The Art of Evil – Bad to the Bone

It’s great to have the examples of how to do a thing and know the general theory of how a thing works but how do you go about making the rubber meet the road? How do you go about building the really great villain your story needs? Or do you just want to build a baddie and then tell a story about the problems he causes? Am I going to say anything in this post that’s not a question? Do you really care one way or another?

This week we’re going to look at two approaches to the question of villainy, building a villain to meet the needs of a scenario you already have in mind and figuring out what kind of story best suits a villain you already have in mind.

Making a villain to fit a preexisting scenario is, in my opinion, the more difficult of the two tasks. Assuming you have a hero and scenario in mind you already know what the villain needs to accomplish, and perhaps even how he plans to accomplish it. What you really need to do is ask yourself is, first, what would motivate the villain to do these things that would bring conflict with the hero.

Remember that this conflict shouldn’t be directly with the hero at first, you’re trying to build the villain up in the minds of the audience and that means he needs to be effective and powerful for the first act of the story, if he’s directly confronting the hero and the hero survives then you’re probably undercutting his image – unless, of course, conflict comes in a fairly nonviolent form, such as in a regulated sport or the like. Then let the villain squash the hero as much as you like, it’s an effective way of building him up. But remember that whatever the villain is doing, the difficulties he causes for the hero aren’t intentional at first. The villain probably doesn’t see the hero as a true threat until apotheosis.

So what you really need to do is find something important to the hero and then have the villain bulldoze it. Darth Vader contributed to the murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, for example. It had nothing to do with Luke, Vader just needed the Death Star plans, but it was the spark the set Luke on a collision course with him.

Second, the villain should probably be a destructive force. You have a world that exists without a villain and that means the only thing left for that villain to do is disrupt the status quo in some way. While you could conceivably create villains who are entirely constructive in nature doing that when you have a story that needs a villain is likely to leave you with an overstuffed story, full of things about your world or your villain that go unexplored as the old ideas of the story and the new ideas of your villain fight for space. Better not to force it.

Once you have a villain with a motivation and a good idea of how they’re going to wreck the status quo make a list of the things in your story that would get in the villain’s way and have him smash through them in order of least important to most. You now have the outline of your first two acts and the third will naturally be how your hero stepped up and finally stopped him.

If you have a villain but no idea what to do with him, focus on how he got his motivation. Dio Brando was a terrible man but he also came from a dirt poor family with an abusive father. The constant striving for the next meal, to evade the next beating, warped him incredibly. He couldn’t understand Jonathan Joestar’s healthy family or the way JoJo relates to wealth. Dio’s greed and laser focus on having enough to survive is exactly what sparks his conflict with Jonathan.

Try and figure out the kinds of people your villain would naturally come in conflict with as a result of their desires, pick whatever is most interesting to you, then start sketching a history and a conflict between that person and your villain. Again, try not to make it too personal at first, so your villain can naturally grow to apotheosis, then, in the end, let your hero expose the contradictions inherent in your villain.

The villain without a story is the best suited to be a villain who builds, the kind of villain who will entirely change the world in unhealthy ways simply by hardwiring his warped perspective into everything he touches. Louis Renault and Klaus Wolfenbach are perfect examples – each runs his personal fiefdom in accordance with his own principles. Sometimes they even contributed positive things to their personal spheres. But ultimately they leave little room for other people in those spheres, forcing them to sneak through back alleys and fight tooth and nail against authority to accomplish what they hope to do. A perfect source of conflict.

In all of this I stress once again – know why your villain is doing what he’s doing. Most people can think of something evil a villain could do or an intimidating look for them to sport. But humanize the villain and you’ll make people take a serious look at themselves. That’s how memorable villains are made.

Come back on Friday and we’ll look at one last aspect of villain building before we wrap up this little jaunt through the art of villainous writing and move on to something a little more… heroic.

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