A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Who intrigues you more: the hero of a story, or the villain? It probably varies, depending on which story, but I bet if I asked you to name your top 5 villains, you’d find it easier than naming your top 5 heroes. Why? I’d say it’s because the emotions a good (bad, very bad) villain make you feel are harder to shake. Fear, mistrust, discomfort, rage, sorrow, injustice, powerlessness, betrayal — these all form the staple diet of a cracking villain, and are the kinds of feelings that stay with you long after the story has ended.
But wait, maybe you feel even more strongly about a really great hero. Maybe you feel LOVE, yes? And love beats all, right? Well, yes, but I reckon you can love a villain just as fiercely as a hero… maybe more. Granted, some antagonists are unrelentingly evil (think Agatha Trunchbull in Matilda) but more often, a villain will have moments where you really, truly relate to them. Like the ‘monster’ in Frankenstein: cruelly rejected by his creator, abandoned to die because Victor saw him as an abomination, it totally wasn’t the monster’s fault he turned a bit evil. That said, the monster does go on quite a killing rampage, so I’ll probably withhold my snuggles.
There are some very lovable villains, though. Or at least ones we just can’t get enough of. Damon Salvatore, anyone? Professor Moriarty, who literally had to be brought back from the dead to satisfy Conan Doyle’s fans? Or how about Ty from Lucy Christopher’s Stolen — the guy who kidnaps a teenage girl, drugs her, and carries her off to live with him in the Australian outback? I didn’t go into that book expecting to root for Ty to get away with what he’d done, but by the end of it I was one hundred percent Team Ty. (I did question what the hell was wrong with me, but let’s not pull too hard on that particular thread.)
Why would anyone root for a villain? Or even just enjoy reading about villains so much? I think antagonists who stick with us are the ones who feel REAL. Sometimes — in horror, for example — the villain is evil just for the sake of being evil. Just because. But that doesn’t ring true to life; people are rarely so stuck on one path that they never veer over into the grey area. If the villain wants to rule the world, they need a reason for wanting that. If they want the world and everything in it to burn, they need a good reason for that, too. Everyone has a destructive tendency from time to time, but to sustain that throughout your hero’s epic struggle, the villain needs better motivation than feeling a bit snippy.
That reason is what makes their evil actions seem good to them, because no villain (perhaps with the exception of Dr. Evil) really sees themselves as the villain of their own story. Even the Wicked Witch of the West had a good reason to hate Dorothy; she did, after all, park her house on WWW’s sister, and the witch probably felt entirely justified in trying to thwart the little squirt’s attempts to get home to Kansas. In my books, my villains have included a serial killer, a sinister mime, and a twisted sibling (among others…), and each has had a good, solid reason for bringing the pain to my protagonists.
So, what makes a good villain, then? A touch of evil, yes. Motivation, check. But something that adds greater tension to a story is having an antagonist who tips the odds of success away from the protagonist. Tips them hard. If your villain is just as strong, smart, charismatic, and motivated as your hero (if not more so), then your hero’s job of taking them down becomes much more difficult — which is where all the fun of high stakes comes in. And remember those strong emotions I mentioned earlier? No villain will make you rage, squirm, cry, or scream if you don’t care what they do, or believe their reason for being so flipping villainous.