You know those kinds of people who are so mean and nasty they make everyone else’s lives miserable? I’m talking about the back-stabbers, gossip mongers, cat kickers, boyfriend-stealers, and world-domination plotters. Those types? What do you DO with people like that?
You, the authors, should embrace them – bear hug style! They may make undesirable companions in reality, but these characters can be an author’s very best friends.
Why? The reason is simple. They add CONFLICT and create TENSION. And tension drives your story. It keeps your readers turning the pages. It forces them to root for the main character. You want this!
But creating believable villains is tricky. See, even the most rotten of villains shouldn’t be all bad. Your readers don’t need to like these characters, but they need to be able to relate to or understand them on some level.
Villains need to have something about them that reveals their humanity, no matter how despicable they are.
Here are five ways to achieve humanity in your villains.
- Make us feel sorry for them. You can evoke sympathy for your villain in all kinds of ways. Give them a back story. Did they have miserable childhoods? Have they been heartbroken? Do people make fun of them for the way they look?
- Bestow endearing qualities upon them. Do they take care of an elderly aunt? Secretly donate to charity? Are they kind to caterpillars?
- Help us understand what motivates them. Are they trying to overcome unhappiness? Do they have something to prove? Do they want to impress someone?
- Give them admirable qualities. Are they attractive? Smart? Musically gifted?
- Show their humanity through the eyes of other characters, or even a pet. In Cassandra Clare’s popular City of Bones, the nemesis, Valentine Morgenstern has a group of followers called the Circle. Disney frequently employs the technique of giving pets to villains. For example, The Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid has pet eels, and Jafar from Aladdin has Iago the parrot. If this formula didn’t work, Disney wouldn’t use it.
Let’s take a look at a great villain from Harry Potter that you’re all familiar with. Lord Voldemort’s humanity is revealed in several of these ways.
- He was an orphan, which evokes sympathy.
- He is motivated by hatred toward the muggle father who abandoned him. He is also motivated by the desire to improve his skill until he is the most powerful wizard ever.
- He was a very handsome young wizard who was particularly smart and skillful. These qualities evoke admiration.
- Other characters hold him in high regard. These include his followers, the Death Eaters, his former professors, and his pet snake Nagini.
Notice that Rowling uses four of the five techniques listed above to show Voldermort’s humanity. But does she give him any endearing qualities? I haven’t been able to find any! Which brings me to this point: You don’t have to incorporate ALL of these traits into your villainous characters! Consider your genre. If there is a villain in your picture book, you may only have room to give us a peek into his humanity. Or you may use the Grinch method of creating a character that seems villainous on the outside, but has humanity waiting to burst forth from within.
Both of my books, The Boy Problem and The Boy Project, are humorous middle grade novels so I did not delve deep into the psyche of the antagonist, Maybelline, in them. I gave her a pack of admiring friends, so we could see her value through their eyes. She is also considered cute and stylish, characteristics admired by many of her classmates. Yet she is vulnerable. We are able to feel sorry for her when she is dumped by her boyfriend in The Boy Project, and we see her insecurity in The Boy Problem. Whether or not you spell out all of these character traits for your readers, you should develop a good understanding of your villains. I know that Maybelline is as insecure as the next girl, and that her actions are motivated by a desire to stay at the top of the tenuous middle school social pyramid.
She is one of my favorite characters, not because she is nice, but because she isn’t! Maybelline continuously creates conflict for my main characters Tabbi and Kara. Their learning to navigate around her is part of what makes them grow. She is essential to their stories.
Where would the Harry Potter books be without Voldemort? Where would Peter Pan be without Captain Hook? What struggles would Katniss face without President Snow? And how many cases would Encyclopedia Brown really be able to crack if Bugs Meany moved away? We need the antagonists, the villains, the nemeses! So embrace them. Appreciate their plotting, scheming, mean and nasty ways. Thank them for making your story a story.
Kami Kinard is the author of The Boy Problem (Scholastic, 2014) and The Boy Project (Scholastic, 2012). Her poetry, stories, articles, and essays have appeared in some of the world’s best periodicals for children and adults. Kami also works as a teaching artist, and teaches continuing education writing courses for adults. She lives at the edge of the universe (or at least the United States) with her family and the world’s smartest dog. Visit her at www.kamikinard.com or at www.NerdyChicksRule.com where she blogs with Sudipta. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking HERE.
Kami Kinard is giving away a 20 page manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #Kidlit Summer School.
Webinar tonight 9:00 EST. Details HERE!