I've been thinking about villainy lately. This is, obviously, coming in part because Halloween is around the bend, and I'm planning myself a villainous costume. More on that next week. ;)
But also because, after Halloween, comes National Novel Writing Month, and I'm in prewriting right now for the book I'm going to be working on. This book has a villain, and I needed to get into this villain's head, discover motives, and plan moves to counter my hero. I had to think as though my main character is the villain (which is fun) because I want this villain to be strong.
After all, a hero is often only as strong as his/her villain. Who would Harry Potter be with Voldemort?
So, yes, I want my villain to be strong.
But then I got talking to a roommate and she started giving me advice on making my villain relatable, even likeable, and I found myself pulling back. As a writer, I've heard every piece of advice about how I should give my villains soft spots, or tragic backstories, to make them more human to readers. So why was I rejecting that idea?
Why wouldn't I want a villain readers may like?
Okay, I don't think this villain is entirely unlikable. I think this person is smart, cunning, and interesting, with a unique worldview. My villain is my monster, though, and you're supposed to like your own little monster. I also hate my villain with everything inside me.
And I think that's okay.
I've seen unlikable villains done before and I think the writers chose wisely. Anyone here seen the TV show Leverage?
Great show. Highly recommend.
This show is about a team of thieves who take down the rich, powerful, corrupt, and manipulative. The people the Leverage team go up against are awful, awful people. They use their lawyers and money to cow innocent people into silence. They break laws when they can get away with it, but more often they bribe, lie, cheat, and hide evidence in ways that are legal, but hurt many, many people. They are atrocious, nasty, unlikable villains, and they have to be.
Why? Because the Leverage team ruins them.
The Leverage team takes the villains down past rock bottom, destroying the villain-of-the-week's reputation, business, everything. If we liked the villain, this would seem horrible and cruel. But since we hate the villain, we root for the team and feel satisfied when they take this piece of human garbage down.
A likeable villain is a good thing, in most cases. But if my villain is likeable, or has some kind of tragic backstory, then when my hero takes them down the story becomes, in part, a tragedy. Part of the satisfaction of the good guy winning ebbs. The tone of my book, the kind of story it is and the characters I have...I don't think this is what I want.
So, do I really not want my villain to be likeable? Kind of. Of course I want this person to be human, and relatable, not some mustache-twirling cardboard cut-out stereotype. However, I've been drawn lately to villains who are bad, know it, and don't care, and I think this is the kind of person who would fit my story best. No tragic backstory needed, not in this case. I'll let my villain charm readers with their nasty, clever personality. It's been done before.
*cough cough* Moriarty.