Lily doesn’t eat meat”), authority and privilege (“Lily is the bride”), and finally to necessity (“she needs nourishment, too”). In other words, Mrs. Caldwell is given plenty of opportunity to give in. But she doesn’t. If you keep reading the scene, you’ll see that her mind is changed only by force. So, let the other characters try to persuade the villain to do right or change his/her behavior. Try different approaches: ethics, authority and privilege, necessity. If you’re rhetorically inclined, you can try the pyramid of ethos, pathos, and logos. You can also offer the villain compromises that are continually rejected. This isn’t so different from what parents do with kids, pleading with them in various ways to do some desired thing. And when the kids resist all overtures, they often seem like villains. Your villain can act the same way, resisting all overtures until their behavior becomes so unreasonable that the reader begins to wish him/her ill.