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Creating the perfect villain: it’s all in the backstory

Nothing can make me read the day away quite like a classic tale of good versus evil, and for me (and most readers, I would argue), a well-crafted, three-dimensional villain is a must-have in order to keep the pages turning. In fact, I often find myself becoming more intrigued with a good villain than with the hero of a story, despite the fact that I’m rooting for the good guy (as long as the good guy is also well-developed). So…what makes villains so intriguing? It’s all in details from their sordid pasts carefully revealed through a well-developed backstory. When an author sets forth to create a villain in his or her own manuscript, a motivating backstory should always be established to conjure up sympathy with readers.

Take Voldemort, for example. The super villain from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series definitely has a past worth mentioning. While Rowling reveals these details over time, throughout the course of her series, readers are intrigued by his motives. A flat villain would be one who was simply born plotting the demise of the wizarding world and the eradication of mudbloods. However, as the series progresses, Rowling provides insight into the motivations of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Tom Riddle is son to a man who abandoned his family and a woman who abandoned him in death. From there, he became a loner raised in an orphanage where he was ostracized by his peers, which led him to lash out against anyone who opposed him. By the time he was taken in by the sympathetic Dumbledore, it was too late for the wounded young boy who would later become Lord Voldemort. These are the details that resonate with readers. While the audience fully acknowledges Voldemort’s unforgivable acts of murder, violence, and control, they can love to hate him because of his sympathetic backstory.

When creating villains for my own stories, I begin by asking myself a few questions.

  1. Who/What is responsible for the villain to turn to the dark side?  Perhaps it’s a cold, unloving childhood. Maybe it’s an unforgivable betrayal. Perhaps an unrequited love. Whatever the genre, there has to be a moment or a series of moments that leads a character along the dark path.
  2. How long has the villain been a villain? Is the development fairly recent, or did the nefarious deeds begin during childhood?
  3. What is your villain’s problem with the hero? Why have they been thrown together? What is it about the hero that goads the villain?
  4. What are the psychological wounds your villain deals with? Abandonment issues? Fear of failure? Mommy or Daddy issues? An abusive background? A past in which the villain has witnessed violence?
  5. What tools will the villain use as a means to an end? Is it, like Voldemort, the use of dark magic? Will your villain use lies and manipulation? Will he or she resort to violence or murder?

All of these questions help me to flush out the backstory and consequential motivations for my villains, whether I gather these details before I begin writing or after. I also go back to one of my favorite books when having trouble flushing out a villains motives. Jessica Morrell’s book Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction, details the types of villains from sociopaths to super villains, providing characteristics, psychological profiles and examples from a plethora of genres and titles. This book never fails to remind me that villains should be just as well-crafted as the heroes. In fact, it could also be argued that a hero is only as good as the villain he or she is pitted against. So to keep the readers turning pages, be sure to bring on the backstory to create a sympathetic villain.

Villains Exhibit at the end of the Backlot Tour” by Loren Javier is licensed under CC BY 2.0