Characters are what drive the reader to care about what happens in your story, and all of your characters should be as well-rounded as possible – including the villain. Luckily, there are several techniques you can use to ensure that even the most diabolical villain has a human side.
You might want to know why you need to make the villain more human. After all, he’s the villain, isn’t he? Who cares if he’s human or not? The reason is that the more complex your characters are the better your story will be. That complexity includes the villain. It’s easy to hate a cartoonishly evil character, but by casting the characters in your story in shades of grey instead of black and white, you’ll end up with a more complex, nuanced book.
The first step in making your villain more human is to step into the villain’s shoes. You’re going to need to see things from the villain’s point of view. While it’s true that some people are nefarious sociopaths, many more people imagine that they are doing the right thing however twisted that may be. If we look back at some of the great villains of history, we’ll find that people like Stalin and Hitler firmly believed themselves to be in the right.
So, how do villains think? Many villainous types tend to believe that any means at all justifies their ends. They also do a lot of rationalising about their actions. This is a little bit troubling to think about because this is something we all do. It’s important, however, to move into this mindset as you’re thinking about your villain because you need to find some ways to identify with your villain while you’re developing the character.
A good exercise for getting into your villain’s point of view is to sit down and write a few pages from the villain’s perspective. This can either involve rewriting an actual scene from your story or it can take the form of simply letting the villain have free reign and explain things. This should not be part of the story, of course, but is simply for your own use. Keep in mind that the villain’s point of view doesn’t have to actually make sense. It simply has to make sense from his or her perspective. Most of us live with cognitive dissonance, the ability to hold two contradictory ideas, to some extent. Most villains just do it to an extreme degree.
At this stage, many writers may be tempted to layer in extensive back story to explain why the villain is so evil. For example, an abusive childhood is one common culprit. Because it has become so common to the point that it’s almost a cliché, you would do well to avoid it. In fact, back story can become too much of a crutch. Is your character acting in an inexplicable manner? Throw in a back story to hand wave it away! One danger here is that the story starts to become overloaded with back story at the expense of the plot and narrative drive. If back story is absolutely necessary, think of it the same way you’d think of line-editing your work. Keep it as concise as possible. In considering the psychological motivations of your villain, however, it’s better to keep things rooted in the here and now and thus firmly yoked to the story that you are currently telling.
Another way to make your villain more human is by showing him or her doing ordinary things and interacting with people in an ordinary way. Does your villain have beloved friends and family? A villain who likes to relax listening to jazz on vinyl or looking after his favourite horse is far more interesting and complex than one who sits around torturing insects for fun in his down time. What is your villain’s favourite food? What is your villain’s best memory? These things don’t necessarily have to make it into the story, but it gives you a foundation upon which to build a compelling character.
Give your villain another living being to interact with in a sympathetic way such as a child or a pet. Maybe your villain is a vicious assassin with a weakness for ice cream cones eaten strolling while strolling down the pier because it reminds him of his favourite aunt, the only person who ever loved him. Maybe your villain loves the falcons he raises.
You may also want to think about your villain’s vulnerabilities. What is your villain most afraid of and why? What kind of nightmares does your villain have? What does your villain hide from others?
It’s commonly thought that characters need to be likeable in order for audiences to enjoy reading about them, but if we think about all the infamous villains in movies and books, we can see that this isn’t necessarily the case. What those villains we remember and love to hate generally share in common is that we find them engaging in some way. The more well-rounded your villain is, the more engaged the audience will be with the character.
How will you make your villain more human?