It’s not just about scaring the pants off the reader.
The most terrifying thing a villain can do in a story isn’t killing the hero or blowing up the world — it’s making their twisted viewpoint seem morally right, and making the hero seem wrong.
Because if the villain’s outlook starts to make sense, and the hero seems to have things backwards, then for just a moment, the reader has to wonder: Have I been rooting for the wrong side all along?
In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, every book sees the heroes (all with strange and unique magic powers) fighting to defend the world from a looming apocalypse. The latest book, Forever and a Doomsday, squares them off against the worst threat they’ve ever faced: a horde of wraiths, the dispossessed souls of sorcerers, who can walk through walls and kill with a mere touch.
How do you fight something like that?
Worse, these wraiths aren’t some kind of mindless undead. They are (or were) some of the smartest and most powerful minds on the planet. If they weren’t ghastly creatures of the night bent on destroying the world, they’d probably make fascinating dinner party guests. That crafty intelligence makes them formidable opponents.
Imagine how you would handle this situation as a writer. You might think (as I did at first) that the biggest challenge would be figuring out how to set up an exciting conflict with these powerful villains without completely obliterating the heroes.
But it turns out, that’s not the case.
The biggest challenge is making the reader wonder whether the villains might have a good point.
We’ve all read way too many books where the villain is out to destroy the world just because . . . well, for no particular reason. Just because they’re evil. To be honest, that’s pretty boring. (And lazy on the writer’s part.)
The most interesting stories revolve around a conflict between two characters who have radically different views of right and wrong.
If neither one of them is entirely right or completely wrong, then the story suddenly gets richer and more complex.
What happens if the villain isn’t entirely wrong?
What if their logic starts to make sense? What if, at some point in my book, the reader starts to wonder whether the world really does need to be destroyed?
That was my challenge in writing my latest book, Forever and a Doomsday. The undead villains, back when they were alive, were radical movers and shakers of the 1960s, doing everything they could to make the world a better place. When all of their efforts crashed and burned, they became so disenchanted that they set a plan in motion to wipe the slate clean and start over with a brand new world.
When our modern-day heroine, sorceress Dru Jasper, stands up to stop the coming doomsday, here’s what the leader of the wraiths tells her:
“You want to say that you can make the world a better place. But can you? We tried that. Even us, the greatest sorcerers in the world, couldn’t make a lasting difference. We couldn’t put an end to war. Poverty. Deforestation. Pollution. Nuclear proliferation. Can you?” His voice echoed to silence before he spoke again, and this time it came out softer, almost human. “Look at your world today. Half a century later, what has changed?”
At that moment, she doesn’t have an answer for him. Because as much as she wants to condemn the villain’s entire line of reasoning, she can’t.
Because he’s not entirely wrong.
But is he right? That’s up to the reader to decide.
As a writer, it’s your job to create a story that not only entertains, but also makes people think.
If you can create villains that — although they may be horribly flawed, even despicably evil — aren’t entirely wrong, then it will elevate your fiction to a whole new level.
By the way, you don’t have to write a dark, serious story to accomplish this.
This is a powerful trick you can pull off with even the lightest romantic comedy. I speak from experience here. Here’s what Booklist, a major trade reviewer, said about my series:
“It’s not often that ‘light-hearted romp’ and ‘demon-fueled apocalypse’ can be used in the same sentence, but doing so perfectly describes this book.”
And yet, buried deep in there, there is some uncomfortable moral complexity surrounding the villain.
Try this technique in your book.
Spend time thinking about all of the ways your villain could be right about things. Write it all out in your notebook. Make a convincing case to the reader. Come up with a compelling argument that turns the villain into the hero of the story, at least in their own mind.
If your villain can fascinate the reader, challenge their assumptions, and make them think, then your book will stick with them long after they’ve closed the covers. And that means you’ve done your job as a writer.
Now it’s your turn. Who’s your favorite villain of all time, and why? Leave a comment below.