On Writing a Villain (for the first time)

I might not be done drafting my current novel, but that doesn’t mean I’m not mulling over the next one in the back of my mind. I’m really excited because it will take place during my absolute favorite time period: the 1700s. I’m going to have a heyday researching the Revolutionary War and colonial customs and dress, and even more exciting, I’ll get to build on the research I did on colonial foodways for my graduate internship. The settings and storyline and characters are slowly coming to life, and I am anxious to start putting them on the page. 

I also did a research project on colonial costume!

I do have one reservation, though. For the first time, I will be writing an actual villain. 

Typically, circumstances are the villain in my novels. Something happens, usually something bad, that forces the characters to adjust and make important decisions. It can be a tragedy, like a significant weather event, or the elements, or it can even be a person who’s just a selfish idiot. But never someone truly evil.

However, the next book will have a character who intentionally tries to trample on the happiness of others. So now I have to get into villain psychology, find out why she acts like this and how to make her sympathetic. This feels particularly challenging for me, a person who doesn’t really have a wild side, let alone an evil streak. But that’s what writing is for, right? For imagining. 

If an audience can’t identify with a villain on any level, it’s not a good villain. A question posed on Twitter today helped: What’s something your villain is RIGHT about? This got me thinking about villains in literature and analyzing their motivations. It got me thinking about villains who are simply misguided normal people. It got me thinking about villains who can’t see reality for what it is and act accordingly. 

It also got me thinking about Disney villains and their sidekicks.

Jafar has Iago. Gaston has Lefou. Ursula has Flotsam and Jetsam. Cruella de Vil has Jasper and Horace. The Evil Stepmother has Lucifer. And McLeach has Joanna (probably my favorite villain sidekick!). Sidekicks are usually bumbling, often cute, and almost always add humor to the story. And I think we harbor hope that maybe the sidekick is simply brainwashed and will switch sides to become good. We love the sidekicks, don’t we?

Oh, Joanna…

As I compared these villains to their evil counterparts, I realized that most Disney villains, at least in the traditional animated films, are purely and fully bad. We don’t get their backstory or why they went to “the dark side” (although I understand that some of the newer, live-action remakes explore these a bit more).

To balance that, enter: The Sidekicks. 

This is a really great juxtaposition for kids, who are too young to understand the nuances of good vs. evil within the same person. It’s like when my daughter asked me about the U.S. Civil War, “So, was the North the good guys and the South the bad guys?” Hold up, little girl. Motivations are complicated, there are good and bad on both sides, and every person has good and bad in them. It’s not an easy conversation for a seven-year-old.

But I’m going to keep this villain-sidekick study in mind as I prepare to write my first “bad guy” (actually, “mean girl”). What’s good and what’s bad inside a single person? How do these propensities battle with one another? Is it as simple as an angel and a devil on everyone’s shoulders? What if these villains and sidekicks were combined into a single entity? How can I make my readers actually like my villain, even if it’s just a little?

I’m definitely looking forward to the creative exercise.

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