Stuck for Character Traits for Your Villain?

Villains need to have human characteristics to ensure they are three-dimensional; otherwise they may as well be faceless and mindless. It was discussed in The Perfect Villain Is Not All Evil that antagonists need human qualities – good and bad – but that may not be easy. If you are struggling to find character traits for the villain in your story, try this simple exercise.

Think of at least five villains that you liked (or loved to hate) and list two or more qualities (good or bad) from each. Don’t be surprised if you find the same qualities appearing on several villains in your list. These are characteristics that you’re drawn to for your evil characters – use them when creating your villain.

I tend to use movies as examples, because the chances of you seeing the same movie (or at least knowing the character) is better than reading the same book, but use whatever medium you want.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – Sheriff of Nottingham

  • Funny
  • A strong presence
  • Impatience

Trust Alan Rickman to turn a dull villain into a sensational character.

Harry Potter’s Professor Severus Snape

  • Tormented
  • Greasy look
  • Menacing
  • Intelligent

While Voldemort was the real villain in the story, Professor Snape certainly caused plenty of problems for the main character even though his actions may have been with good intentions.

The Fugitive’s Lt Phillip Gerard (from the 1960s tv show)

  • Career and duty focused
  • Determined
  • Intelligent

While on the side of the law, this man is infuriatingly clever and able to guess Kimble’s movements. Despite believing in Kimble’s innocence, Gerard is determined to capture Kimble. This sort of conflict would have torn most people, but Gerard was steadfast in his duties.

Star Wars’ Dark Vader

  • Sinister
  • Powerful
  • Prepared to follow through with his threats
  • Ruthless
  • Hides inner conflicts

Thor’s adopted brother Loki

  • Cunning
  • Funny
  • Planner
  • Manipulator
  • Life of being overshadowed by muscle-bound Thor

Now you have a list of traits to choose from.

 

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The Perfect Villain Is Not All Evil

While the enemy can be multiple individuals forming a uniting force, such as invading aliens wanting to take over Earth, we will focus on an individual foe for the purposes of this article.

Every story needs a villain and that villain needs a purpose. No matter how dark and sinister antagonists may be, they are people too and must have wants and needs. The antagonist must believe his/her purpose is reasonable and justified, if not righteous. Gone are days when the villain was merely a shadow of a person and can no longer be portrayed as a man with a handlebar moustache, an evil glint in his dark eyes, wearing a black full-length coat and a hat, and looking to tie a damsel to the train tracks. The protagonist’s nemesis has morphed into characters of substance, someone who has plans, take calculated risks, and willing to do whatever it take to achieve his/her goal while eluding capture. As writers, we must dedicate the same effort in characterisation for the perpetrator as we do for our main character.

Today’s villain can be anyone, such as a bully in a children’s story or a murderer in a crime story or even a ruthless and power-hungry individual. Stories need a villain but the perfect villain is not all evil. That person has to have good points as well to give the character depth, such as a murderer might be good to a sibling. The antagonist must be three-dimensional.

Unless something unexpected has happened to turn a character into the antagonist, there should be a history of wrongdoing. Ordinary and law-abiding people don’t usually wake up and commit a crime or moral injustice. Those traits have to be there to begin with. The wrongdoing should be measurable, where the next action is worse than the previous. And with each action, the person slips further into his/her own dark world.

Antagonists need to be faced with difficulties as well. Of course, the protagonist’s actions in the story may be enough to cause our villain annoyance, but can you delve further? Are there other characters (knowingly or unknowingly) interfering with the antagonist’s plans? Is there some other conflict that burdens the antagonist? Perhaps a bully is bullied at home. Or a person may have murdered someone to protect another person, but tread carefully with this scenario – a person would still have to be capable of such an action. It would change that person for life and he/she would have to deal with being captured as well as nightmares and anguish over taking someone’s life.

While the reader may disagree with the villain’s actions from a moral or legal point, the writer must ensure the reader understands the villain’s actions. And if the writer can cause the reader to feel sympathy for the villain, then that writer has created an in-depth character. As strange or uncomfortable as it sounds, get into your villain’s headspace and think what actions you would undertake for the plans to succeed. Who stands in your way and how will you deal with them? Actually, as a writer, you should step into all your characters’ headspaces to ensure their actions and thinking are unique to them. It’s easier than looking at a character from a distance and guessing what that person would do next.

Be mindful not to slip into using dialogue that has been overused and should’ve been tossed out decades ago. Powerful and intelligent dialogue will make your villain a worthy adversary, whereas ridiculous and wince provoking declamations and comments will surely turn your villain into a cartoon buffoon where readers will wish for an anvil to fall on his/her head.

When you’re breathing life into your villain, make sure they:

  • have redeeming qualities as well as negative traits
  • have wants and needs like everyone else
  • doesn’t perceive themselves as antagonists to the protagonists (from the villain’s viewpoint, those roles are reversed)
  • believe their actions are justified and reasonable
  • are intelligent, otherwise they would be caught in chapter two (where’s the fun in that?)
  • encounter conflicts of their own
  • use believable dialogue that is commonplace for the period of the story (avoid cheesy cliché’s and speech that is stereotypical of villains).

 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay