How to write villains as multi dimensional characters

Guest author Haydn Middleton has nearly 40 years of successful writing experience, with seven fantasy novels as well as over a hundred historical children’s books to his name.

Here Haydn stresses the importance of multi-dimensional characters being more than just label of hero or, particularly, villain.

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Name that tune

This is the first time I’ve ever quoted the late Michael Jackson when giving creative-writing advice, but let me kick off this piece by taking you back to late 1987. The funky young artist in question was achieving his eighth #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with an upbeat little single. Its chorus went like this:

I’m bad, I’m bad come on
You know I’m bad, I’m bad come on, you know
You know I’m bad, I’m bad come on, you know
And the whole world has to
Answer right now
Just to tell you once again
Who’s bad

No prizes for guessing this particular song’s title: it’s Bad. And it’s well beyond my remit to go into the issue of whether in 1980s street jargon ‘bad’ actually meant ‘good’. I want to take Michael’s lyric at face value.

And I want to tell you why it so often dances across my mind while I’m reading manuscripts via Jericho Writers for feedback.

Full personal disclosure

Many of the scripts I read fall loosely into the category of fantasy (though I believe what I’m about to say has application right across the genre board), and in many fantasies it tends to be the case that forces of darkness are contending with forces of light: that age-old struggle between Good and Evil.

Now this is all fine as far as it goes. Fiction needs conflict at its heart, and I have no quibble with Good versus Evil as a fictional theme. (I even have form here myself. Between 1995 and 1997 Little, Brown published a trilogy of mine that centred on King Arthur’s traditional nemesis Mordred, who was also possibly the king’s own love child through incest; its first volume was actually entitled The King’s Evil.)

But I do have a problem with the motivation of rather too many fictional villains.

Hundred per cent horrors

You see, it’s relatively easy to grasp why any hero should want to be good/do the right thing/save the world. It’s seldom quite so straightforward to understand why a villain should be so very – well, villainous. And more often than not in the scripts I read, their authors seem to have decided from the off that these villains are just plain badly-behaved, always have been, always will be. They’re not much more substantially-drawn than cartoonish figures like The Joker, who commits whimsical, brutal crimes for reasons that – in Batman’s words – ‘make sense to him alone’.

But why should that be?

In real life, we seldom encounter anyone who’s all bad. We can demonise up to the hilt individuals like Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, but few of us really imagine that in the privacy of their own homes, when they kick back after a hard day’s dismantling of the heath service or plotting to cause the collapse of all British business, they are still out-and-out villains.

Don’t give the game away

And it’s not just a matter of telling and not showing. Writers may go into inordinate detail about what their devilish baddies get up to (and the devil is, after all, in the detail). What they don’t explain anywhere near so fully is why these baddies act up so.

Their villains seem to be bad just for the sheer hell of it. And quite often, while these villains are stirring up seven shades of mayhem for the better-behaved characters, they also, and I would suggest rather implausibly, gleefully declare to all and sundry that they are bad – a bit like Our Michael did in his song.

Messiahs and naughty boys

Now take a look at this tasty little lot of justifiably famous literary villains.

From Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest and Humbert Humbert in Lolita to Annie Wilkes in Misery and Napoleon in Animal Farm, what many of these classic baddies have in common is their three-dimensionality. They have identifiable agendas. None is just being bad in order to spoil the fun for everyone else. Thus their ghastly manoeuvrings make for an even richer, more rewarding read for all of us readers.

Do you know the line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian that’s delivered when a crowd of would-be followers mobs Brian in the mistaken belief that he is their redeemer?

‘He’s not the Messiah,’ his peeved mother yells at them, ‘he’s a very naughty boy!’

The crude (if hilarious) binary nature of this statement seems to me to permeate too many of the scripts I read. Wouldn’t even the naughtiest boys (and girls) be working off the back of some notion that if they ruled the roost, then things would somehow be better? For themselves, for sure, but probably for at least one or two others as well. Or how else are they going to recruit helpers in their bids for world domination?

Villains have feelings, too

My contention is that very few people in life, and therefore very few characters in literature, can simply be explained as bad because they are bad because they are bad. But failing to look into the motivation of villains is not just a modern thing.

To go back a moment to my own Mordred novels: in much of the centuries-old Arthurian literature it seemed to be assumed that since Mordred’s origins were so dark, he was bound to turn out to be a wrongun. Phrased more mellifluously: “a seed sown in darkness is sure to flower in an evil way”.

But hang on a minute, I thought to myself. Give the lad a break. He can’t be expected to take responsibility for the circumstances of his own conception, can he? Maybe, just maybe, he grew up not simply wanting to throw the cosmos into disarray? Maybe he had legitimate hopes and dreams all of his own?

And so, in trying to put a bit of 3D flesh onto the 2D bones of a standard off-the-peg ‘villain’, I found a way to draw what I hoped was a more fully-rounded, more plausible picture of this person. And that in turn made Mordred’s eventual locking of horns with King Arthur at the climactic Battle of Camlann potentially all the more intriguing.

So 3D is better than 2D.

They say that the devil has all the best tunes.

What I’m suggesting here is that when you create a devil of your own to cavort across the literary stage for the delectation of your readers, it’s probably not a bad idea to supply him with a rather more complex set of lyrics than just:

I’m bad, I’m bad, come on you know I’m bad!

Haydn is one of our editors available to give editorial feedback and advice on your manuscript. 

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