The Perils of Falling For Your Villain

It’s fun writing the bad guy. He’s the one who pushes the moral envelope, takes the plot into all sorts of dark places and gives our hero the opportunity to prove his mettle. However if I’ve learned anything studying the craft of writing, it’s that characters need to be well-developed, with believeable motives. And in the case of villains; they rarely see themselves as the bad guy.

So in order to avoid the moustache twirling cut-out cliché, I decided to work my antagonist’s backstory. In The Fall of the Kings, that was Marcus Verona.

Now I never saw Marcus as an evil schemer – more like one of those people who truly believe their own manifesto. But every time I tried to write his point of view, he felt very stiff, formal and not very likeable. This was a big problem for me, because this story requires Marcus to be quite charismatic – at least outwardly.

So I turned to his wife Celeste, and tried to see him through her eyes. The result was a short story recounting the summer they met and Marcus’s proposal of marriage. At that time he was a young soldier of limited means, on leave to attend to his dying father’s affairs. They met by chance, but the result was a gorgeous summer of secret meetings at a concealed waterhole on Celeste’s family estate.

It was the first time I really understood where Marcus had come from and what it was that drove him to succeed. The problem was, just like Celeste, I kind of fell in love with him too. Trust me I didn’t see it coming. But this caused me a huge dilemma: I know the path Marcus is on and what this will ultimately unleash for my mythical land of Gaelladorn, and I didn’t want him to be the bad guy.

One of the main themes in The Fall of the Kings is pride. How a refusal to look beyond our own experiences can have major consequences – especially when you’re in a position of leadership. There was no getting around it, in this story Marcus has to be the vehicle for Gaelladorn’s change of fortunes.

So where did that leave me? Because I’m soft, I just could not believe the man who romanced the lovely Celeste could possibly be responsible for what’s going to unfold. I also felt if I eased up on him I would lose some of the tension needed to pull the story together.

The result was a new character. A master antagonist (as if I didn’t already have enough characters in this book). You’ll meet him this week in the Wednesday WIPpet. I had to delve into his backstory too, and I’m pleased to say although I’m sorry for his past there is very little chance I’m going to fall for him. He’s driven by his own demons, but he’ll be pulling some strings in the background to manipulate Marcus too.

It made me feel a bit better about what’s going to happen to Marcus and Celeste – and it should result in a more powerful emotional payoff when it all plays out.

So this is just a cautionary tale about getting too close to your villains. Make sure you know what drives them to darker side of human nature. Give them endearing features as well as repulsive ones so they don’t feel cartoonish – but don’t get so attached you can’t go down the darker path when the story requires it.

A well drawn villain is a great foil for your hero, but be careful he doesn’t steal your heart, or your story on the way.

How about you? Do you love to hate your villains? Have you ever fallen for one? How did that work out for you / your story?


17 thoughts on “The Perils of Falling For Your Villain

  1. What an interesting concept. I can’t say I’ve ever fallen in love with a villain. But I definitely prefer to spend time focusing on a not-so-bad guy who gets manipulated into evil things than coming up with a pure evil villain himself.

    1. Well falling in love might be a hyperbole… it’s just he didn’t seem so bad either after I got inside his head. And I like the not-so-bad guy getting manipulated too!

  2. I always feel bad when I develop a character that I know is going to get a tough shake. Okay, maybe not always. 😉 I love writing bad guys, though. You have some excellent points here about giving them some redeaming qualities — or at least one.

    1. Yes I’m not sure about my new bad guy he actually creeps me out. However he manages to keep his evilness under the radar somewhat, so will have to go back and look for something redeeming. (I’m afraid he’s just a bit damaged).

  3. Wow, good point. I don’t think I’m in danger of this right now, but I have recently discovered that my “Big Bad” in one story isn’t as completely evil as I thought he was. He really thinks he’s doing the right thing, and on one level, he might not be wrong. It’s becoming more of a question of whether the end justifies the means (he thinks yes, my protagonists disagree). I don’t feel sorry for my villain, and I’m not falling for him, but I understand him better now.

    Great post!

    1. I’m hoping if I can’t find many redeeming features (in the new baddie) then, like you, his motivation will be real. He has a certain take on the world and his history which explain, if not justify his means either. They are fun to write and nut out!

  4. I have a hard time using the word “villain” at all. I prefer protagonist and antagonist, because even in my earliest writings I had a tendency to tell a story from both sides with the realization that nobody, or almost nobody, thinks they are the bad-guy. I love it when I see other writers exploring these nuances. 🙂

    Case in point:
    One of these brothers is a main antagonist. I am not wholly sure how his part of the story will play out, yet, but I know it’s going to hurt even if it ends “well.” I love it when a character surprises me, and I love it when they steal my heart. I used to be terrified of one of my main protagonists… so much so that I was afraid to write the story. Getting over that was quite an eye-opener.

    1. One of my favourite parts as a writer is going there. I think it’s because it makes me really evaluate my values and motivations, and those hard scenes tug at your own emotional chords.

      I use the term villain probably more tongue in cheek (and because it made for a snappier title). I wish someone would make up shorter versions of the terms protagonist (protag) and antagonist, because they don’t trip off the tongue and I’m constantly using them incorrectly. (I know what I mean…).

      I love that other writers get it too!

  5. I’ve taken steps to avoid this in my current series.
    1) I created a “minor villain” in Book One whose back story I could explore and who I could ultimately redeem, but it gave readers someone they could love to hate.
    2) I created a race of monstrous villains who have been the primary since time out of mind, and our heroes are struggling to understand how they think and act because they seem to be only evil all the time.
    3) I created a couple of “master villains” who will be revealed in the last two books of the series and we will see how they pull strings and manipulate everything to cause the problems.

  6. One of Joss Whedon’s advice for writers is to make a villain human by having him loved by someone. I don’t think falling for your villain is a problem, it’s turning him into a hero. You can have a complex villain who is still… bad, I think. Great post Raewyn!

    1. Yes very good advice – I have a bit of a Joss Whedon fangirl crush. I agree about not turning your villain into your hero, but hopefully making him complex enough so his bad choices make you feel bad for him. Part of me wants to say – no, no, don’t do it. But I guess there wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t.

  7. I’m not sure I’ve ever really had any ‘super villians’ in my writing, but I have had plenty of not-so-nice characters. It can be so easy to make them black and white, and it’s important that they’re not because life’s not like that. You need to make them human and fully rounded characters otherwise they’re not believable. It sounds like you’re considering your ‘not-so-nice’ character’s side of the story. I hope you continue to have fun developing him!

  8. Heh. I’ve gotta a book in the early planning stage wherein the protagonist IS the bad guy and the antagonists are both good guys. It’s been somewhat difficult getting into the mind of of a bigot who believes the ends justify the means.

    1. Ah the anti-hero story. It’s fine to take their character arc towards redemption or destruction so long as you pitch it that way from the beginning (or so I’m reading). I enjoy reading a good train wreck, but I must admit I find it hard to get on side with them when I’m writing.

      Good luck with your story though – it sounds like an interesting angle!

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