Fiction Fridays – The Seven Laws of Successful Villains

villains copy

I like villains because there’s something so attractive about a committed person – they have a plan, an ideology, no matter how twisted. They’re motivated.” – Russell Crowe.

Today’s Fiction Friday post is an homage to a wonderful discussion I had on villains in #yalitchat on Twitter. (For those of you who don’t know, YALitChat is a non-profit organization to support YA literature.) In the chat, we talked about the villains we love, the villains we love to hate, and what qualities make a good villain. I took notes and came up with a few of my own. Here are the seven laws of a good villain in young adult fiction.

A good villain:

1. Is never passive:

They act upon the hero or protagonist (or both) of the story and make stuff happen. Just like the hero is the mover and shaker as a force for good in your story, the villain is the mover and shaker as a force of evil and all-round badassery. Even when a villain is seemingly passive, they may be the mastermind behind evil acts, or their passivity and inaction caused others great harm. Readers must believe they can harm the hero. Like Russell Crowe says, they are motivated.

2. Complements (not compliments) the hero:

The villain can be a complement to the hero in several ways. He or she may be strong where the hero is weak, or weak where the hero is strong. The villain may even share the same DNA, social status, or back story with the hero and show a shared past where they branched off in different directions due to the choices they made. Think Charles Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men. A good friend of mine, Shauna Born, once said, “The villain’s purpose is to make the hero look good. The only reason anyone was ever impressed with Luke Skywalker was because Darth Vader was so damn scary.” Darth Vader’s badness and skill made him a great villain because Luke had to grow and improve himself in order to face him. He was a belivable threat.

3. Teaches something:

Not to say that teachers are villains, but that the villain teaches the reader/viewer about the hero, and the hero learns about him or herself from interacting with villains. They also teach us something about evil. To quote something #yalitchat host Nicole Olea (@nicky_olea) said in the chat: “A memorable villain will show not just the evil that takes place but the good that’s left behind.” Thus, we learn from villains.

4. Is never 100% bad:

While some villains can be pure evil (think of Voldemort in the Harry Potter series), they do have redeemable qualities. Or had them at one point. Dumbledore was trying to help the pained young Tom Riddle, to guide him on the path to good. At some point, Tom Riddle had good qualities. He simply chose to ignore them. The more sympathetic you can make a villain, the more gripping he or she will seem. It may be they are charming, or good looking, or very good at what they do. It might be that they act in ways that surprise and intrigue the reader. These are also good qualities. It might be simply a shred of good that the hero can see, so that the hero is justified in offering redemption like Nero in JJ Abram’s Star Trek movie. It may demonstrate the hero’s own optimism and compassion, or it might actually be there. In the case of Nero, Kirk could see how hurt the man was.

5. Has her/his own story:

Villains have to be as well-rounded as the hero. They usually have back stories of their own, telling what made them into villains. If this back story ties him or her to the hero even better.

6. Makes the reader feel:

Villains provoke a range of emotions in the reader. Sometimes, it’s fear, or horror. Sometimes it’s sympathy for the hero. Sometimes, it’s even sympathy for the villain. If we can understand the villain’s viewpoint, what makes him or her tick, even better.

7. Is charismatic:

A great villain is compelling. They don’t have to be likable. Their appeal can come from a fascination with his or her actions, a deep, well-rounded character, or the ability to compell and lead others.  The more charisma the villain has, the more we will love, or love to hate them. There you have it. My points about what makes a great villain. In the comments below, tell me what I missed! What qualities do you love in a villain? Who is your favorite villain and why?

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12 thoughts on “Fiction Fridays – The Seven Laws of Successful Villains

  1. L. Guest says:

    I like wit and charm with a glimmer of redeemable. I really like the villians who can offer torture and villiany with witty retorts along the way!

    • lvoisin says:

      Great points, Linda! I like wit and charm in a villain too. Do you have any specific character in mind that you’d recommend?

  2. Stephanie Keyes says:

    Great post Lisa! I am going to pin it to my board as a reminder while I’m working on my current WIP. I love villians who were once good but were turned. What turned them and why? Who were they before?

    • lvoisin says:

      I love those who turned too, and figuring out what turned them. I think that particular aspect made Voldemort (and Darth Vader) interesting characters. Thanks for visiting. i’m glad you liked this post 🙂

    • lvoisin says:

      Thanks, Blair! I’m going to have to keep these things in mind too! I learned a lot from #yalitchat that day 🙂

  3. S says:

    Ooooh,villains… as you know, Lisa, I have done a tremendous amount of consideration about the villain archetype…. could say much, but will stick to this….
    The poignant thing is that most villains (except for the ones that are that extra special kind of crazy) honestly think they are the hero of the story… they have a mission, something to prove, a plan to change the way things are, a duty to avenge or take back…. so they, in their own minds, are in the right. From their point of view, the people trying to stop them are the bad guys.
    Their redemption typically takes the form of a realization that their reasoning has been flawed, or an opening up of their empathy for the people affected by their actions…
    that’s why Voldemort could not be redeemed… he would not consider anyone else’s point of view nor would he feel.

    “Every villain is a hero in his own mind”.
    Tom Hiddleston
    (who plays Loki in the movies)

    • lvoisin says:

      Excellent points, S! While every villain is a hero in their own mind, they can’t be redeemed if they won’t accept the consequences of their actions. Love the Tom HIddleston quote – from the Avengers, right? I loved Bruce Banner’s quote about Loki “Mind like a bag of cats.” 🙂

    • lvoisin says:

      Thanks so much for visiting, Nicole. I’m so glad you found this article. And thanks for hosting such a great chat. it was one of my favorites! 🙂

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