Fictional villains—just like real ones—have reasons for what they do.
When I was in sixth grade, I went to girl scout camp for two weeks. I ended up in a cabin full of girls who were all older than me, all knew each other, and had already formed their own clique.
I tried everything to get on these girls’ good side. I went along with their decisions about who got which bunk, how we would line up for meals, and which celebrities it was acceptable to have a crush on. I laughed at their jokes and tried not to feel left out when they talked about kids from their school or teachers they hated or places they knew.
Still, I spent most of my free time by myself. One day when I was alone in the cabin, I got the great idea to tidy it up.
I thought I was being nice. I thought my cabinmates would appreciate my efforts.
I thought wrong.
I accidentally put one girl’s Tiger Beat magazine in the wrong place. When she returned and couldn’t find it, she accused me of stealing it. The magazine was soon found, but the damage was done. I was labeled a thief and the other girls stopped talking to me for the rest of camp.
I didn’t try to defend myself, and maybe that was my mistake, but really, what was there to say? I thought it was obvious that I hadn’t taken the magazine and in fact, the other girls should have praised me for picking stuff up off the floor. But from everyone else’s perspective, I was a villain, even though I had done nothing wrong and everything right.
The same thing is true of fictional villains. They have reasons for what they do, and those reasons have to make sense not only to the bad guy, but to the reader. The antagonists do what they do not only for their own selfish reasons but for what they perceive as the greater good. Even Hannibal Lecter killed people who were (in his opinion) worse than he was, thus lowering the world’s total quota of evil.
When I was a brand-new baby writer, I once got back a critique from a writing contest. The judge said of my antagonist, “What’s his motivation? Is he just evil?” I thought, um…yeah. Isn’t that what villains are?
Well, no. A good antagonist has motives as strong and worthy as the protagonist’s. The reader, and even the hero, must (just for a moment) almost believe that the villain is correct.
One writing teacher even suggests outlining the entire novel from the antagonist’s point of view. Although I’ve never quite gone that far, I’ve found that time spent developing my antagonist benefits every other aspect of the book. After all, no one, wants to be evil.
Sometimes, we just want to tidy up the cabin.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes novels under the pen name M.H. Mead. She’s finally learning not to clean up other people’s messes.