Saturday, February 10, 2018

Writing a Meaningful Villain // Maddie Morrow

Today I have Maddie Morrow on the blog who takes over starting ... now! The Joker to Batman. President Snow to Katniss. The Wicked Witch of the West to Dorothy. All very different characters, but one main purpose: Be the villain.

In books and movies, we love these characters (or I should say, hate them). They drive the story forward: Thwarting our beloved hero at every turn, terrifying us with their cruelty, tugging at our heartstrings with their tragic past. Without them, there would be no story.

Who wants to read about a girl named Katniss who lives in Panem, where the government is kind and stable, there’s plenty of food, and nobody dies?

There’s no reason to destroy the One Ring if there’s no Sauron trying to wield its unbridled power.

Tessa would have never met Will Herondale in The Clockwork Angel if the dark sisters hadn’t kidnapped her for the magister first, and that my friends would be the greatest tragedy since Jack didn’t survive in Titanic.

So what makes a good villain, and how do we write one? This is a question I struggled with for years before a lightbulb came on. Here’s a few of the things I’ve discovered when it comes to writing meaningful, dastardly devils.
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, but it really cannot be said enough. Without a goal, your character is just evil for the fun of it. Very rarely is anyone evil just for the fun of it. They need a goal. A strong one.  I’m going to use Disney’s Cinderella for an example, because I feel like at this point everyone should know the story (If you don’t, what have you been doing your entire life?), and no one will be terribly upset about spoilers. The writers could have just made the stepmother a jerk because Cinderella wasn’t her biological child. Plausible, yes, but it doesn’t add any depth to the story. However, when we realize that the stepmother’s goal is for one of her own daughters to marry Prince Charming, then we have a goal that adds something to the story. Now not only are they horribly mean to her, now they’re actively plotting against her, trying to keep the prince from finding her, and trying to convince him that the ugly sisters are actually the girl he danced with at the ball. A goal creates that tension that fuels the story, the back and forth battle that makes the hero’s final victory so sweet. It’s not special that the hero wins if the villain never fought them. A goal can also carry into a sequel, like in Cinderella II. Cinderella was already engaged to Prince Charming. Think she’s won, right? Not so fast. Stepmother got the magic wand. Now she can make Anastasia look like Cinderella, and hypnotize Prince Charming, still trying to achieve her goal. The battle begins.
Backstory gives us a reason for why the villain is evil. It also makes them more relatable, which we’ll talk about in the next point. In the TV show Revolution, we immediately find out that Sebastian Monroe is the leader of the Monroe Republic, and he’s a bad dude. Throughout the series though, we learn more and more about what led him to this point. We see how he idolized Miles Matheson. He didn’t have any family left. Miles was all he had. They were best friends. Miles was harsh, and not afraid to kill and hurt people. We get to see how Monroe starts to copy him. A good choice? Not at all. Does it take away from the fact that what he’s doing is bad? Nope. It does show us how he started though. Making small bad choices based off his love for Miles, that snowballed into the villain we saw on the screen. His backstory also gave us his tipping point. It showed us a few bad choices, and then we find out that Miles tried to assassinate him, and then abandoned him, and it all makes sense now why he’s got such a burning hatred for the man who used to be his friend, as well as why he knows anything about Charlie and her family.
Villains that are relatable stir up emotions in your readers, and that’s exactly what you want. At face value, I can’t relate to Gollum from The Hobbit at all. I don’t talk in riddles, wear rags, have a split personality, or eat things raw. However, when we find out that Gollum was once a person-like creature, who happened to find the ring, he becomes more relatable. We can understand greed, what might make him want to keep the ring for himself, and not let anyone else see it. We’ve all been greedy at some point. We can understand the fear and guilt that drove him to the caves after killing his friend (though I hope none of us have ever killed their friend. You get my point). Then he becomes relatable. Even though we still think he’s a sick, creepy little troll, we can feel empathy toward him. Maybe even sympathy. And suddenly the reader is conflicted. This guy is a creep. He kills people, and talks to himself. Yet here we are feeling sorry for him, because the ring has taken over his mind and reduced him to a sniveling little blob, who has no friends, so he has to talk to himself. Neat, huh?
A bad boy does not a villain make. I’ve seen this in a lot of first drafts when I beta read, and in a lot of my old stories. There’s a character (usually one with black hair, who wears a leather jacket, and probably rides a motorcycle) who is annoying. He probably teases the poor sweet girl in school. He might smoke cigarettes in the parking lot. He’s a bad boy for sure, but he never gets developed past the annoying stage. Lots of people in my life annoy me, but they don’t graduate to the role of antagonist unless they try to oppose me. It’s not enough to have a character get on your main character's nerves. They can move past annoying without batting an eyelash. Make the bad boy step up his game. Maybe he breaks into the damsel’s locker, stealing her answers off the test, and then changing hers so she fails, because he’s jealous of her perfect scores while he can’t get good enough grades to make the football team. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you conflict. Now we’ve got an antagonist. Our dear sweet girl is going to try and figure out who sabotaged her test, and the bad boy is going to do everything in his power to keep from getting found out. The hunt is afoot.
There’s three different types of villains, in my opinion. The first is the bad guy who knows he’s bad and he’s alright with it. Villains like Black Beard and Davey Jones in some of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

The second type, is the villain that knows he’s bad, but thinks the ends justify the means. Back to Cinderella’s stepmother; it wasn’t bad for her to want the prince to marry one of her daughters. He was looking for a wife, after all. Any mother would hope her girl would be the one to catch his eye. So she has a good goal, but she was willing to do evil (lock up Cinderella, let the girls destroy her dress, etc.) to accomplish the goal.

The third villain is the scariest in my opinion. The villain who thinks he’s a good guy. Villains like this are how we get Adolf Hitler. The man honestly believed he was doing some divine work by eliminating “lesser” races. The rest of the world saw him as the murderous, vile, creature that he was, preying on thousands of innocent human beings. A fictional example would be Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He’s a self-righteous fiend, who is under the impression that he’s doing the right and holy thing by killing gypsies and keeping Quasi locked away. A villain like this can really up the shiver factor for your story.
Nothing kills me more than the villain with hordes of mindless followers. Make them something worth following, in some twisted way. Take Tess Tyler from Camp Rock. (I’ve got little sisters, cut me a break.) For some reason Ella and Peggy follow her around like puppies, while she constantly degrades them. She never gives them anything in return for their loyalty. They gain the very shallow satisfaction of being one of the ‘cool girls’ but at the cost of being ridiculed constantly. Why? Make your villain have something appealing to the minions who follow them. The YA Western Dystopia I’m working on right now features a villain who is in charge of the largest gang in Cody, WY. He’s a ruthless killer, yet the men in his gang follow him. Why? Because I’ve given him something they want. He supplies them with the best food and water, the best housing, the prettiest women, and the easiest means to make ammunition. As long as they follow his orders, they can raise all the heck they want without reprimand. That’s appealing to them, so they don’t care if he shoots someone, or lies and cheats. Give your villain something that makes them a leader. Your readers will thank you.
Not all antagonists are truly villains. If two guys are trying out for starting quarterback, they immediately become each other’s antagonist. Neither one is evil, but they stand in the way of the other’s goal. One boy might try to spend extra time with the coach, or have his dad call and pull some strings to get him a better chance at starting. The second boy might have to work an afterschool job to help support his single mom and siblings, so he doesn’t have time to practice extra, and he doesn’t have a dad with connections. It doesn’t make the first boy a villain, just an antagonist, standing in the way of what our underdog hero wants. Sometimes this kind of character is what your story needs, more than a snarling, treacherous monster.

A huge thank you to Maddie for that awesome post! Here's some more about her and her closing questions:
Maddie Morrow is a Nebraska farm girl who puts way too much emphasis on Husker football. When she’s not arguing play calls, you can probably find her poking around in the garden, begging her flowers to grow, chasing her little boy around, or looking for tasty new things to feed her husband. Some of her hobbies include getting lost in books, trying to scribble out stories of her own, admiring her guitar collection and sometimes playing them. You can connect with her at her blog,
Also, a special thanks to Abigayle for having me on the blog today. It's been great spending time in her corner of the Internet.
How about you? What do you think makes a great villain? Who is your favorite fictional baddy? Drop a note in the comments section. I’d love to chat.

Abi again! Wasn't that a great post?! Last week I asked how long you guys thought it took me to write the MH birthday post ... my estimation is around 11 hours o_o That's with having to create some images, set up the Etsy shop, film the vlog, set up the giveaway, etc etc ;) The giveaway is still open!


  1. I like what you say about antagonists vs. villains. Most of my stories don't really have villains, but there are definitely those people that have constricting view with my MC. :D

    1. I think plain old antagonist can be really fun! As a reader I always feel conflicted because I want the MC to win, but the antagonist isn’t bad, so I like him too! :)

  2. Great post Maddie! I especially love the 'let him think he's good' My favorite villain motivation.

    1. Thanks Skye! I like that one too, even though it terrifies me.

  3. This is a great post! The "let him think he's good" is one of my favorite villain tropes ever. It is done SO WELL in the book Vicious by VE Schwab.

    1. Thank you! I love it too. I’ve never heard of that one. I’ll have to look into it.

  4. Bad boys can be really fun to write... I would like to think my personal bad boy is definitely a villain.
    What's really interesting is when the bad boy is right and the protagonist is wrong...
    Great post!!!

    1. Yes they can! I’m a sucker for a good bad boy, and they can definitely double as a villain. Oh wow! That sounds really cool!


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