How to write a great villain

Every story needs an antagonist. Sometimes, the thing the protagonist must overcome isn’t a character – it might be a system or a situation or even a quality within themselves. But more often, the opposing force that powers the plot will be another character. And whether you’re writing a crime novel, a literary thriller, a fantasy epic or domestic noir, it’s crucial to give your hero’s adversary some thought. From Mrs Danvers to Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort to Annie Wilkes, the most memorable villains stay with us because they are as complex and as carefully drawn as our main character – and without them, there is no story.

What makes a great villain?

Whether you’re setting out to create a sadistic serial killer for your detective to catch or someone with more shades of grey to them – a rival for something the protagonist wants, perhaps, who isn’t necessarily in the wrong but a force of opposition nonetheless –  there are four main things to consider if you want to create the perfect villain for your novel.

Motive

Perhaps the single most important thing to figure out about your antagonist is: why are they doing the things they’re doing? Motivation is something that can make or break a novel for your reader – if it doesn’t feel believable, the story doesn’t stand up. Find the right motivation, though, and you can craft something deeply satisfying for the audience. Be warned: as tempting an answer as it might be, ‘because they’re just bad’ is rarely the sole reason people commit crimes in real life, and it’s not an answer a reader spends 300 pages to discover either. It’s important to dig a little deeper.

Their motive might be your starting point. Perhaps you already know that your antagonist is someone who is committing a crime because happened in the past, or because did this other thing, and now you need to build the rest of their personality around that driving desire. Or maybe you only have the image of the crime, and now you need to think about who would do such a thing, and what might drive them to it.

It’s important to also think about how you’re going to feed information about this motive to your reader. Whether you’re planning to let them in on the villain’s POV, or have them piece together the villain’s story with the protagonist, or have it revealed at the climax of the story, think carefully about how to most effectively and satisfactorily convey this information. Try and avoid the Scooby Doo style monologue at the end, where a villain expands at length about how and why they choose to commit their crimes – it’s cheating!

A good, believable motive for your villain ties in closely with their:

Backstory

As many writers, including, famously, John Barth, have noted, we are all the protagonist in our own life story. Your villain does not believe themselves to be an antagonist (this does not mean they think themselves to be good, however), and will have a complex inner world just as your hero does, shaped by their history and beliefs. This history and those shaping beliefs will form their goals, and lead them to view other people and forces as antagonists in the way of their achieving them.

Backstory is related to, but not the same as motive. The same event – say, the murder of their lover – might lead two characters on entirely different journeys, depending on who they are as a person and the way in which their life experiences up to that point have led them to view the world.

Understanding where a character is coming from will help you make sure the path you’re sending them down feels right. There are lots of ways to do this work – there are plenty of character quizzes available online (ours is here), and you could also try writing a pretend Wikipedia article about them (a good way to set out the cold, hard facts about their history and personal life for yourself, without worrying about turning them into prose within the novel itself). An enneagram test (there are free versions online) can also be a good way of building up your understanding of this character’s personality and the way it makes them behave in various situations.

As well as possessing a history and inner life that makes them feel three-dimensional and interesting, your villain also needs to have:

A relationship with the protagonist

The opposing forces – the conflicting desires and goals – of your protagonist and antagonist are a crucial engine for your story. This is very rarely as simple as good vs bad or right vs wrong, and often the most interesting characters in both categories have shades of both. Think carefully about the relationship between these two characters. This is not necessarily an actual relationship – they may never have met before (and may even never meet at all) – but instead the way in which they contrast with one another. In what ways are they different – and in what ways are they not? What does the villain illuminate about our hero for us? What quality do they bring out in each other, what must our hero confront within themselves in order to defeat them?

Lastly, and crucially, the very best of villains must also have:

A relationship with the reader

As with your protagonist, consider what your villain will bring out in us, your audience. Are we afraid of them? If so, then consider how to do that most effectively – is this a murderer with an inner world that is frighteningly similar to our own, or one we fear because we don’t recognise it? Or do we simply love to hate them – can you create someone so detestable that there will be a real catharsis in finally seeing them defeated? Or (and perhaps trickiest of all), has our understanding of their backstory and motive created a space for us to not only understand them, but perhaps even secretly sympathise with them?

Writing exercises to try

It’s a simple but effective technique, and it might be something you’re already doing (or planning to do) in your story: write from your villain’s perspective.  This could be:

  • A letter to a family member
  • A chapter you’ve already written that features them, told instead from their perspective
  • A diary entry they wrote as a child
  • Write about a day in their life, in their voice
  • Alternatively, try interviewing them: write a transcript of the conversation between the two of you.

This isn’t about writing material that will go in the novel; likely very little of it will. It’s about you trying to capture this character’s voice and put yourself in their head, to clarify and expand on the four areas above. Good luck and enjoy – sometimes it’s fun to be bad…

Got a fictional world to build? Start here

Whether you’re already working on a novel or have decided to give fiction a try during this period of staying at home, you’ll probably be familiar with the concept of worldbuilding. From Westeros to Wuthering Heights, our best fiction paints us a picture so vivid that we’re transported to a world we can almost walk around in. A world with a fully realised geography, its own specific sights, sounds and smells; an infrastructure we can see and understand and characters who are shaped by that world and in turn engage with it.

If you’re taking your imagination for a stretch this weekend, whether your novel is fantasy epic, children’s adventure, historical romp or dystopian thriller, here are some essential questions to ask yourself about your world:

How does it look?

  • What can I see from my main character’s window? What are the predominant colours? What does the skyline look like?
  • And from the end of their street? Is there a street?
  • And from a plane/drone/broomstick/dragon flying overhead?
  • What can I hear? Smell?
  • What’s the weather like? How much does it change during the year (are there years?)?
  • Might I see any wildlife if I took a walk around?
  • If I went to the nearest city, what would I see on the streets? What might be advertised to me? What might I be sold?
  • What about people – how many people will I see? What will they be wearing? Will I hear more than one language being spoken? Will people greet me? How?

How do people live?

  • Let’s step back inside our character’s home – how many rooms are there? What are they for? How are they furnished/decorated?
  • How does that compare to the homes of the people around them?
  • How big is the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in this world? What percentage of society sit at either end of that scale?
  • What do people do for work? What’s the most common industry in the nearest town/city?
  • And what do they do for fun?
  • Are holidays a thing for some/all of the people who live here? And if so, where do they go? Do people know much about the wider world beyond this place – are they interested? Afraid? Hostile?
  • Do they have pets? What kinds?
  • Is there religion? More than one? Where do people go to worship?
  • What about history – do people know much about how their civilisation formed? Are they interested? Are there statues, history books, public holidays?
  • Turning to technology – what’s the most advanced item your character owns? What about the richest person they know? What level of technology do people use in their daily life?
  • How do they stay in touch with friends?
  • If I had dinner with strangers here, what might we talk about? What topics would we avoid?

How do things work?

  • Who is in charge here? How are they chosen/elected? What powers do they have?
  • How long has that been the case? Do people like the system or do they hope for change?
  • How do people get around? What’s the most common mode of transport – does it change depending on who you are?
  • What natural resources are nearby, and how are they used?
  • Is there crime? How is it punished? By whom?
  • Are people educated? Where does that happen, and who is responsible? Is education something that’s respected? Is it available to all or a few? What might I learn if I went and sat in the nearest school for a day?
  • What’s the currency? Are there banks?
  • Where does food come from? Where is it sold? What would I eat if I wanted a real treat? Can I buy alcohol? Where?
  • What other trade happens in this society? Are things sold and bought from far away, or is this place self-sufficient?
  • Is there a sense of culture – a value placed in art? Who makes it? What kind of stories do people want and how do they consume them?

Getting to Know You: The Ultimate Character Questionnaire

Last week, we were thrilled to welcome our new cohort of Writing a Novel students, who are beginning their six month course with us. One of the first things they’ll be looking at in the coming weeks is character. Where do characters come from and what makes a good one? How can you build a character who lives and breathes on the page; who isn’t just an agent for your plot but a realistic, compelling personality for a reader to spend hundreds of pages with?

Character questionnaires are one of my favourite ways to procrastinate when I’m about to start writing a new novel and, unlike some of my others (baby name generators on the internet, Google Street View-ing possible locations, making writing playlists on Spotify), it’s actually a crucial part of the process for me. 

With that in mind, here’s a really intense one – just for you. 

First, head inwards

As Richard Skinner, Director of our Fiction Programme, says, when it comes to creating a character, ‘one ruse is to start from the “outside in”’. You can begin by listing the simplest biographical details of your character – age, date and place of birth, occupation. Their height, their distinguishing features. But as you explore the further details that come from these basic facts – their daily routine, their personal relationships, their views – your character will take on a new dimension. 

So:

  • What’s their star sign? Do they care?
  • Did they vote in the last election? Who for?
  • What’s their most visited website?
  • What do they eat for breakfast?
  • What would they choose for their last meal?
  • What is the one thing that can happen in the morning to make your character’s day? And what’s the one thing that can ruin it?
  • What do they buy/do if they want to treat themselves at the end of a hard day?
  • What’s their favourite song? Film? Book?
  • Who is the first person they would call if they received good news? And what about if the news was bad?
  • Who was the last person they had an argument with? What was it about?
  • Who are they most jealous of? 
  • Who would they list as their ‘In Case of Emergency’ contact?

Now look back

When explaining object relations theory, the tutor on our Getting Into Character course, psychotherapist Arabel Charlaff, describes an internal relational map that we all develop as a child in order to navigate the world and how we understand it; how to behave and what to expect from others around us. This internal map and the ‘objects’ we base our relationships on – a supportive mother, or an unreliable friend, for example – will depend entirely on our early experiences and will not always reflect the world as we actually find it. 

No matter where your character is in their life when your novel opens – or how much of their backstory you intend to share with the reader – it’s important that you understand how their experiences before this point have shaped them as a person.  

  • What is your character’s earliest memory?
  • What was their favourite toy as a child?
  • Who was their hero when they were young? And who is it now?
  • If your character was asked to describe their family life in three words, what would they choose?
  • Who was their best friend as a child? Did that change?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone had let them down?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone had protected them from harm?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone was proud of them?
  • Who was their first romantic love?
  • When looking for a partner, would they say they have a type? What is it?
  • Which adult relationship do they most admire? Why?

It’s all in the doing

All of this is good knowledge to have about the character you’re building, but the next step is to think about how you impart this to your reader. You know them pretty well now, but copy-and-pasting your answers to the above isn’t going to make for much of a novel – so now it’s time to consider how these facets of their personality affect the way they think and behave, and how your reader can get to know them that way. As Richard Skinner says, ‘what your characters do in your story is far more revealing than what they say’. It’s much more useful for your plot as well.

Time to play a game of ‘What Would Your Character Do?’…

  • Your character finds a fifty pound note on the floor outside a train station. What do they do with it?
  • They’re the first person on the scene of an accident; how do they react?
  • They witness someone shoplifting in a major supermarket – do they take action?
  • They overhear gossip about someone they work with; gossip which could have potentially negative consequences for that colleague – and possibly positive ones for themselves. Do they make use of it?
  • They’re overlooked for a promotion – how do they react?
  • Their significant other admits to having feelings for someone else; what’s the first thing they do?
  • They wake up to discover that for some reason – trains cancelled because of snow; a flood in the office; a power-cut across the city – they can’t go to work or run the errands they’d planned today. What do they do with their unexpected day off?
  • They help a witch or wizard in trouble and are granted a single wish in return. What would they choose?
  • The same witch has an alternative offer: your character has the chance to experience a single day from their past again. Which day would they pick?

Let desire drive – and head for change

Our helpful magical friend has brought us to an important point: desire. Or, as Richard puts it, ‘the difference between what a character has and what they want. ’Think about what motivates your character, what you’d describe as their goals.  While you can use outside forces to drive your plot – the things that happen to your character – the things they want will always form the most compelling engine for a narrative, especially if it’s difficult for them to achieve that goal. 

  • When your character was a child, what did they say they wanted to be when they grew up?
  • What is the best present they’ve ever received?
  • What is their darkest secret? The one they’d most hate someone to find out? 
  • Would they rather be rich or happy – and what does either term mean to them?
  • What is their worst nightmare?
  • If they won a million pounds, what’s the first thing they’d do with the money?
  • And if they won a hundred?
  • Where in the world would they live if they had no commitments and an unlimited budget? 
  • Where do they see themselves in one year? Five? Ten?
  • If you asked them today what the most important thing in their life is, what would they say? Would the answer have been different if you’d asked them a year ago?

Beginning your novel, you should know who your character is, and how that relates to who they have been. You should understand what drives them and why they behave the way they do. The important thing to consider now is who they will be when you leave them – because that’s really the most interesting journey to take your reader on.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: A Question of Conflict

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Tonight, our intrepid Writing A Novel students, who are almost halfway through their time with us, will be discussing conflict: what it is, how to create it, and why it’s important. They’ll be figuring out how to introduce obstacles for their own characters, and how those obstacles can help drive the story.

If you’re struggling with your novel – if you’ve made it past the Shiny New Idea excitement and are now wading through the Baggy Middle – it might be worth thinking about conflict, too. What does your protagonist want? And what is preventing them from achieving it? It could be that another person stands in the way; it could be that a situation does. Or it could be a more internal struggle – for example, a boy who dreams of being a singer but who has crippling stage fright.

Conflict can be both the engine for your story and provide tension; it will help you naturally structure your story too. Here’s an exercise to get you thinking about it:

  • Below are a couple of one-sentence stories. Each has a beginning and an end. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to insert six steps after each beginning, making it as difficult as possible for the characters to arrive at the end. Airline strikes, evil stepmothers, phobias – whatever you like. Just make them work for it.
     
    A woman wins the lottery and marries a bank robber.

    A man loses his job and wins a gold medal at the Olympics.

    A couple fall in love in the supermarket and adopt a tiger

 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Story vs Plot

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The hot topic for our Writing A Novel students this evening is Story vs Plot. Now, despite us pitting them against each other like that, story and plot are actually good friends. They get along nicely. They need each other in fact. And our novels need them both. But understanding the difference is really important, too.

Story is how we sum up the novel in its entirety. It’s the flavour of the thing, the What. What’s this story all about? is the question, and you should be able, at this stage, to answer that in a single sentence.

Plot is the Where and the How. It’s all the individual bits that make up and drive the story from A to B.  Writing A Novel tutor Sarah May describes it as ‘the detailed scenario, event by event, which makes up the story, together with sufficient character motivation to link them logically.’ Sounds simple, right?

Welllll… maybe not. So for this week’s exercise, let’s pull that plot apart. We’ve sort of borrowed this particular one from very clever Shelley Harris, who just happens to be the tutor on our upcoming one day Fiction Skills course on Plot. So she knows her stuff.

  • Get yourself a roll of wallpaper, or wrapping paper, or any kind of paper that unrolls and is super long. Now get yourself two types of Post-It – two different sizes, or two different colours, even fancy shaped ones if you like. On the first type, write down all of the key events (there might even be an inciting incident in there) that happen in the novel, and stick them in order, down your unrolled and super long piece of paper.
     
    There! Your novel has a skeleton. It just needs fleshing out now… So on the second type of Post-It, write down all the things that happen between each of those key events, and stick them on.
     
    Now the thing to do is to look at it. Are there lots of Post-Its bunched up in certain bits, and then only a single one between another two key events? Would it make sense to move some of the Post-Its to other places? Could this thing happen here, to make more sense out of that one? And what is driving the plot? Are all of these Post-Its things the characters are doing, or are they things which happen to them, beyond their control? Could you have more of a balance between the two?
     
    Lastly, are there enough Post-Its? If not, look at your characters. Ask yourself How can I make this more difficult for them? Answers on a Post-It, please.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Dialogue

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Following on from our discussion last week on voice, tonight our Writing A Novel students will be discussing dialogue.

How hard can dialogue be? you cry. We all know what talking sounds like! We all speak words to each other! Every day!

Well, actually, it can be a bit tricky to get right. The key to good dialogue in fiction, a reliable source informed us the other day, is to strike the balance between being true to life, and being Not Boring.

With that in mind, here are two exercises to help:

  • Choosing the correct vocabulary for each character is essential when bringing dialogue to life. Think carefully about each person’s background and lifestyle, the person they are and the person they want us to think they are. Consider who they’re talking to, too – do they speak in a different way when in conversation with their boss, than, say, a friend from home?
     
    As an example, here are a load of words which all basically mean ‘great’. Make a list of all of the characters in your novel, and, for each, choose the word(s) – you can add others if necessary – they’d be most likely to use in conversation. This should help get you thinking about the intricacies of each character’s speech, and how you can make them work harder for you.

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  • Often the most important part of dialogue is the things that are left unsaid; the information hidden in between the lines. There can be real power in such exchanges, especially if the reader knows more than the characters. Adding such layers to your dialogue can also really help with that Not Boring bit, too.
     
    Give it a go: write a short scene of dialogue (500-750 words) between two of your characters, where one or both of them are hiding something from the other.

 

Next week: Story vs Plot 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Finding Your Voice

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Right. We’ve looked at ideas and what to do with them. We’ve talked about narrative and finding the right point of view, and about developing characters and giving them dimensions.

If you’re NaNoWriMo-ing or just soldiering on with your work in progress, this is all great groundwork. Hopefully things are chugging along nicely.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe you’re at that 10k or 20k wordcount, and something just isn’t quite working. Things feel a bit sticky or stilted, and maybe you’re finding it more difficult to motivate yourself to write each day.

As our Writing A Novel students will be discussing tonight, it might well be that you haven’t quite found your voice yet. Don’t be alarmed. It happens to us all.

Voice is a sort of nebulous concept which we hear talked about a lot in publishing. People will sometimes tell you how they fell in love with a novel’s voice, but it’s more commonly cited as a problem: ‘I love the concept, I just didn’t really think the voice worked’.  Sometimes it comes back to that old likeability problem, but more frequently, the issue is that the voice just isn’t believable or consistent enough.

This is important whether you’re writing in the third- or first-person. Even in the third-person, your voice needs consideration – is the narrator completely impartial, an absolute non-being, or do they have opinions and feelings which will colour the way they tell the story?

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If you’ve got a first-person narrator, think carefully about the choices you make with their language: the way they phrase a sentence, the vocabulary they use, the reference points they have. These need to remain true to the voice throughout your manuscript – for example, do they speak in long, flowery sentences for periods of time and then switch to slang? Does it work to have them referencing Homer in one chapter and then Homer Simpson in the next? It may well – we’re all contradictions as people, and that’s what makes us interesting – but thinking about every element of your voice in this way will make it convincing, compelling and something for a publisher to fall in love with.

So, a couple of exercises to help with that:

  • Write a transcript of an interview between you and the narrator of your novel. You can ask them about themselves, or about a particular event in the novel, or their relationships with the other characters, whatever you like (Interview them for a job! Arrest them! Pretend they’re famous and you’re Graham Norton!) – what really matters is to think about the way they speak, the way they would phrase things, the words they would choose.
  • Take your first paragraph – or first page, or even first chapter, if you like – and rewrite it using the voice of another character. Try and choose someone as different as possible from your narrator (for example, you could swap an omniscient third person narrator for the protagonist, who will have a much more personal and closed view on things). Think consciously about the words you’re choosing, the details your new narrator is picking up on, and why you’re making those decisions. Now look back at the original, and think about why you chose those words, those phrases. Are they the right ones?

All of this is also going to come in handy for next week, when we’ll be looking at DIALOGUE.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: How’d You Like Me Now

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Tonight, our Writing A Novel students are being treated to a guest tutor session from acclaimed thriller writer (and Academy alumna) Colette McBeth. Here‘s a really great thing she wrote about unlikeable characters over on Killer Women.

With this in mind, and given that we’ve spent the last couple of weeks thinking about character and point of view, today’s writing exercise is all about creating a character our audience can care for, even when they might not particularly like them.

  • Write a monologue (750-1,000 words) where your main character describes the worst thing they have ever done. How do they feel about it? Would they do things differently now?
  • Now write a shorter piece (500-750 words) about the best thing they have ever done. That might mean the most selfless, or the kindest – or the thing they feel most satisfied about.
  • Finally, write a short monologue (around 500 words), either from the point of view of your character’s best friend or from a third person narrator. What do they think about either of these events?

As Colette says, creating a character we can care for is all about building facets for them in this way. Nobody is all good or all bad, and people behave in certain ways for all sorts of reasons. Bearing that in mind as you go forward with your novel will mean you end up with rounded, interesting and believable characters, with whom we can empathise, even when we don’t agree with them – and who aren’t just there to serve the plot.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Point Of View

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Tonight, our Writing A Novel students are in for their third evening session, where they’ll be thinking about Point Of View.

Choosing a narrator for a novel is one of the most important decisions of the process. Telling a story in first-, second- or third-person can make all the difference, and that’s before we even start thinking about omniscience. And what if you add more than one perspective into the mix?

Here are a couple of exercises to get you thinking about your own novel and its narration.

  • Take a short scene (250-500 words) featuring a single character from your work in progress. If you’ve been writing in first-person, try switching to third; if you’re writing in third-person, give the character’s own voice a whirl.
  • Now think about the closeness of your narration. If you’ve been working in third-person, think about what your narrator knows – is it only what the character does, or do they have more information? And if you’re working in first-person, how exposed are we to the character’s thoughts and feelings? How honest are they being – do we get a sense that this is the whole story, or that something is being held back?
  • Finally, have a go at switching tenses – from past to present, or vice-versa. Which works best with which mode of narration? What different things do you learn about the character and the plot from each combination?

 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Kidnap A Character

On Saturday, our Writing A Novel students came in for their first full day session. And we sent them straight back out again.

The topic at hand was (and still is — they’re back in tonight) Character. So we set them free on a little expedition to find inspiration in the world outside (we’re next to the British Museum; there’s a wealth of amazing characters to be found out there). By the time they came back for lunch, they all had a fledgling character sketch just waiting for his or her own story.

It’s such a worthwhile exercise — thinking about what makes a good and interesting character; thinking about how to build a history and a voice for someone — that we thought we’d share a sort-of-version of it with you.

Here are four people; four potential characters. Pick one (or two or three or four) and write a character summary for them. Tell us about their life, their ambitions, their opinions. Try writing it in your voice first, and then try it in theirs, thinking carefully about the different way the two of you might see things.

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This will come in very handy for next week’s topic: Point Of View.