Among all of the characters in a novel, the villain, the antagonist, is one of the hardest to write. Sure, you can make a villain that's big, bad, and mean - but a villain with actual depth is rare.
This is something all writers struggle with, including myself. I don't have all the answers to the villain question; in this post, I'll share what I do know.
Villains are essential. Without a tangible villain, the story lacks balance. If a story portrays only good, it portrays only half of life; because life is a struggle between good and evil, between Christ and the forces of darkness.
The villain, therefore, is the embodiment of that evil, and usually exhibits one main evil trait. Hate, bitterness, immorality, revenge, greed, envy, murder, brutality; all are evil ideals that the villain might embrace. Usually, it's the opposite ideal of what your hero represents. The hero shows love; the villain shows hate. Etc.
All right, so it's easy enough to tack on a trait to your villain. But how do you give him depth, humanity, and a truly chilling presence?
That's what this post is about.
1) Don't make the mistake of making your villain single-minded. That is, don't make it to where he has just one negative ideal.
Villains, like all people, have many motivations. Aside from his main ideal, he has other desires and interests. A villain can combine hatred and revenge, greed and envy, murder and and brutality and bitterness; real villains are many-layered. They have more than one desire, and when those desires conflict, that's when we are shown the villain's true driving desires.
Edmond Dantes, in the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, is a very conflicted character. He's something of an anti-hero, which gives me a lot of fertile ground for proving my points. Nothing stands in the way of his revenge; not his wise mentor, not his money, not his former dependence on God, and not even his love. Revenge is what sustained him in prison. In one scene, he says something along the lines of, "Don't take away my hate. It's all I have."
In the same way, make your villain have one driving desire; but you have to prove that his desire really is what drives him. He has to want something so badly that he'll do anything to get it.
2) Make your character have some good in him.
The scary thing about villains is that we can see ourselves in them. The villain is who we will be if the protagonist doesn't win. The villain is mostly bad, just as the protagonist is mostly good. But the "mostly" part is what makes the struggle between the two so fascinating. To our horror, we find that, in some ways, we empathize with the villain, even as we hate him.
Give him some humanity; a tenderness that seems bizarre at first. Say one villain has a reluctance to kill priests, since a priest helped him and sheltered him as a child. Make it something that makes sense but conflicts with his evil ideals.
Even better, let what is bad in the villain come about because he did something good. Again, Edmond Dantes is an excellent example. He was an honest man who trusted everyone, even the people who betrayed him. That honesty proved to be his downfall. When he was sent to prison, however, he destroyed his trust and let revenge rule him.
3) Let us know what the villain is capable of.
If the villain doesn't come into the story until the end, then why will we fear him? But if we've seen his handiwork before the hero confronts the villain, we'll be a lot more frightened for our hero's safety. In my outline of Tornado C, I already have several instances in which the villain shows just how far he has fallen, and that makes him chilling.
Again, Dantes comes up as an example. (No, he's not a villain, but he has a lot of villainous traits up until the end.) Dantes will do anything to get revenge. When he escapes from his prison, Chateau d'If, he pulls the master of the prison with him off of a cliff. The master has tortured him for years, so...well, only one of them survives afterward. This shows how far Dantes will go, and creates a fear in us. "No, Dantes, don't do it!" we want to shout. "There's a better way! Let go of your revenge!" Every time he comes near one of his betrayers, we feel a shiver of fear, because we know the need for revenge that drives him.
This doesn't mean that you have to write something gory in order to make the villain scary. In fact, the worst fear is the fear of the unknown. Leave the details to the imagination; imagination is best at scaring itself.
4) Make him or her realistic.
In other words, not everyone is a mass-murderer. But everyone struggles with anger. Make the villain understandable, because we struggle with the same things. The difference is, the villain uses that evil and embraces it to elevate himself and his desires, rather than struggling against it.
The villain must have normal human needs as well. He needs love; but because he doesn't get it, he hates those who do. An inhuman villain becomes a supernatural villain who can wave his hand and do anything, regardless of morality and conscience. Like I've said before, a true villain is horrifying because he was once like us.
Now, before I finish this post, I have one more thing to say, and it's about anti-heroes.
I mention The Count of Monte Cristo quite a bit, and Dantes (the main character) is pretty much an anti-hero. That is, he's a hero without too many heroic qualities, at least in the middle of the movie.
Here's my advice: stay away from anti-heroes. If a hero isn't heroic, then why are we reading this story? If the tale is bad-versus-bad, why write it? Honestly, which of us has the wisdom to write a story that is steeped in evil?
The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the few stories that pulls off an anti-hero, mainly through good storytelling, superb characters, and a strong theme. It's very hard to write an anti-hero story well, at least for Christian writers. Why?
I believe that the purpose of the Christian story is to build up, to glorify God and retell the truths of the Bible. The problem is, anti-heroes make me feel dirty. It's not about good versus evil. In those stories, the character often hate themselves for their evil. I've read stories from young Christian writers that are, frankly, hopeless. That is, they're lacking the hope that Christianity offers. (There's a disturbing trend toward murderer protagonists, too.)
And if such stories do offer hope, they do it in a bad-guy-gets-saved-and-there's-a-happy-ending kind of way...which is pretty much unrealistic and cheesy.
Therefore, I cannot justify anti-heroes unless it is done as well as it was in The Count of Monte Cristo.
(SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE: In that movie, Dantes was redeemed in the end, and that's why it was satisfying and not degrading. He found that vengeance was the Lord's, not his. He found that revenge did nothing but waste his life. He returns to the faith that he had had before he was imprisoned.
(The final image we get from the movie was rather moving: a picture from the prison cell in which Dantes was tortured. He had scraped deep into the wall, through torture after torture, GOD WILL GIVE ME JUSTICE. And on that note, the movie ends.)
So what do you think about villains? How can we, as writers, create truly chilling but believable villains? What do you think about anti-heroes?
I'd love to hear your thoughts!