Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Villainy 101: Villains Are People Too

How To Avoid a Protagonist-Centric Villain

Hello again. This is your friendly neighborhood Spy speaking.

In my extended stint as an unwelcome guest at the Academy of Ultimate Villainy, I met quite a few villains. Minor villains. Minions. Evil Henchmen. Super Villains. Criminal Masterminds. The works.

And if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that villains are not the mindless embodiment of evil that we think they are. At least not the good—bad?—ones.

Villains are people too.

Ever held a conversation with one? It’s not easy, I’ll admit. But once you can get past the typical shallow conversations about how magnificent they are, and who they’ve killed today, and their evil plans or hatred of the heroes, you’ll discover that villains are not so very different from you … though with different life plans and certain moral ambiguities.

Villains possess goals, motives, dreams, beliefs … just like anyone else. And their personal goals drive all of their actions.

Villains Are People Too
A handbill printed by the Society for Villain's Rights.

One common mistake among fledgling novelists is the tendency to make their villains protagonist-centric.

What does that mean?

A protagonist-centric villain exists for no other purpose than to make life difficult for the hero/heroine. Their one aim in life is to stop/kill/humiliate/embarrass/torture the hero/heroine.

What is their motivation? Oh, just because they enjoy seeing the hero/heroine stopped/killed/humiliated/embarrassed/tortured/etc.

Can you see the problem here?

The villain is no longer acting for himself to get what he (or she) desires. The villain acts solely to provide opposition for the hero. He is not a person. He is a puppet dancing at the tip of the author’s pen.

The author who writes such a villain strips him of any life he might have possessed in and of himself, making him little more than a robot programmed to oppose the hero.

But, you ask, how does one avoid this?

So glad you asked.

In order to avoid a protagonist-centric villain, you must look at things from the villain’s point of view.

Tip 1: Answer the question why from the villain’s perspective.

Every writer’s favorite question is why. You must know why your protagonist makes the choice that allows them to embark on their heroic journey. You must know why they fail halfway through. You must know why they are able to succeed in the end.

But you almost must know why your villain does what he or she does. And when you ask yourself why, write your answer from the villain’s perspective.

For example, instead of replying: Villain wants to destroy the protagonist because the protagonist is trying to stop the villain from dominating the world in a reign of terror.

(Can you see how this is focused on the protagonist, instead of the villain?)

Try writing: All Villain wants is power. A chance to unleash the evil genius that has always been neglected, ignored, looked down upon. The world will recognize his greatness … even if he has to force it on one person at a time at the tip of his sword. And no one is going to stand in his way.

Tip 2: Instead of looking at how the villain is getting in the protagonist’s way, try seeing how the protagonist is getting in the villain’s way.

Ever read a novel where the villain just seems to handily pop up from time to time, at just the right moment to foil the protagonist’s plan or issue some rarely-fulfilled threat? But you have no clue what the villain does the rest of the story? He just disappears whenever he’s not needed on stage. A puppet.

Don’t do that. When you outline, outline the story from the villain’s perspective. Know what the villain is trying to accomplish, and use his goals to thwart the protagonist. Know what the villain’s journey looks like. Know what the villain does when the protagonist is not around.

Which brings us to my final admonishment:

Tip 3: Get to know your villain.

Admittedly, it can be dangerous. Casual conversation with a villain usually is. But how else are you going to discover that your Dark Lord has an unnatural fear of spiders, likes cuddly kittens, and is allergic to blue cheese?

Quite a few of them are, actually.

Get to know your villain, know his deepest desires and his darkest fears, and your villain will no longer be protagonist-centric. He will possess a life of his own. Your very own Frankenstein.

I rest my case.

Tune in next time, for another lesson from the Spy and the Academy of Ultimate Villainy.


  1. Ah, Spy, how far can we express our thankfulness that you are back? Once again, you make us reconsider our villains in new and interesting ways. Thank you so much.

    And I must say, after reading this post, I feel very good about my villains. BWAHAHAHA!

    1. The Spy thanks you for your kind comments ...

      (Actually, he's not much good when it comes to gratitude. The fellow has a bit of an arrogant streak! But don't tell him I said that. I'm sure if he knew what it was to actually feel grateful, he would thank you for your kind comments. As it is, I'll simply have to say thanks for him.) :)

    2. Yeah, I know how those Spy types are. No problem. :)

  2. Very good! It's something I had sort of but not really thought about. Thanks for the helpful post. I enjoyed the content and the style a lot. :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Kate. Thanks for stopping by! :)

  3. This definitely pointed out some things I need to keep in mind... Awesome post, though.

  4. This is such a wonderful reminder to deepen everyone's character. Thanks for that!

    ~Sarah Faulkner


    1. Poor villains are so often neglected when it comes to deepening character. And without villains ... what sort of stories would we have?

  5. Well said. Lets all remember that no matter how despicable or deathly evil our venomous incarnations are they too deserve character, vision and realistic motivations. Gillian, my 'villianary' senses so enjoy your article.

    1. Villainary? Good word. I'll have to add it to my villainous vocabulary. (And yes ... I did think about trying to combine the two, but I decided it wasn't worth the trouble). :)

  6. I like this. I've been working on making my villains people since finding out it wasn't good to just make them evil for no other reason than the hero was good. It is knd od fun to see all the different ways one can make a villain and what motivations he has.

    1. It is isn't it? I started out writing your typical mustache twirling, black cape wearing bad guy who wanted nothing more than to see the hero crawl. Which can be fun! But I found I could go so much deeper with my villains ... and it's a lot of fun trying to get to know them (without dying, of course!).

  7. I love this, even though it points out just how much work my villains need. A lot of them kind of fail. Many thanks to the Spy! I'm checking out the rest of the series now.

    1. Writing this post inspired me to go back through my villains too and make sure I'm making them human and real enough ... not just robots meant to oppose my hero. :)

  8. Really nice post! Totally agree! :) I do this with my villains. :)

    Stori Tori's Blog


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