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Writing a Villain: they should be more than just “evil”

When I first wrote the Curse of Atlantis, I sat down with Donald Maass. I know most probably won’t know him, but he’s a big time Fantasy agent—has his own agency in NY and bestselling books for writers. It is one of the times I am glad about my unworldliness starting out. He was the first person I ever pitched my novel to, and only the third person to ever even read a piece of it. I about died during the process. Believe me when I say I would have had I known who I was sitting in front of…or at the very least chickened out.  Anyway, I remember him being impressed with the work, but he told my characters tended to be black and white. He said to mix it up, make it messy. I’ve always tried to remember this advice. 

Villains, if they are not Disney or comic based, are supposed to represent real people, and real people are not driven to evil for evil’s sake. Therefore, while stories do have the character that lives to destroy the protagonist, the best stories, in my opinion, are those where the villain has justification. What makes them a villain is not a lack of humanity. What makes them a villain is that their goal somehow contradicts the protagonist’s goal. 

Looking at The Curse of Atlantis—although I always feel funny analyzing my own work—in the first scene King Menelaus is in the process of killing Pandora’s family in a fire. In the first version, he does so just because. He felt no emotion, but he has a reason. He believes Pandora to be the Curse of Atlantis. He believes she is responsible for the innocent slaying of countless peasants. He also knows the only way to “force” her to transform is to upset her. Therefore, he kills her family. Is it something a “good” character would decide? Probably not. But he is not a good character. He makes questionable decisions. That’s why he’s a villain. But he is still human. Mr. Maass suggested that he has a moment where he questions the actions. He’s human. A child is screaming in front of him, crying over her parent’s death. He’s just made her an orphan. If she’s not the curse, then he is more than just a horrible human being. He would question his actions until she changes. 

I think that stretches into any story. Think about Batman and The Penguin. The Penguin was a boy who just wanted to fit in. He was driven to hate and violence. Villains have a history that has shaped the way they make decisions. Even still, some believe what they are doing what is right (typically the opponent in a war). The character is still a villain, still an obstacle for the protagonist. They may still make questionable decisions (and probably kill more easily than most) but they should be real. Make it messy, because life is not so easily classified.