Note: This post is done in a roundtable style where members of Writer’s Block Party discuss a topic together.
Moderator/Editor: Mara Fitzgerald
QUESTION ONE: Who are your favorite villains of all time and what makes them so great?
Meg: I guess I’ll start that I find the idea of having a favorite villain SO FASCINATING. I think that’s how I have to frame this for myself—villains I find interesting because I don’t think I actually LIKE them (we’re not necessarily supposed to anyway.) But, some villains that I’ve always liked are Ursula from THE LITTLE MERMAID, Darth Vader from STAR WARS, Syndrome from THE INCREDIBLES, Yzma from EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE, Tom Nook from ANIMAL CROSSING (but seriously), Blaine from iZOMBIE, and Katherine from THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.
Most of these are great because they’re complicated. They do bad things, and they don’t necessarily think that it’s bad. I suppose Darth Vader is a bit more classic in that STAR WARS is structured very much as good vs. evil, though I think the newer movies are playing with a grey area. All of these characters have their reasons for doing what they do and they make it more difficult for the main characters to complete their missions. I must admit that I love when there’s a snag in the main character’s seemingly perfect plan. Though, I hate when Tom Nook tells me I owe him 348,000 more Bells for a renovation.
Mara: If I define “great” as “villain I hated the most,” I’m definitely gonna have to say Dolores Umbridge. I think we can all agree she was worse than Voldemort, and it was because of how real she felt. Most of us have not met a Dark Lord, but we have all met an Umbridge. In general, I love Disney villains and I’m not sorry, because they are the most fun. Disney villains can get away with a flamboyance that might be hard to pull off in a YA novel. That being said, there are a couple recent villains of literature that I really enjoyed–Queen Levana from THE LUNAR CHRONICLES, Astrid and Athos from A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC and I found the villain of the upcoming THE BELLES particularly despicable.
Meg: YES! Umbridge is the actual worst! She was terrifying and it was so frustrating every time she made new rules for everyone to follow.
Maddy: Wow, we have all the “M”-name’s here! Okay, so idk if it’s an “M” thing, but I’m definitely with these two on fav villains. Ursula, Darth Vader, Blaine (Blaaaaaine!!!) and Umbridge are all on my list. I literally had an Umbridge in the flesh as one of the administrators at my middle school. Scary, high-pitched stuff. So yes, totally, to her being a more everyday kind of villain.
In addition, Mother Gothel from TANGLED is one I love (/hate). Similar to Mara’s Umbridge theory, I think she stands out because she is the kind of villain people can face in their everyday lives (minus the magic hair/youth stealing). I mean, Rapunzel loves her, even when she starts to realize their relationship is messed up. It’s complicated, and so clearly toxic from an outsider’s view, but Rapunzel’s not an outsider, so it takes her time to see the truth of just how much a villain her own “mother” is. I appreciate how we get to go on that journey with her, and experience how she can hold more than one feeling at once for her mother figure—how Rapunzel sees the horrible things Gothel has done by the end, but still clearly cares enough to be upset when she’s gone—and that’s okay. To me, that couldn’t be more real.
Foody: I love Azula from ATLA, Light from DEATH NOTE, Hisoka from HUNTER x HUNTER, pretty much all the evil characters in GAME OF THRONES, Wormtail in HARRY POTTER, Itachi Uchiha and Pain from NARUTO, Yubaba from SPIRITED AWAY. They all are really different from each other, but I ultimately like them all because none are evil for evil’s sake, but they don’t necessarily care that evil is where they’ve ended up. They are also all terrifying. Azula is unpredictable; Light is brutally intelligent; Wormtail is the betrayal hiding among any of your friends; Itachi is the hero asked to become a villain…etc. All of them make me shiver.
QUESTION TWO: Any story with a protagonist has at least one antagonist (someone or something acting in opposition to the protagonist), but not all stories have Villains with a Capital “V.” What, to you, makes a character a Villain?
Mara: When we were putting this roundtable together, many of our own Writer’s Block Party members declined to participate because they said “I feel like I don’t write real villains!” So I definitely agree that not every story has a Villain, even if there’s a lot of conflict and a lot of things in the protagonist’s way. To me, a Villain is somebody who puts a face on all the troubles the main character faces. Whatever the main character is fighting against, the Villain is a character who embodies all of it. That’s why I love villains who are very, very similar to the main character, but it feels like something went just a little bit…wrong.
Meg: A lot of the characters I enjoy are villains because what they are doing is directly in opposition to who our hero/heroes are supposed to be; however, they are still (usually) characters with feelings and while we don’t agree with what they’re doing, we can see why they are doing it. Villains with the capital V make less sense to me (if villains make any either). I think Villains put themselves first, and where villains could be doing something because they care about someone else, Villains do not. Villains do not care about who they step on along the way to their goal. There’s a lack of remorse and empathy and general conscientiousness for the world and those in it, like Lord Voldemort. I find it easier to actually LIKE villains because they are people somewhere in there, think Klaus from THE ORIGINALS who wants to protect his daughter. Klaus still has a general disregard for people, but not in the same manner as Voldemort, in my opinion.
Maddy: This one’s harder. I’m with Meg in that I think a villain is someone in opposition to our protagonist, but I’ll specify further—to me, a villain is someone whose moral code runs in opposition to the protagonist’s. An antagonist, by contrast, can have a similar set of morals to a protag, but opposing goals (ex: two players on competing sports teams might get along fine otherwise, but because they’re aiming for the same trophy, they’re pitted against each other). Still, they have that potential for reconciliation down the line. A protagonist and a villain have less potential for reconciliation, unless one of them fundamentally changes over the course of the story, because the nature of the protag/villain relationship is that their moral codes are so far apart as to make the divide between them seem insurmountable.
It’s tricky though, because people have different moral codes. So while there are some generally accepted villain types (ex: those who kill/hurt without remorse to reach goals, like Meg said), I think our protagonists, like their authors, will all have slightly different versions of what villains are to them.
Foody: Antagonists come in and out of the story. They may exist for a single scene or a whole book, but I don’t think even being a “core antagonist” makes one a villain. A villain stands for an evil that represents something beyond the story. Voldemort represented a system of pureblood oppression and a disregard for human life. Darth Vader represented an absence of hope as well as totalitarian rule. When you go back into mythology, the villainous gods each represent something–death, chaos, trickery. Even if your antagonist is grand and over-the-top and multidimensional, I call them a villain when they embody a negative force that is thematic of the story itself.
QUESTION THREE: There’s nothing more delicious than a villain who terrifies you to the bone. But villains are often the characters at the greatest risk of falling into overdone tropes and cliches. Poorly done villains can feel trite, incompetent, or gratuitously evil “for evil’s sake.” How do you make a villain feel both fresh and truly threatening?
Meg: Part of making a villain feel fresh is making the story itself fresh—LOL good luck everyone. But, I think when villains feel threatened, that is when they become the most terrifying. I mean, when Voldemort was reduced to a spirit-like thing, he was still coming after a CHILD. One of the scariest moments of THE LITTLE MERMAID when I was a kid was when Ursula is using Triton’s trident to try and zap Ariel on the ocean floor. She’s attacking because Ariel stands in her way, she feels threatened by Ariel and Eric—if she didn’t, why not just be like, “Sea ya” and take the trident and leave?
Anyway though, I think when a villain is ready to take down the hero and pulling out all the stops (like Syndrome trying to kill Mr. Incredible various times) is when they are truly threatening. They see the hero as the one thing standing in their way.
Mara: I think this is really, really hard to do. But I think one thing that can help is to treat your villain like a character first, and a villain second. Most of us don’t say “my main character is going to take this action, because that’s what main characters do!” When our main character is taking an action, we know it’s because of who they are as a person–their history, their personality, their goals. I think a villain who feels like a fully developed person, whose history and personality and goals have led them to do this terrifying stuff, can be much more effective than one who feels like they’re just reciting “evil” lines and kicking puppies. And delving deep into your villain’s head and figuring out what led them on such a twisted path can be a really interesting journey as a writer. You might come up with stuff that makes you scared of your own brain! That’s always a great time.
Maddy: Tap into your own fears/traits in people that scare you. Not overly general ones, like greed or evil, but more specific qualities like…maybe you’ve always been wary of people who care so exclusively about their family that you get the sense they’d become mass murderers for them. Or maybe you’re scared of super smart tech nerds who might hack the world’s internet and hold us ransom. Maybe not that specific, but you get the gist. If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s good–it’ll show.
Foody: The closer we are to the villain, the more insidious they seem. There are a number of ways for your reader to grow intimate with your villain’s character. Backstory is one example–think Episodes 1-3 of STAR WARS, the Darth Vader origin story. Or the betrayal of a character we loved who ultimately becomes the villain. I feel most threatened as a writer and a reader when I understand the villain for who and why they are, because that forces me to follow them into a darker place that is probably more unsettling than the villain themselves.
QUESTION FOUR: Tell us a little bit about your process when creating villains of your own. Do you approach them differently than you approach your other characters? How do you make them complex or relatable even when they’re working against your main characters?
Mara: I would love to know the answer to this question! Let’s be honest–the only reason I’m in this roundtable is because I’m hoping that I’ll somehow absorb everyone else’s knowledge and skills. Usually the reason I’m driven to start writing a story is because of a protagonist who pops into my head, and often their sidekicks appear as well–so the villain is usually one of the last characters to appear, and that means I know the least about them. I’ve been striving to know as much about my villains as I do about my protagonists, and to really make sure there’s something interesting in there–something that makes me want to learn more about them and learn their story. A compelling character is a compelling character, whatever role they’re playing.
Meg: Generally, I don’t think about my villains as different than my heroes. I guess I regard them more as antagonists, which I think is how I’ve been interpreting the lowercase villain so far anyway. I mostly think about my character’s personal motivations—why are they doing X, what would their response be to Y, and what will get them to their desired result Z? If any character is flat in your book, you need to ask yourself why their role matters in the story you’re trying to tell. So yes, make sure motivations are clear. What do your villains (and main characters) want and what are they willing to do to get it?
Maddy: Going with what Mara and Meg said, treating my villains like characters is the method I use. No matter how much I like making them diabolical and fond of shooting birds out of the sky for no reason (Disney strikes again, coughGaston)… my villains feel flat until I treat them like my “good characters” and dive into their backstories, their wants, fears and driving goals. No idea who said it first, but I love the quote “every villain is the hero of his/her own story.” So I usually roll with telling the story how my villains would see it for a bit, and they suddenly become more alive and real/less moustache-twirling-y (clearly I don’t write enough stories full of hipsters and swanky cafes, or the moustaches could probs stay).
Fair warning–my biggest issue with this method is that half the time I end up falling way too in love with my villains. In fact, this method has sometimes led to me turning villains into just antagonists, or even protagonists. Ah well. So while I do write villains in books… sometimes they don’t always stay that way. But I’m cool with that.
Foody: Because I do not (typically) write from the POV of my villains, I sometimes do for myself. Writing is how I get myself acquainted with my characters and what they want and how they think. THE SHADOW GAME series is overflowing with villains, many of whom are after the same ultimate prize but have their own unique ways of playing the game. Even though the narrative of the story only peeks into a few characters’ minds, it helps for me to have bits of free-writing on hand of third parties so I can keep track of who is who, want they want, and what they’re up to…
QUESTION FIVE: Personally, I’m a big fan of retellings of classic stories from the villain’s point-of-view (see: the upcoming Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, a reimagining of Snow White from the perspective of The Evil Queen). What story would you love to see reimagined from the perspective of its villain?
Mara: Okay but has someone done THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE from Yzma’s perspective? Kinda need to know what her childhood was like.
Meg: Yzma’s would be set like 100 years prior probably. And I would absolutely LOVE to see an adaptation of Ursula from THE LITTLE MERMAID, perhaps an origin story?? I’m a sucker for sea witches and mermaids, so I would be on (surf)board for that, 100000%. I also wouldn’t mind a Jafar from ALADDIN origin story. I’d love to know more about how he got to be the royal vizier in the first place and what even led up to that job!
Maddy: YES URSULA AND JAFAR! And also Gaston. But mostly as an excuse to see more Luke Evans having way too much fun with that role.
Mara: URSULA IS A BADASS OCTOPUS WITCH HOW IS THIS NOT A YA NOVEL ALREADY
Meg: Now I want to do it!!!
Foody: I would pick Titus Andronicus, Goliath, Moriarty, Faust, Paradise Lost, any YA adaptation of a Poe story.
“The real villain is yourself.” –Axie Oh, author of REBEL SEOUL