If you’re like me, villains are the most fun characters to write, and the majority of the writing time for a short story is spent on developing them. Some people, on the other hand, really hate writing bad guys – they minimize them and work with general archetypes to create a sense of evilness. However you prefer to depict your purveyors of villainy, you need to make sure that they’re consistent in their evil deeds of derring-do. It’s relatively easy to keep the ethics of your heroes, Prince Charmings, and lovable rogues consistent – figuring out their motivations and deciding how they would act in any given situation based on those motivations doesn’t take too much work. Villains, on the other hand, can be more difficult. Too often, it’s easy to fall into the habit of making them do all sorts of outrageous things just because “they’re evil.” Not all villains are Antichrists, Davros, or Morgoth (of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion); they’re not all going to commit every possible horrible crime. Most villains have their own ethical code of sorts that dictates what actions they will and will not take. The demonic hitch-hiker in my short story Odd One Out, for example, would have no qualms in killing a young couple in love, but he wouldn’t go anywhere near a hooker, because that kind of person doesn’t interest or bother him. Star Trek‘s Khan would torture and destroy the crew of the Enterprise to get revenge on Kirk, but he wouldn’t harm his own crew. Villains should and do have complex motivations for their actions, and it’s your duty as a writer to figure out those motivations and make sure the character stays true to them.
I spend a lot of time developing a consistent internal ethic for each of my villains, probably because I enjoy writing them so much. The way I make it work is that I conduct an interview of sorts with them. I have a list of questions that I mentally go through at the beginning of a story to figure out the level of “evilness” with my bad guy or gal. I start by discovering the character’s motivation for what they do: what events in their personal history led them to seek the goals they’re pursuing in the story or novel? What acts do they accomplish to achieve those goals? Then I ask the character (yes, they actually talk to me – that’s how my creative process manifests) if there were any “evil” acts they chose to not commit during their rise to villainy, or any specifically “good” acts they did commit, and I try to figure out exactly why they acted the way they did. Aelin murdered his father, but why did he nearly sacrifice his own life to save the child drowning in the lake? Rita stole a diamond from the local jeweler, so what made her drive back to the Food Lion to return the extra $2 in change the cashier gave her? These are the kinds of questions I grapple with when developing my designated villains. Once I have the answers, I know what makes them tick, so to speak, and it will help me develop a course of action for each of them in their stories. Sometimes, I still need to ask them if they actually would take a certain action in the course of the story, but I usually know what’s going on without having to take too much time to work on it. Yes, it takes a lot of work, but it keeps my characters consistent and helps me as the writer stay true to their motivations. It also helps me avoid the stereotypical megalomaniac villain problem. What works for you?