A.J. Hartley here, but fear not: I’m just doing the introduction, and for a man who–unless you live under the proverbial rock–genuinely doesn’t need one, so this will be brief.
Jim Butcher is the author of the wonderfully original and compelling Dresdon Files which originated a decade ago with Storm Front, and centred on Harry Dresdon, a Chicago-based wizard. Jim’s Codex Alera series, which is set in a the fantasy world of Carna, is younger but no less successful. Because as well as garnering rave critical reviews for his imagination, playfulness and talent for action/suspense, Jim is that rarest of fantasy writers, the repeat New York Times bestseller whose books appear even in the generally fantasy-free shelves of the local Piggly Wiggly. There’s no doubt that he has become one of the most influential writers of fantasy, especially uHe is also–and this is really too much–a genuinely decent guy, as I discovered when we were on a panel together at last year’s Dragon Con, since when I have been badgering to share some thoughts with us here at Magical Words. Please welcome, the great Jim Butcher!
One of the most critical skills an aspiring writer needs is the ability to build a solid villain. Even the greatest protagonist in the world cannot truly shine without an equally well-rendered opposition. The converse of that statement isn’t true, though—if your protagonist is a little shaky but your villain absolutely shines, you can still tell a very successful story.
It is for this reason that I believe that an excellent villain is actually more important, from a storytelling standpoint, than is your protagonist.
(I’m using the term “villain” and “antagonist” as synonyms in this article, because I’m writing this for the newbies. In point of fact, a character can be an antagonist without being a villain: look at Tommy Lee Jones’ character in “The Fugitive,” as an overt example. Karrin Murphy, in the Dresden Files, was actually an antagonist in storytelling terms. But that’s adding a few layers of complexity to a character, and it’s important to master the simpler task of building a good villain before you attempt something more complicated. First learn walk, then learn fly. Nature’s rule, Newbie-san, not mine.)
Is this the only approach to putting a villain together? No, of course not. But though it seems simple, that isn’t the same thing as easy.
So what goes into a good villain?
1) Motivation. Your villain has to be motivated even more strongly than your protagonist, to move in a direction that is opposite to your protagonist’s goal. The drama and tension of the entire story is based upon those two opposing forces. Buffy versus vampires. Sith versus Jedi. Spy versus spy.
2) Power. Your villain has to have enough power, of whatever nature, at his disposal to make him a credible threat to your hero. Personally, I believe that the more the villain outclasses the hero, the better. David wouldn’t have gotten nearly the press he did if Goliath had been 5’9” and asthmatic.
3) Admirable Qualities. Every serious “big bad villain” you write ought to have facets of his personality that are desirable, even admirable. Perhaps your villain is exquisitely polite and courteous, extremely perceptive, remarkably intelligent, or possessed of a skewed sense of honor that makes him something more than a simple black-hat. In point of fact, a villain might be loaded down with admirable qualities, all of which should serve to only make him even more dangerous to your protagonist. Think of the Mayor of Sunnydale in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Except for the part where he was trying to turn himself into a giant demon and devour the graduating class, he was a great guy!
4) Individuality. A good villain needs to be instantly recognizable to your reader, so that even if he hasn’t appeared in a hundred pages, your reader will recognize that character instantly. You can achieve this pretty effectively using Tags and Traits, identifiers for a character which reserve particular props, personality traits, and words to associate with any given character. You can find an article that goes into them in greater depth on my livejournal at jimbutcher.livejournal.com.
I have a standard operating procedure for creating characters. I keep a dossier on each of them. When the character is created, I open a new file and fill in name, goal, description, tags, and traits. I write down a brief summary of what their capabilities are, and more fully describe their goals and motivations. If it’s a recurring character, I keep a running log of their development: how have the events of the story world affected them? How have they changed as a result? What are they likely to want in the future?
If you’re going to take anything away from this post, it’s this: Villains are even MORE important to build well than are heroes.
Spend every bit as much time and effort crafting your villain as you do the hero, and make sure that you motivate your villains every bit as thoroughly as you do your protagonist, or your story risks a lack of depth and contrast. In other words, it’ll be the one thing a fiction writer cannot afford to be: boring.
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