Readers want to see determined heroes fight diabolical villains. When beloved characters battle their worst nightmares, we’re terrified alongside them, and the conflict pulls us in. However, if the villain is a pushover, winning won’t be a challenge for the hero. Instead, it will feel like a setup.
In real life, evil is difficult to defeat. Characters who overcome a trial remind us that we have hope of doing the same. Weak villains reduce emotional impact because they’re unrealistic, and their defeats don’t fill readers with courage.
So how do you prevent a villain from undermining a story? You need to evaluate how others perceive him, the effect his actions have on the protagonist, and the extent of his strength.
1. Give the Villain a Formidable Reputation
At Realm Makers 2019, I attended a session by Robert Liparulo on writing series. During it, Liparulo explained how he foreshadowed the villain in one of his books: through a fearful, demon-possessed underling who repeatedly mentioned his leader’s vileness.
Not only does this tactic build a foreboding atmosphere, it allows minor, preexisting antagonists to serve a double purpose by vouching for their masters. Work smarter not harder, right? Even nameless villains who aren’t identified as the protagonist’s adversary can carry a reputation. Their misdeeds speak for them.
Patrick Carr does this in his book, Shock of Night. Near the beginning, the protagonist examines a bloody crime scene. The strange wounds indicate cruelty, speed, and power, leaving an impression on readers long before they encounter these assassins and the evil presence behind them. The threat is tangible.
In addition to the violence, readers eventually learn that one victim was an expert bodyguard. By defeating him, the assassins demonstrate that their skills are superior. It’s like the opening scene in Avengers: Infinity War. When Thanos beat Thor, Loki, and the Hulk, he propped up his reputation by crushing theirs.
2. Force the Protagonist to Suffer at the Villain’s Hands
Now the villain needs to live up to the dark image you’ve painted. When he reveals himself, he must inflict the protagonist with painful losses and setbacks or you’ll be breaking promises to readers. This might mean killing characters or crushing a dream the protagonist held dear.
Say your villain is a high-ranking official in the CIA. His access to satellites and networks enables him to hunt down anyone he wishes (which he’s done often). The protagonist holds information exposing this man as a mole and is trapped in a technology-saturated area. If the villain attempts to capture the protagonist but fails, readers will lose confidence in him and assume that you joked about his omniscience.
In a better (or worse, depending on your perspective) turn of events, the villain could prove his stalking prowess by bringing the protagonist in, destroying all his evidence, and accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit. You’d then have to figure out how to maneuver the protagonist out of the villain’s clutches, which would be tricky, but the predicament would gain readers’ trust.
But what if a vicious villain doesn’t fit your story? Bloodshed, for instance, doesn’t belong in a romance novel. If you don’t want your villain to be a murderer, don’t give him a reputation with a knife. Let the conversation about him relate to his purpose and the genre you’ve placed him in.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion lacks a blatant villain. However, many characters play the antagonist. Anne Elliot’s best friend, Lady Russell, destroyed her romantic relationship with Captain Wentworth. When the man reappears years later, Anne and readers worry that Lady Russell will interfere and cause them further heartache. Even with smaller stakes, a bad guy or girl can still be imposing if he/she harms or hinders the protagonist’s plans.
3. Create a Villain Who Inspires Hopelessness
A villain should be adept and intelligent and one step ahead of the hero. When the hero thinks he’s making headway, the villain needs to shove him backward. Try assigning a POV to the villain so that readers see his dastardly plans. The hero, however, won’t be aware of the danger, which will increase tension.
If you’d prefer not to add a villain POV, a plot twist can be just as effective at devastating the hero. Maybe he believes he was gathering and passing on vital information to his war buddies, then he discovers that one of his friends is a traitor.
You could also emphasize the hero’s frustration at being unable to determine the villain’s identity (though he knows someone is ratting him out) and his horror when the truth is uncovered. However you decide to do it, giving the villain an advantage will proclaim his power and send the hero into despair.
If your villain isn’t in a high-stakes story and doesn’t need to be a better fighter or smarter strategist, he or she can discourage the protagonist in other ways. In Persuasion, Lady Russell refuses to change her opinions, which could drive Captain Wentworth away from Anne a second time.
The Purpose of Powerful Villains
We now have the tools to craft a reprehensible villain who mows down characters. But if the hero never musters the will to overcome him, his existence is pointless. With the exception of negative character arcs, a villain is meant to sharpen the protagonist so he becomes a stronger and braver person who can meet every blow.
Like in real life, a villain who steals hope, triggers fear, and shows no mercy won’t last. A villain should be nearly invincible, but only if the hero has the potential to conquer him. We pay readers for all their anxiety by changing the protagonist through a victory that demands exertion and sacrifice.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.