By Michelle Gwynn Jones
Not all novels require the presence of a villain, but a story can’t have a hero unless there is someone, or something, to overcome. When a story requires a villain, that character needs to be believable.
Villains vary in size, class and sexual preference. In any group of people, from a kindergarten class to a gathering of world leaders, there are the good and the evil.
If the protagonist and the antagonist are the two main characters they need to be equally represented. A villain should have a well thought out reason for why they do what they do or want what they want. Depending on the type of story the villain might need friends or minions. The job and lifestyle the writer chooses should enhance the character, not hold them back. If the reader is to follow the path of the villain, the character must have a few good qualities, no one is going to believe a person who is all good or all evil. Even the bomber running around the city blowing up buildings without any discernible pattern should still stop to open the door for an elderly neighbor and help carry the packages to their apartment.
Just as with the good main character, your villain must have a backstory. Many readers have trouble believing that the villain was just born evil. The backstory should reveal a traumatic incident that turns them from good to evil, like when Anakin Skywalker revenges his mother Shmi’s death by killing all the Tusken Raiders and taking his first step from Jedi apprentice to becoming Darth Vader. That incident should logically bring the character to where they are today, even if only logical to someone with evil in their mind and heart.
Keep in mind the setting and the goals of the main character and the villain. The hero’s response to the villain must be proportional to the threat. If the villain is an international criminal running his mercenaries for personal gain it may be all right for the main character to kill them off one at a time. However, this may not be true if the story is set in the small town of New Grace, South Carolina when the main character is taking down the evil leader of the Parent Teacher’s Association of the local elementary school. While the protagonist may do evil to succeed in their mission, it is rare for a book to be successful if the protagonist becomes more evil than the villain.
As a writer you can’t let yourself be intimidated by your own villain. If your villain is trying to take over the world, let them plan and scheme, don’t hold back because you can’t understand why anyone would want to do that. When the villain is a serial killer but the writer can’t actually bring themselves to write a murder, or describe a murder scene, the reader will never be convinced the killer is a worthy adversary for the protagonist.
Whether your villain dies or goes to prison, turns good or stays evil, the story must be completed. Even the villain that lives on from one book of the series to the next must be thwarted in their scheme in order to rise again with an even better plan.