A few weeks ago I published a very short video demonstrating three easy steps that will help you create a villain your readers will truly engage with. I promised to go into more detail in an accompanying blog post but – shamefully – have only just got around to it *slaps self on wrist*.
Before we go any further, I have a confession to make: I love my baddie. In fact, his backstory was the first thing I wrote. His past and his experiences are the things that set my protagonist's story in motion, and I have such a detailed vision of his past (and even his parents' past) that I have toyed with the idea of publishing a novella from his POV. I'll try to restrain that urge for now, and wait until I've finished Book One so I can ask for some reader feedback and gauge whether it's a popular idea of just a writer's indulgence!
So, how can you learn to love your villain too?
When I started writing this post I intended to separate it into three steps, similar to the video I made. But, when it comes down to it I think there is one key element you need to embrace, and if you get it right then the other bits – like appearance and mannerisms – will naturally follow. They key is this:
Spend time writing your villain's backstory.
I don't mean a few seconds scribbling down basics like 'was abandoned by parents... got angry.' I mean sit down and really think about your baddie's life and what happened to him/her up to the point your story begins. Whether he/she is the school bully, a psychopath in a murder mystery, or an evil wizard, this principle remains the same.
Building a complete picture of your character's past will shape his/her actions in the present and inform the rest of your story. But don't feel tempted to tell your reader everything all at once! Just as you do with other key characters in your novel, drip feed nuggets of information and backstory as your plot progresses.
Remember: the most believable villains are far more complex than the cliched archetypes of simply being born 'evil' and wanting to do evil things. We could start delving into a bit of psychology here and think about whether it's possible to be born evil or whether people are a product of their environment and experiences, but it's probably best to stick to what works in fiction, which – I believe – is a mixture of both.
My baddie was always an outsider, and I often wonder how he would have turned out if his childhood had progressed differently. Was he born with an innate propensity to do bad things? Maybe. Or maybe he was pushed over the edge by an unfortunate accumulation of events. Perhaps I will give him a redeeming moment... then again, perhaps I won't.
Three tips for crafting your villain's backstory:
Think about your baddie's parents, their family, childhood, and teenage years. Think about their insecurities and weaknesses.
Try and pinpoint some pivotal moments that set your character on their course to being a villain.
Think about baddies you have loved in the stories you have read. Go back and revisit them, pay attention to the way the author shaped their character. A great place to start is JK's Voldemort.
One final thought
If you'd like to read a fictional exploration of the nature vs nurture theme, check out We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and let me know what you think!