Every story needs a troublemaker. Have you ever wondered why the most enduring stories have the worst villains? Ever put down a book because you just didn’t care about the story? Maybe the stakes weren’t high enough. Maybe the bad guy just wasn’t…bad enough.
Several years ago someone gave me this advice: to write a strong plot, start with the antagonist. It sounds backwards, right? But from a storytelling perspective, it makes perfect sense to start with the villain. Here’s why:
The villain is often a twisted version of the hero. Strong villains have a motive that opposes your main character’s goals. If your hero wants to eat ice cream, your villain is blowing up ice cream delivery trucks because of some deep-seated sundae phobia. Both hero and villain have similar interests, but on opposite sides of the issue. They are two sides of the same coin.
The best villains have a tragic backstory. When we learn about these defining events in the villain’s past, we begin to understand why they act that way. Maybe the poor guy hates ice cream sundaes because his psychopathic mother forced him to eat giant sundaes every day until he got sick, while he was locked in the basement staring at decomposing rats. We sympathize. It’s a complicated and yet compelling feeling, to care about the villains even as they do horrific things.
Villains reflect the evil we see in ourselves and others. Let’s face it, there’s a villain in every one of us. Fictional villains just take it to a whole new level of badness, often with cool stage makeup and special effects. Fictional villains offer a safe way to voluntarily process the deep, philosophical horrors that play out in our own communities. Like that dark and terrible day when Blue Bell recalled all the ice cream because of the dread villain Listeria. There is evil in the world, Aurora.
Villains provide creative freedom. As writers, we spend hours developing the character qualities of our protagonists. For those of us who write series fiction, we need to stay within the confines of our main characters because they are the anchors that hold the whole thing together. But introduce a new villain to the mix, or give your existing villain a new toy, and all bets are off. Ice cream trucks explode. Banana splits ooze with poison syrup. Anything can happen.
And finally, the main reason we love a good villain:
Villains are unapologetically selfish. Hell-bent on getting their own way, villains are determined, driven, and will stop at nothing. Killing? No biggie. Blowing things up? Sure. Allowing gallons and gallons of delicious Blue Bell ice cream to go to waste? Whatever it takes. We might not agree with their methods, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we admire a villain’s commitment. Go hard or go home.
Next time you sit down to write, turn the monster loose. Make your villain more evil and powerful, so your hero can get stronger. Up the stakes. Give us drama, make us cringe, incite tears. Back your hero into a corner, give the villain the upper hand, and then see what happens. Can your hero overcome the strongest of villains?
Now that’s a good story.