Written by JJ Barnes
When it comes to constructing an interesting villain in your story, you need to put as much care and time into that character as you do the hero. No matter how interesting your hero is, and how exciting the conflict is, a boring villain will make your story boring. I’ll be exploring how to make sure your villain is an interesting character.
Protagonist Vs Antagonist
Whilst traditionally, the villain of your story will be the Antagonist, it is essential to treat them as the Protagonist of their own story.
One of the key factors that goes into writing a Protagonist is to make sure that they want something. They are motivated to change their lives in some way, and their story is following them attempting to achieve that goal. The Antagonist blocks them on their journey which is how the conflict stays alive. A passive character is boring and there is no reason to be watching their story unfold. It’s the motivation and action that makes their story interesting.
If you look at your story from the perspective of the villain, it should follow that same trajectory. An interesting villain wants to accomplish something. The likelihood it they want something dastardly or evil. They are motivated and taking affirmative action to achieve that goal. The hero then is the one blocking them from achieving that goal.
The Interesting Villain In The Silence Of The Lambs
In the Thomas Harris novel, and subsequent movie, The Silence Of The Lambs, there are two villains; Buffalo Bill and, of course, Hannibal Lecter. Clarice Starling is the Protagonist, and hero, of that story, although Hannibal Lecter becomes a sort of anti-hero.
The inciting incident of The Silence Of The Lambs is Clarice meeting Dr Hannibal Lecter. From that moment, Protagonist Clarice is in action in her efforts to connect with Lecter and stop Buffalo Bill. Antagonist Lecter is active in his plan to bond with Clarice and escape from prison.
Buffalo Bill is a villain, and obviously antagonistic, but he’s not the Antagonist. I’ll be focusing on Lecter for this piece.
Pursuit Of A Goal
From the moment you meet Lecter, he is active in pursuit of his goal. Even though he is contained in the prison cell, his desire to bond with Clarice is evident. He is impressed by her and wants to impress her.
Manipulating Miggs into committing suicide is both vengeance for his abusing Clarice, and an important step to his bond with her. It also demonstrates his genius to the audience. As well as playing into his plans for escaping prison, this bond is genuine. Lecter becomes protective of Clarice and wouldn’t hurt her.
The desire to escape means at no point is Lecter just doing evil for the sake of evil. His escape plan is active from the start and he is always steps ahead. The audience is playing catch up. We watch him act out the plans that were in place from the beginning. It is darkly thrilling, and we can marvel at the genius, whilst simultaneously being horrified.
The pursuit of a goal is what keeps an villain interesting and relatable, rather than just being “generic evil.” In Lecter’s circumstances, anybody would long for freedom. You might not choose to behave in the same way as Lector, but you can see why he is behaving in that way.
Evil for evil’s sake is mostly unrelatable. The pursuit of a goal makes it rational and humanises even a character as monstrous as Lecter.
Moral Complexity Makes An Interesting Villain
Lecter’s story arc is very interesting. Without Lecter helping her, Clarice would not have been able to stop Buffalo Bill and save his latest victim. This situation puts Lecter as an anti-hero. He is still evil, he still kills and is motivated to do villainous things, but ultimately he achieves good.
This desire to assist Clarice is overwhelmingly about gaining her trust and loyalty to use against her. She is key to his escape plan as by aiding her his circumstances are changed. However, her accurate assertation that he wouldn’t hurt her shows he isn’t a blank monster. He has control of where to apply evil and good in his life. Clarice is protected, which is a morally good thing, just surrounded by evil.
If your villain is pure evil with no light and shade, it can be monotonous. There is potential for interesting moral complexity in a character who clearly understands right and wrong. If they have the capacity for doing something good, but still choose villainy, it challenges the audience. At times you can’t help but root for Lecter, you want him to help Clarice and you desire redemption.
If he showed no sign of humanity and no capacity for good, then the audience would have no interest him beyond hoping he’s stopped. Challenging your audience to care about someone who does such evil things is an interesting experience.
I’ve written before about how your characters should have hobbies and interests. Humans aren’t generally so fixated on one thing that they have nothing else going on in their lives. There should be passions or interests beyond the story goal.
Lecter is a talented artist with a passion for music. Although clearly driven by the sciences, a doctor and highly educated in this arena, the arts is something he respects and values. Removing his art supplies is used as punishment, the opportunity for access to arts is used as motivation.
Intellectually he is above the manipulation. He doesn’t let it get in the way of achieving his goal, but it does affect him.
Allowing your villains to have interests, passions, hobbies is key to making them people not machines or monsters. Monstrous behaviour from a human is always more terrifying.
Monsters are monsters, they’re supposed to be monstrous, and they’re also fictitious. But humans are around us all the time, we trust them and depend on them. We are vulnerable around them. Humans acting in a monstrous way is unsettling in a deep way. We depend on the fictitious nature of monsters to be why we’re safe. Human villains leave us exposed to reality. The monsters walk amongst us.
An Antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain. The Antagonist of your story could be someone good, just with a conflicting goal to your Protagonist. If your Protagonist wants to go to a party and your Antagonist wants them to stay at home, the Antagonist isn’t being a villain. They just have wants and needs.
A true villain acts out of villainy. Even if they’re morally complex, even if they are clearly human, they still choose to do evil acts with a full understanding of the moral implications of that. They CHOOSE evil. They don’t get pressured into it, like a henchman, or have no concept of good and evil, like say a dinosaur reeking havoc on an island. A villain is choosing to do evil things for evil reasons.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose