The Importance of Being Bad and Having a Reason for it

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You might think that your protagonist is the most important character in your novel. True, the story will revolve around the hero or heroine so they are pretty important, but don’t forget about your villain. A great bad guy can make or break a story.

The cornerstone of a good story is conflict: Think about all the best books you’ve read, think about your favourite movies, and I bet you’ll see conflict everywhere. Conflict is important because your story always has to be a journey, it has to have twists and turns and obstacles to overcome and that means conflict, it means your hero needs something or someone to push and pull against. Enter the villain.

The type of villain you employ will depend on the story you’re writing and the tone that you want to set. If you’re writing something comedic, like Mars Attacks!, you can get away with a more ridiculous and less complex antagonist. However, if you’re going for drama your bad guy has to be dramatic and must have depth. The horror genre requires the villain to be terrifying and little else. Your bad guys needs to meet the demands of your story but generally speaking, the more interesting the better.

So what makes a good bad guy? Villains, by definition, must be villainous. There’s always an evil plan of some sort. However, it isn’t enough that they simply be mean. To really make your villain memorable he or she needs their evil plan to have a motivation.

Darth Vader is a pretty cool bad guy. The mask, the voice, the all-black outfit, this was a villain that would literally choke you as soon as look at you and he was not beyond the destruction of a whole planet and all its inhabitants in order to win. But why? What’s his motivation? George Lucas tried to answer this question with the prequels – they were Darth Vader’s origin story – but far from giving Vader a compelling motivation, the prequels turned him into “Anakin Skywalker: angsty teen pissed off at the universe”. In many ways that weakened the character.

The problem with Darth Vader’s backstory is that it was too subtle. There’s the stuff about his mother, something about being emotional, senate something-or-other and by then the character is lost. It’s important to remember that a villain’s motivation doesn’t have to overly complicated. Motivation can be simple, it’s the character and their backstory that adds depth.

One of my favourite movies is Die Hard. John McClane is a hell of a hero but that’s only possible because he’s got a fantastic bad guy to play against. Think about the whole Die Hard francise: the two best movies are the original Die Hard and the fourth installment, Live Free or Die Hard. The second and third movies, Die Harder and Die Hard with a Vengeance, are good movies but they’re not quite as good. The most recent installment, A Good Day to Die Hard is the weakest of the francise. Think about the bad guy in each of those films: Hans Gruber, internationally renowned German terrorist who orchestrated a $640 million heist under the guise of a terrorist attack; Colonel Stuart, cold and calculating former special forces turned mercenary; Simon Gruber, brother of Hans Gruber out for revenge and money; Thomas Gabriel, former programmer at the Department of Defense who stages a nationwide terrorist attack in order to steal millions of dollars and prove a point; and in the most recent film… something about Russians.

There’s a reason that A Good Day to Die Hard is a terrible film: It has many faults but in particular it lacks a clear and motivated villain. Die Harder, the second installment, also suffers due to its villain: Colonel Stuart is cold, he’s evil – he crashed a plane filled with innocents just to maintain control of the situation – but his interest is only in doing a job and getting paid. You imagine that after he’s done freeing Esperanza that he’ll go back to his grey apartment and do more naked yoga… And bam, you are no more invested in the story than Colonel Stuart is. Hans Gruber on the other hand is a great bad guy. He’s intelligent, stylish, ruthless and a genuine threat. Even though you know McClane is going to win (because the hero always wins) there is still peril and it takes everything McClane has to finally win out. Thomas Gabriel is similarly compelling and similarly motivated. He’s intelligent and ruthless, he’s a badass (“Thomas Gabriel’s the guy who shut down NORAD with a laptop just to prove a point”) and although he’s not all about mindless violence, a bit of violence isn’t beyond him. He’s a little bit crazy, a lot intelligent, and all kinds of mean. In both cases the villain’s motivation is pretty straightforward: Gruber wants money and lots of it, he wants to be “sitting on a beach earning 20%”; Gabriel’s motivation is a heady cocktail of money and revenge and he’d like to be taken seriously in the process. Nothing about their motivation is complicated, depth is added in other ways.

So while you’re working on your current project, perhaps during NaNoWriMo, I hope you’ll be thinking about your villain and why he or she does what they do. Your hero or heroine will thank you for it.

Who is your favourite villain and why are they villainous?

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