Villains Are Characters Too / Maggie Toussaint

Villains Are Characters Too

by Maggie Toussaint

Writers often use “antagonist” and “villain” interchangeably. Though both labels may apply to the same character, there is a distinction.

An antagonist is a plot role. They aren’t necessarily evil. However, they are opposed to the protagonist, and their opposition drives the story conflict. In short, antagonists spend their time antagonizing.

Villains are a character type, not a plot role. They have evil motivations and actions. A villain isn’t necessarily opposed to the protagonist. According to Merriam-Webster.com, a villain is “a character in a story or play who opposes the hero; a deliberate scoundrel or criminal; or one blamed for a particular evil or difficulty.”

My forthcoming paranormal mystery, Confound It, has a villain and antagonists. In the story, multiple suspects are openly hostile when investigators start lifting the rocks of their lives. As for the villain, he removes his web of associates to stay concealed.

Multiple types of villains exist. The distinction is based on their path to villainy and the rottenness of their deeds. A list of five villain types, as identified by Nancy Kress in her “The Bad Guys” chapter of Dynamic Characters, follows.

  1. Accidental—This villain’s character flaw is fatal and does him in. Often accidental villains feel regret. His fatal flaw remains consistent throughout the story.
  2. Intentional—From the start this guy plans evil deeds. This villain needs texture, layered characterization, and quirks.
  3. Surprise—This character is deeply embedded in the story, often disguised in a supporting role. He has no point of view (POV) scenes. For believability, plant hints that something isn’t quite right. Positive character traits before his evil action (such as charm, looks, and smarts) must mesh with negative perception of the same traits after-the-act (manipulative and self-absorbed).
  4. Over-the-top weirdo—This villain is unrepentant, untextured, and downright abrasive. For best effect, this villain’s evil is pitted against the protagonist’s weakness. A few layered truths about the weirdo in the story will entice readers to believe his over the top actions.
  5. Evil-all-around villain—This villain has no redeeming qualities. He’s evil out of stupidity, weakness, or selfishness. He ruins lives without a qualm.

Writers should craft layered villains complete with goal, motivation, and conflict. Reaching beyond the standard villain “3 Ms” of maniacal laughter, minions and monologues will add to plausibility.

A villain is the hero of his own story. He should have an identifiable human weakness or eccentricity. It’s best if his goal opposes the protagonist’s goal to provide maximum conflict. The hero usually stands in the way of the villain’s goal.

A sympathetic villain has strong motivation and will do anything for his goal, which may be evil. He’s antagonistic, often criminally so, and operates under his own code of honor. Prejudice or society’s mistreatment of him may incite his call to action. Some are prey for truly malevolent forces, a story twist I use in Confound It to raise the stakes.

Psychological, emotional, and story-specific elements help create a strong villain. For best effect, create complex, authentic, sympathetic (if possible), and conflicted villains.

The villain often serves as a character foil to the protagonist. He’s similar in some ways, but each needs an equal depth of character. Therefore, when the villain reveals dark truths, the reader buys into the villain’s character. This psychological challenge is often more memorable than if the villain attacks the protagonist with lethal intent.

The protagonist has fears she doesn’t want to face, but the villain exploits this weakness. Exposing truths the protagonist would rather deny prompts fear in the protagonist. The villain needles the protagonist with these dark truths, creating ongoing story conflict.

By inciting conflict, the villain forces the protagonist’s hand. Their final clash pushes the protagonist into saving the day. In my book Confound It, the villain entraps female sleuth Baxley Powell and forces her into his service. All is lost, or so it seems.

Villains must be stopped in a way that’s worthy of them. Irony and karma are good instruments of destruction. For instance, if a villain diverts a town’s energy to fuel his evil empire, the town should retaliate through his weakness.

Using these techniques, writers can create memorable villains. Readers will talk about that complex character long after the book is finished.

Southern author Maggie Toussaint writes cozy and paranormal mysteries. Confound It, book five in a series, is her latest Dreamwalker Mystery. The next book in the series, Dreamed It, releases June 2019. Maggie also writes a romantic mystery novella series. She’s president of the Southeast chapter of Mystery Writers of America and a board member of LowCountry Sisters In Crime. Visit her at https://www.maggietoussaint.com.


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Thanks to Joseph Borden and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s editorial.