Writing Villains

By Christina Rich

We’ve been talking a lot about villains this month and as I was going back through our posts something really resonated with me from one of John’s posts:

But honestly, what’s the appeal of Quaritch? In the end, it is the same appeal as Darth’s. The same appeal as every great villain – certainty of purpose.

When I first started writing with the goal of publication in mind I didn’t understand this concept. Villains were bad, some were very bad. The only examples I really had were those in horror movies. We’re talking Jason, Freddie Krueger and Michael, not that I watched more than a few stolen glimpses of these movies when I was a kid because they were a huge no-no in our house and for good reason. By the time I was an adult I didn’t have much interest.

The kind of movies I did watch were ones like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Top Gun, The Outsiders etc. Looking back I can define an antagonist, but not what my idea of a true villain was.

In that first manuscript I wrote way back in 2007 I had a villain (actually I had several villains) that I now know to be called a cardboard character. There was no depth to him, no goals. He behaved badly just for the sake of behaving badly. By the time I hit the middle of the book a tragedy hit our family.  My villain began to do unspeakable things. The father of my heroine who was based off a real character in history from a Border Reiver family known as the Graems was a pretty nasty dude and I ended up having the villain disembowel him. And remember that scene from The Patriot where Col. William Tavington locked all those people up in the church? Yeah, I had one similar. It was pretty gruesome.

gmcThere was no rhyme, no reason to why he did what he did, he just did it.

It wasn’t until about half-way through my second book that I realized what it was my villains were lacking–certainty of purpose. Also known as goals and motivation.

Yes, our villains need to have goals, motivation and conflict too, but I won’t touch on conflict in this post.

The villains goals need to be realistic, believable (although oddly enough I’m finding things happening in real life that would never be excepted in fiction).

What’s more important though is the motivation behind the goals.  Tune into one of the news channels. People are always searching for the whys, the motivation, of tragedies caused by human hands. They want to understand, they need to understand and I believe many want to find empathy for real life villains, if only they can find a good motivation behind their actions. A just because doesn’t work and it’s not going to work in fiction

Betty told us in one of her posts that Javert from Les Mis was one of her personal favorite villains and I agree, he is one of my favorites as well. Javert, like Quartich (John’s favorite) from Avatar, is just doing his job. Javert’s goal is to capture the bad guys, every lawbreaker under the letter of that law. He does so with an iron fist.

Why? What is his motivation?

Because his job is to enforce justice under the law and he wants to be the best so that no one can question his goodness.

Again, why?

Could it be that Javert’s merciless pursuit of justice is caused by his need to erase his past? After all he was birthed in prison.



Today’s writing prompt: Think of a villain you can empathize with, what is his/her motivation behind his/her goal?

When thinking about creating a villain consider his/her back story. Consider their goals. Consider the whys of their actions, make them believable, realistic like Javert.

3 thoughts on “Writing Villains

  1. It used to drive my brain to overload when writers would talk about this sheet and that sheet and character sketches etc. Now I understand a bit more why they do it. If you look at some of our villains over the last month you’ll see their goals and if you dig deeper you’ll see their motivation. Just think about Darth Vader’s motivation. Once that is revealed to the watcher and to his son he immediately gains empathy and everyone wants him redeemed.

    We can talk more villain GMC if you’d like. 😉

  2. Desire and motivation are indispensable when creating characters. I put a lot of work into creating backstory for characters. Months, in fact. Only when the characters are who they need to be, doing what they are doing for reasons that are natural from their perspective, can I proceed with the story. For instance, my novel, The Silla Project, is set in North Korea. Here in the west we tend to view North Koreans as crazy, and oftentimes that is the way it seems to us, here in the US, operating on very little information about them. If you study them in detail you will see that they are NOT crazy but are behaving exactly as you or I would were we in a situation similar to theirs. When you reach that point with character you can really bring them alive and create memorable people who, like Quaritch, are hopelessly misguided but, in the end, doing the best they can for reasons that make sense to them. And that, is LIFE.

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