this is a story about what it means to be truly untethered

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Part Eighteen: Evil Manifests as Villain

Last time we started in on antagonists and their relationship to your protagonist, and we briefly talked about what it means to be an antagonist and that a villain is not the same thing, despite that they’re often colloquially used interchangeably. Continuing that trend, let’s explore villains a bit more today.

If your story isn’t focused on the villain as your main character, then your villain is likely your antagonist in one way, shape, or form. Whether they’re the Big Bad living in the forefront of everyone’s psyche, a mid-level AI manufacturer stealing people’s autonomy, or a small-time jewelry thief in it for the marital destruction left behind in a stolen ring’s wake, your villain is still an antagonist at heart. They are still a person with goals and objectives they believe in. They have that horrifying True Faith that everybody talks about.

What does this mean for you? Not much. You still need to pay the same amount of attention in their creation as you do other characters, but make sure you don’t go into it with your mind already set on defining them by how evil they are. Yes, that is the definition of becoming a villain, but defining that evil will come later when you start thinking about their tactics. At this point, the start of your character creation, they’re still the same as a simple antagonist. They have goals that are–admittedly more likely to be directly perpendicular to your protagonist’s, however–unique to who they are, where they’ve come from, and their view of the world.

Make sure that those goals and that worldview are more complex than simply, “They’re evil! They want the world to burn!” That’s all great and fine, but dig deeper. Why? What do they want instead of the world? What are they seeking and how are they seeking to bring that vision to fruition?

Where does the protagonist fit in?

What sets them apart from simply being an antagonist and tips them over the scales to villain status is that their tactics don’t align with the morality of either society or the protagonist. It’s this disparity that causes the feeling of unease in your protagonist and the consensus that the villain is evil.

When writing villains and trying to make sure the audience is just as horrified as your protagonist, you’re banking on the audience’s morality aligning with that of your protagonist. Making a villain is about that play between right and wrong, and getting your audience to side one way or the other, screaming, “Stop them!” at your book, and to do that, you have to craft in a way that makes sure the “right and wrong” of the characters you want them to side with is the same as their own understanding of right and wrong.

The success of villains as truly Villainous boils down to nailing the morality of your audience’s culture. Those who are villains in one culture may not always be villains in another, and that’s important to understand. Right and wrong are built through cultural beliefs and ideologies, and while some are universal, you can make a bigger impact by targeting specifics and coming to peace that “villainous” doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody and some people aren’t going to be as struck by your villain as others.

Once you’ve come to peace with that, you can focus on truly paying justice to the character and developing them as good antagonists. It’s too simplistic to start off by saying, “What’s the direct opposite of my protagonist’s goal?” and setting that as the goal for your antagonist. You want this villain to stand on their own, so while you need to keep your protagonist’s goals in mind, you most want to develop your villain’s goals from their own experience. What do they want most in the world; how far are they willing to go to achieve that; what about the protagonist, world, or society is keeping them from being able to achieve what they want; and what makes their morally unacceptable plans both acceptable to them and even possible to execute?

Try not to constantly think, “This person’s evil, right? So how can they be most evil next?” Finding the extremes of what’s allowed and what’s acceptable to dredge up the most ~evil~ of actions for them to take isn’t good character building. It’s flat and untethered to who they are as a person and tied instead to what function they play in the story. They become an archetype, twirling their mustache and cackling from amidst their black robes at the top of their black stone tower, predictable and boring and sometimes unthreatening. Instead, try to think, “What would they try next? How would they try to push the boundaries of what’s accepted or understood?” By following a natural line of logic about the character and allowing them to open doors forbidden to your protagonist because of culture and decorum, you allow your character to be villainous but in a way that makes sense for who they are, not just forced into a mold of evil.

Next up: Antagonist vs protagonist, the face-off!