If we’re being honest, one character is always the most fun to develop when you’re writing a new story. It must be the main character, right? The person you’re going to follow throughout the story, the one that means the most to you?
Nope. It’s the villain.
Villains are just FUN. You get to creep into the darkest corners of your writer brain and conjure up the most unashamedly detestable human being you possibly can.
This is how we look when we begin creating a villain.
But sometimes, it can be difficult to to make sure they’re fully believable humans. So here are the nine elements that have helped me out when developing these terrible people …
1) Hero’s Shadow:
The relationship between the main character and the villain is the most important one in the story, because it is the source of all conflict. Without the villain causing trouble, the main character wouldn’t have the chance to be a hero. Without that trouble, the main character’s weaknesses wouldn’t be pressured, which means they couldn’t change. The villain is a condensed and magnified embodiment of the inner weakness that the hero is battling. They’re the SHADOW of hero, the example of what will happen if the main character goes down the wrong path. Both are facing the same problem in different ways. For example Darth Vader and Luke.
2) Conflict Strategy:
In the pursuit of stopping the hero from achieving their goal, the villain is going to attack them on 1) a personal relationship level 2) a societal level and 3) an inner level. They’re going to attack the people around them, they’re going to cause consequences for the community surrounding them, they’re going to get into their head and plague them. Because the hallmark of a villain is that they’re the person who’s perfectly suited to attack the hero’s greatest weakness. Villains should have a distinct set of tactics to destroy the main character, on at least two levels.
This one’s expected. Of course a villain has flaws, it’s in the job description. But flaws do not equate to ‘He kicks turtles every morning before breakfast’ or 'His favorite hobby is butterfly stomping’ or, more within the realm of possibility, “He wants to kill the hero”. These are evil actions, NOT flaws. A lot of villains, particularly in movies, will be given horrible things to do without any explanation for WHY they do them. And it’s pretty easy to give them reasons: just give them human weaknesses! That’s it. Whether the actions they take are as small as theft or as big as blowing up a planet, these actions stem from recognizable HUMAN FLAWS. So like a main character, a villain needs mental and moral flaws.
Yup, even Maleficent has human flaws. And she’s a dragon part of the time.
4) Counter Goal:
All characters exist because they want something. And what do villains want? To get whatever the main character wants (for very different reasons), to stop them from reaching their goal, or another goal that directly conflicts with the hero’s goal. As long as that big tangible thing they want locks hero and villain in battle, you’re good. Think 101 Dalmatians: Cruella and the good guys are fighting over the puppies.
5) Surface Motivations:
Why is it that villains always have a team of followers? Because villains never outright state their true motivations. They always have a cover story, and that cover will paint them as righteous. Villains want to look like the good guy. So their real Hidden Motivations are defended by twisting perceptions of Good & Evil, by portraying evil acts in a positive light, by indulging their followers selfish emotions and desire to feel like “one of the good guys. "
Take Gothel for example: she’s a loving mother who wants to protect her daughter from all the world’s darkness. (Sure you do, Flynn stabber.)
Surface Motivations never stand up to logical scrutiny and a functioning moral compass, but giving your bad guy a compelling argument against your good side always makes things more interesting, which brings us to …
6) Counter Statement:
The main character needs to learn some kind of truth that will enable them to fix their lives, overcome their weaknesses, banish their ghosts. It’s whatever statement about "how to live a better life” you want to prove with your story. Your villain has other ideas. They don’t agree with that statement, have other beliefs about living life well, and represent an argument against it. For example, Voldemort: “there is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it."
Although your argument isn’t very convincing, Voldy. I mean, you’re living in the back of some guy’s head.
This is everything on the surface of the villain. The way they speak, the way they look, the way they act, their role in life, their status and power. This is the facade they project for the world to see, a calculated effort to control how they are perceived. This is closely connected to that surface want, because that surface is what they wish people to believe about them. Over time, the reader and the other characters are going to be able to see through this mask and see what it conceals. My favorite Disney example of this is Mother Gothel: on the surface she’s this bubbly mom who loves Rapunzel and wants to protect her from the harshness of the world.
You can think of this as the text …
8) Hidden Motivation:
And this is the subtext. That surface motivation they want the world to believe is a mask concealing their true motivation, which is always rooted in their flaws, selfishness, and skewed beliefs.
9) Ghosts, Justification, Self-Obsession:
These three are closely related, so they get counted together. Like main characters, villains have GHOSTS: events from their backstories that knocked their worldviews out of alignment, that marked the beginning of their weaknesses, that haunt them still. Because these happened, the originally benign person allowed themselves to turn into someone who could occupy the job of "villain” in a story. Usually, these events are genuine misfortunes and are worthy of sympathy, just like the ghosts of a main character. Think of Voldemort growing up in an orphanage talking to snakes.
BUT! When it comes to ghosts, the major difference between a hero and a villain is HOW THEY DEAL with these unpleasant past events. Both have suffered, but react to suffering in very different ways. A villain will be consumed by these events, obsessed with the real (or imagined) persecution or disadvantage they’ve endured, convinced that all personal responsibility is nullified by their status of injured party. Past tragedies become a talisman that grants immunity from decency.
This scene from A Series of Unfortunate Events sums it up. An adult makes an excuse for a terrible person by saying he had a terrible childhood. And Klaus replies:
Yes, maybe they’ve both lived through tragedy. But THE KIDS aren’t hurting others because of it.
Because villains, who are constantly victimizing heroes, are completely convinced that THEY are the true victims here. No matter what they do, no matter what they are, they blame everything on that ghost, whether it was another person, society, or circumstances. And later they blame the hero, who they see as the REAL villain. For example, Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
“It’s not my fault, I’m not to blame”
So! WHY are villains like this?
SELF-OBSESSION! Yup, villains spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about themselves and their plights and their plots. Think of any villain and it’s not hard to see the inherent narcissism behind everything they do. Like willingness to take action is the nonnegotiable trait of a main character, self-obsession is the trait that all villains seem to share.
So! Developing villains in this way has worked out for me so far. If it looks like it might be helpful for you, give it a try.
And in the spirit of creating someone to torment our main characters and ruin their lives, here’s one more maniacal laugh for the road:
Writing Harry Potter fanfic without reinforcing unconscious antisemitism when you write goblins or Snape
Hi, I have a question about writing fanfic of source material with questionable/ offensive aspects. I’m writing Harry Potter fanfic and am unsure how best to deal with antisemitic undertones in both the goblins and in Snape (esp his physical appearance). I’m not jewish.
I tried researching goblins in general, and the approach I came up with so far is to remove the connection of the harry potter goblins with gold/ gringotts. In my fic they have other jobs, professions and roles besides that, and humans work alongside them in the bank. I got rid of negative descriptions like “swarthy”, untrustworthy etc, and while not really going indepth (they’re not the focus) hinted at them having their own culture not revolving around gold or treasure, but with their own traditional clothing and art.
I wonder if this is a good approach, if there are other things to be aware of or pitfalls to avoid. I’m not trying to portray goblin culture to resemble jewish culture in any way btw, but will rather have human jewish characters.
The second thing I’m struggling with is Snape. I don’t think Rowling intended either him or the goblins this way, but he comes across as a negative jewish stereotype and I feel unsure of how to change this. Since he is such a central character, I feel less like I can completely disregard canon or make him unrecognizable. I also don’t feel like just changing his physical appearance would help at all? Doing that might only reinforce the idea that there’s something ‘wrong’ with his features. So far the only thing I could come up with is not to portray features like his hooked nose or oily hair in a negative way or as a sign of bad personality traits. I’m honestly at a loss though. – Sorry this got so long!
First of all, for anyone who isn’t aware of what OP is talking about, it’s not that JKR deliberately set out to poke us in the eye with her money-babysitting goblins and hook-nosed Snape. It’s built into English folklore this way, so much so that she most likely didn’t realize why her knee-jerk idea for what those characters should look like was informed by centuries-old garbage. So I’m not blaming her, and this is a warning that you don’t have to be deliberately racist to accidentally perpetuate harmful tropes.
Moving on to the answer:
>> the approach I came up with so far is to remove the connection of the harry potter goblins with gold/ gringotts. In my fic they have other jobs, professions and roles besides that, and humans work alongside them in the bank
I have a question for you. Why was it easier to create entirely new goblin canon than distance them from Jewishness ? I mean, I don’t know about you, but even if goblins are upstanding citizens who save puppies and help old ladies cross the street on the daily, always do the dishes after every meal, and never misgender their friends, the word ‘goblin’ is not something commonly thought of as beautiful or heroic. It’s a GOBLIN. So if this were me I’d move in a “goblins are not Jews” direction instead of trying to turn them into ugly little heroes. (This is advice specifically for gentiles, by the way. I know several Jewish fans who like to try to reclaim, for example, Tolkien dwarves. It can be very validating–from within. And for people who aren’t me. :P )
Ways to distance goblins from Jewishness and anti-semitic tropes in general:
First of all, fix the noses. We as a society decided that having your nose turn down at the end makes someone monstrous and unhuman. Can we not? That’s just silly. So give the goblins either all kinds of noses including snub noses and pointy noses and uninteresting noses, or give them something totally inhuman like a Pinocchio nose.
If they follow polytheism in any way that’ll help drive them away from Jewishness. A goblin pantheon, etc.
Having human Jews in the story is the best way to make it clear your goblins aren’t Jews, IMO. Especially if they have the same “meh” reaction to them that the gentile human characters do.
I mean, trying to make them independently cool is not a bad goal, I’m just saying that it doesn’t necessarily make them seem less Jewish because let’s face it, tiny and ugly is one of the negative tropes about us even when we’re awesome and I just plain don’t want to feel ugly when I wake up in the morning!
>> will rather have human jewish characters.
By the way, if this seems like way too much work – if you leave goblins out of your fanfic entirely the fact that JKR uses them won’t make your fanfic antisemitic. Does that make sense? Like, yes, the source material is problematic, but it’s also okay to completely ignore the goblins entirely within the scope of your fic. Unless you really need them there for plot reasons.
>> Since he is such a central character, I feel less like I can completely disregard canon or make him unrecognizable. I also don’t feel like just changing his physical appearance would help at all? Doing that might only reinforce the idea that there’s something ‘wrong’ with his features. So far the only thing I could come up with is not to portray features like his hooked nose or oily hair in a negative way or as a sign of bad personality traits. I’m honestly at a loss though.
The Snape answer is easier.
Don’t talk about those particular physical features. Does anyone reading HP fanfic not already know what Severus Snape looks like? There really isn’t a reason to mention his nose in a fanfic.
If you also show him being his usual douchecanoe self to Jewish students in addition to all the gentile MC’s, that would be cool–and another thing you could do is have him deliberately go out of his way to be a douche to a Jewish student in an antisemitic way like, if a muggle from a more observant background is ooked out about having to touch pig parts for a spell he could make fun of her and she could defend herself or one of the others could reassure her she’s okay and he’s just an ass to everyone. I mean that would make it super obvious he’s not us. But you don’t really have to do that.
Why is choking someone into unconscious normally an assumed death in movies? Don't they have a chance to regain consciousness?
In the real world? Yeah. Killing someone by choking takes a
long time. It’s a legitimate way to kill someone, but not an efficient one, and
the timeframe you see in most films is a fraction of what you’d need to kill
someone. It is worth remembering, this can
kill you. This is one of those times where “safe” does not mean “non-lethal,”
just that it is not immediately lethal.
In films, choking is an ideal option. In a controlled
environment, it’s (relatively) safe. You can get both actors in frame together.
You’ve got a lot of options to set up the shots. Finally, it’s incredibly easy
to fake. You get the actors into position, one of them, “chokes,” the other
without putting any pressure on the windpipe or arteries, and play the scene
It’s probably worth remembering, (even if some actors forget
this part), that acting is a cooperative exercise. Your job isn’t just to hit
your marks, spit your lines, and (occasionally) devour any unattended scenery; you
also need to facilitate your fellow actors’ performances. Stage fighting is an excellent
example of this. It’s not about actual
violence, but it is about working together to create the illusion. If anyone
gets hurt in the process, that means you can’t just reset and do another take,
so this is something that the production staff and performers really want to
There are a lot of staples in film and stage violence that
do not translate to the real world. They survive because of a few factors: most
people don’t know what they’re seeing is unrealistic, it facilitates
opportunities for acting, and it is reasonably safe.
Choking is great on film, because it gives both actors
plenty of time to do whatever the script calls for. So long as no one is actually having trouble breathing, they
can do this all day until the shot comes out right. Characters die from this
because the power of plot compels them to, not because of any physiological
considerations. Audiences believe it kills characters because, “well, I’ve got
to breathe, right?” Without ever questioning how long they can actually go
without oxygen. The idea that effective chokes are about cutting off the flow
of blood to the brain never occurs to them.
If an actor does screw up, and accidentally starts choking
their coworker, you have a lot of
time to rectify that. This isn’t true for a lot of stunt fighting, where if
someone screws up, someone’s going to take a hit, and all that’s left is apologies,
or in some tragic cases, obituaries.
Choking, depending on where you put your pressure can also
include some insane stuff you probably wouldn’t think is safe. An example would
be the one handed choke that lifts the victim off the ground. You can do this a
couple ways, the easiest (without rigging) is to push them up a wall, keeping
your thumb and index finger under their jaw (against the bone), you’re actually
lifting their head, their throat is completely safe, the airway remains clear,
they can breathe, but it looks like you’re going full Darth Vader on them. Even
for someone standing right there, it can be difficult to realize the victim is
Beyond this, front facing chokes, like you’ll usually see in
films, are very difficult to use in a real situation. As I mentioned above,
they don’t really provide good access to the points you’d be trying to compress,
but, they’re also difficult to complete because the victim has a lot of options.
There’s a lot of counters to these, that range from simply pulling the hand
free, to breaking their arm at the elbow. Wrapping an arm around the attacker’s
and dragging it out of position will stop the choke, and tie up their arm.
So, no, this is something that’s used because it looks good
on film, not because it has any grounding in reality.