Thursday, February 26, 2015

3 Things You MUST Remember When Establishing a Villain's Arc

Villains are some of the most fun, complex characters to write. Depending on your story, your villain can be deep, shallow, funny, creepy, or just about anything in between. Unless we're writing very simplistic children's stories, most of us prefer complex villains, because that makes them more compelling. The more flawed and human they are, the more relatable, which we all know makes for better writing. 

So, here are three things every writer MUST consider when planning a villain's character arc.

1. Villain Psychology -- Here's the thing about villains. They actually want all the same things as heroes and regular people who don't engage in evil and/or douche-baggery. They want love, happiness, peace, justice, etc. The major difference is that villains, unlike heroes, no longer have the hope that they can obtain these things. They have a very negative outlook on the world, so they try to force people to give them these things in various, nefarious ways (i.e. violence, deceit, scheming, etc.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that, despite all their swagger, pride, self-confidence, etc., at their core, they actually have very low self-esteem, a very negative outlook on life and, more often than not, they hate themselves. The more evil your villain is, the more deep their self-hatred. That's important. If a person truly has awesome self-esteem and self-love, they don't feel the need to dominate and hurt others. 

(Keep in mind that the villain will generally not admit any of this, even to themselves. They themselves may not realize this. Also, none of this nullifies their free will. They still have to be held accountable for their actions, but it's important to understand their psychology.)

2. Why they do what they do (OODs). I have an entire post about Objects of Desire, or OODs HERE but the gist is that every character, villain or not, needs at least two: one tangible, one intangible. The tangible one is the thing that they are actually trying to obtain in the story. The intangible one is a more general life philosophy. 

For example, your villain may want money, revenge, power, world domination, etc. That's his or her tangible OOD. But the one I want to talk about that most writers fail to take into account is the intangible OOD. So what is it for a villain? 

As I said above, it's really the same as for heroes, at least up to a point. But here's the rub: really bad villains can reach a point where they no longer want those good things. They no longer want to be saved. They can get to a point where they hate themselves so much, they wish for annihilation. 

I started thinking about this while re-reading Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's A Memory of Light. Check out this line:
Rand (good guy): "If my victory is not assured, neither is your fall. Let me pass. For once, make the choice you know you should."
Moridin (really bad guy): "Now? Now you beg me to return to the light? I have been promised oblivion. Finally, nothing, a destruction of my entire being. An end. You will not steal that from me...By my grave, you will not!"
Keep this in mind when crafting your villains. Of course redemption is always a possibility, but the more evil they are, the more likely they have given up on redemption all together and wish only to be nothing. 

3. The Arc and Where They Are On It

On the left of this arc is a villain who actually borders on good. You'll find people like anti-heroes and very sympathetic villains here. Their motivations might change throughout the story to where we hardly consider them villains anymore at all.

On the right are the really far-gone bad guys. We're talking Mister Kurtz (Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness), Hannibal Lector, and other seriously evil baddies who are nowhere near redemption. Quite the opposite.

When planning your villain, place them somewhere on this arc. Do they still have a great hope of redemption? Are they too far gone to want anything but oblivion? Are they somewhere in the middle, straddling the precipice between the two?

What do you think of the Villain OOD Arc?


  1. That's a great point about the Objects of Desire since someone can be dying for a golden statue, but it's the reason behind the status that makes it powerful.