Villains Need Love Too
by Jason Black
We writers shower our protagonists with authorial love. We give them challenges they can just barely overcome, faults and foibles which make the challenges harder. We imbue them with character arcs and shower our attentions upon them.
But our villains need some love too. In particular, they need character arcs.
Usually it's the antagonist's job to make the plot challenging for our protagonist. Having done this, too often writers think the job is done. We often give our villains no further attention than this, and it's a mistake.
Villains need to be just as real as the protagonist, often more so. In novels where the villain does bad things that are obviously bad, the believability of the whole novel hinges on believing in the villain's choice to take those actions. That, in turn, means creating a character whose reality is such that those bad things seem to make sense. After all, the villain is the hero of his or her own story.
Take Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest didn’t think of herself as a bad person. She was the heroine of her own story. And just like a heroine, she had a goal in mind: She knew what she wanted and wasn't going to let it go without a fight. She had motivation driving her toward that goal, and obstacles to overcome in pursuit of it.Here are four reasons why giving your villain a character arc helps your novel:
Believability and drama
A villain who is nothing more than one-dimensional stereotype is neither believable nor dramatic. A one-dimensional character's actions and motivations will be too predictable and, consequently, not dramatic. A meaningful character arc adds dimensions to the character, which gives believability but also unpredictability. Unpredictability creates a sense of threat—you never know what a real person might do, right?—which generates fear for hero and reader alike. Drama shoots way up.
If adding one character arc for your hero gives your novel depth, then surely adding a second arc for the villain will give your novel even greater depth, right? In fact, yes. Even if you put no more thought into it than that, the villain's arc still improves your novel. But if you give it some thought, you have an opportunity to multiply the benefit, rather than merely adding. Why not make the villain's arc work as a logical counterpoint to the hero's arc?
Perhaps the arcs run in parallel, leaving the reader with true ambiguity over who was the good guy and who was the bad guy in the book. That's great when your goal is to show that life is rarely so black-and-white as we like to think. Or perhaps the arcs run in opposite directions: we see the hero start from a low place and rebuild through good choices motivated by all the right reasons, while simultaneously watching the villain start from a high place and fall to ruin through bad choices motivated by all the wrong reasons.
When two arcs have an identifiable structural relationship to them, you create additional depth through the similarities and differences.
Message and meaning
You can also relate two arcs through a common theme as a means to create a deeper meaning for the book as a whole By relating both the hero’s and villain’s arcs to the same underlying facet of the human condition, you can examine that facet from multiple points of view. You allow the novel to present a nuanced consideration of tolerance or responsibility or suffering or whatever common element you choose.
It's not quite heroes-and-villains, but a good example is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In it, we watch a handful of romances begin and develop in different forms, no two alike. Austen uses these to examine the question of marriage from many angles, revealing her own opinions through the fate of her central protagonist, Elizabeth. On one end of the spectrum is young and impetuous Lydia, seduced into a hedonistic relationship with the predatory Mr. Wickham and nearly brought to ruin. On the other is Elizabeth, who overcomes both her pride and her prejudice to see the true goodness of Mr. Darcy, and is rewarded with a fine marriage and great wealth. The others fall in between.
Nowhere does Jane Austen need to beat the reader over the head with the messages “don't be too quick to judge” and “hold out for true love.” It's all there between the lines of the character arcs.
At its root, a character arc represents hope. An arc signals that change is coming, and thus, things may improve. If your give your serial-killer villain a meaningful character arc, then the reader can hope he may change, that he may give himself up before killing again. A character arc offers the tantalizing possibility of redemption for even the blackest-hearted of villains.
Certainly you are not required to redeem the villain simply because he has an arc. But if you’re doing it right, the character arcs will culminate at pivotal moments in the plot, where the characters must choose. A hero who is on an upward arc will choose well and succeed in completing the arc. The unredeemed villain will choose poorly and fail to complete the arc.
Keep it believable
Whichever way you decide to go, the characters' choices must be believable. They must be supported by everything that has led up to them, so readers can look back and understand why the character would make that choice in that pivotal moment. It's a fine line to walk, but as novelist Michael Snyder said in an interview on Author Culture :
As a novelist, you want the reader to experience two conflicting yet simultaneous reactions [to your endings]. They should be saying “Wow, I never saw that coming” and “Of course, sure, yeah, it had to work that way, didn’t it?”
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com.