Now let’s be honest. Sometimes villains are our favorite part of the movie (I’m looking at you, Loki fans). They are complicated characters, when done right. And they’ll make you love them and hate them at the same time. The last thing you want are villains that are only one-dimensional and flat, so here are my 5 tips to avoid that
Bad guys weren’t always bad
Even the worst of baddies can actually start off good. They could have started out decent, but something lead to them going down a darker path.
Obviously, someone like Darth Vader comes to mind. He was actually the Chosen One! But something in him was lured away from his potential to do good, and he chose to sell out that potential to the opposite side.
Go into the depths of your villain. Find out what made them that way, and why! The tragic backstory is most times the first thing you reach for, but take a minute to think about potential alternatives. Sometimes revenge has nothing to do with it. Sometimes there was actually that seed of darkness there all along, and all it took the right kind of nurturing to make it grow.
Like Darth Vader.
Not all bad guys are delusional
Okay, I know you’ve heard of “bad guys are justified in their own eyes”, which is great, it is true that some villains see absolutely nothing wrong with their twisted thinking.
But what if they do?
I feel like delusional baddies are the kind that lead most into the corny villain that thinks world domination is the best thing for the planet. But how twisty is it when your villain knows he’s not justified? And takes pleasure in it. He’s not looking out for the world’s best interest, he wants to see it burn.
Not everyone is simply “misunderstood”, and going into the mindset of these twisty types can help make your story more believable about his motives and actions. What makes him tick? Why does he enjoy the pain of others? Answer these questions, and your villain will be much more believable in our, the reader’s, eyes.
And will creep the heck out of us.
Sometimes, they will make a heck of a lot of sense
The villain has a lot of followers for a reason. Despite whether or not a villain sees their own actions as justified, they will have a pretty convincing justification to give others. The villain knows how to cater to their followers’ desires and sometimes even morals. They know how to warp their own agenda and make it seem like it’s someone else’s. You don’t want to kill the villain’s enemy. You want to kill your enemy.
And it’s not always cut and dry like that, either. Villains can simply be a darker shade of morally gray, and they will ask the questions that even you yourself were wondering. There may be times it’s hard for your main characters to distinguish their goals from the villain’s, because despite their methods, they may have a point.
And just maybe, it shows the dark side in the main characters too, because some part of them can’t help but agree.
Show us what they’re willing to lose
Bad guys know that sacrifices have to be made to get what they want. And they’re willing to do it.
When these characters have made the decision to walk this dark path, they left a lot of people in their wake.
In Avatar: the Last Airbender, no one liked the Fire Lord or the lengths he was willing to go to for his empire. But guess what? His family is one of the most dysfunctional in the whole series because the ones most closely affected by his greed were actually his children and wife. Zuko was banished, the Fire Lord’s wife was missing, and Azula was becoming just like him in the worst of ways, but not even she knew how to get close to people because of that.
But the Fire Lord himself was unfazed by any of this. He was willing to lose even his family for his goals, and seeing the extent of that sacrifice helps us understand what a dark place his mind really was.
And makes us hate him all the more.
They still have attachments
While the villain is willing to lose a lot to obtain his goals, his goals are more often than not for a personal reason. A thing he keeps hidden from the world because that’s the thing he’s actually afraid of losing.
It could be a tangible thing, like money, a person, an item or a place that they cherish.
Or it can be an intangible thing, like a particular person’s love or approval, the respect of men, or a power or control that they never imagined having to lose.
Whatever it is, it’s usually tied to that villain’s goals in some way, consciously or subconsciously. Often their wide-spread goals will be rooted in that thing that they cherish, which is why you’d never know. You’d never assume they’d conquer an entire country to protect their childhood home from marauders, but that was actually all they could think about. It started out just about that home, but it turned into something else along the way.
It can be endearing, in a twisted sort of way. But tragically, if and when their destructive ways make them lose that thing they hold close to their heart, their everything would crumble.
Bonus note: the threat of losing this cherished thing is also often the turning point of a villain that changes sides! It’s the last bit of humanity they had left, and the possibility of that thing being gone is sometimes enough to change them.
Villain motives are some of my favorite parts to write, so I hope you have fun finding the twistiest ways to write your own!