When I start plotting a story, I do not think of the protagonist first. For me, it is always the antagonist, the nemesis, the villain who needs to be characterized to their fullest extent before I begin writing. Most of you will agree with me when I say that it is the villain that is the backbone of any tale. In fact, without the villain, the protagonist wouldn’t have anything to do! The hero’s bravery is only justified by how well they can vanquish the bad guy (or gal).
Here I shall be talking of a few things that can help create a memorable baddie. This is mostly the way I tend to go about it, and everyone is welcome to have contrary thoughts.
Come Up with a Nice Snarky Name for the Villain
The name has to be perfect. Authors spend a lot of time thinking of their villains’ names, and that is an absolute must. See the hidden (and not so hidden) meanings behind some of these wonderful villains:
- Voldemort (from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books) — This breaks down into vol-de-mort, which could be construed as ‘flight of death’ or ‘theft of death’ in French. There’s an immediate connect between the name and the character.
- Dolores Umbridge (from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books) — Another Rowling gem. We know that ‘dolor’ means pain and ‘umbrage’ means an expression of utter anger. Perfect character fits, right?
- Bellatrix Lestrange (from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books) — Rowling is sheer genius when it comes to christening her characters, without a doubt. Just look at how many words are put in this name to establish the character — ‘tricks’, ‘strange’ — and these are interspersed with ‘bella’, which means ‘beautiful’!
- Hannibal Lecter (from Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs) — There is no way anyone can miss out on the ‘cannibal’ reference here, and this is smartly juxtaposed with ‘lecter’, which immediately has a scholarly vibe to it. In fact, this oxymoronic name was what gave Sir Anthony Hopkins a reference point to play the character on screen. Subsequently, Hannibal Lecter became not only one of the top villains in the literary world but also the movie world.
- Professor Moriarty (from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books) — This name starts with ‘mort’ which refers to ‘death’ and then we have ‘art’ which displays a kind of intelligence. It fit the character to the T, who was indeed the archenemy of Sherlock Holmes, eventually leading to his death.
- Duryodhana (from Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata) — In Sanskrit, ‘dur’ is a prefix for anything that’s bad, and ‘yoddha’ means ‘soldier’, which is exactly what this brave but terribly misguided cousin of the Pandavas was.
Even in my own book Maya’s New Husband, the name of the villain, Bhaskar Sadachari, is a play on words. This character, who has a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality within him, is as gentlemanly as he can be in the daytime and monstrous at nights. Hence, ‘bhaskar’ which means ‘the sun’ and ‘sadachari’ which means ‘good behavior’. At first glance, the name evokes a noble character, even a pious one perhaps, but it brings to mind a question — what does he do when the sun goes down?
Give the Villain a Setting of Their Own
It could be a lair or a prison cell or a hideout, but a villain does need to have their own sanctuary, a place that is different from the rest of the world around them. Make this place fit their character. You could choose to make it bleak and dark or not, depending on the nature of your story. However, if you do make it dark, it will add to a brooding quality to your villain. It will right away demarcate the fact that your villain lives in an atmosphere of their own, which is different from the rest of the world.
When I chose an abandoned garage that could only be accessed by climbing up a pile of cars and jumping down a hole in the roof, I built a personal sanctuary for my villain for his dastardly acts. It instantly set him apart from the rest of the world outside and painted him as different.
We know of a particular real-life villain who lived in an underground bunker and the terrors he committed there. Even a mere thought of that can send shivers down the spine.
The hideout of the villain also plays an important plot role, especially whenever unsuspecting people stumble into it. The very fact that someone who doesn’t know a thing has stepped into the spider’s web can keep the readers glued to what happens next.
Most of the James Bond movies are about the master spy trying to infiltrate into such villain domains. Why do you think they work so well? They do because everyone wants to in on the thrill of stepping into forbidden territories.
Give Your Villain Typical Mannerisms
Villains, especially the arch-villains, are not like ordinary people. Their mind behaves differently and they have quirks that most of us won’t have. I would highly recommend everyone to get acquainted with the multitudes of villains in the D. C. Comics series, especially in the Batman stories. Right from The Riddler to Scarecrow to Penguin to the quintessential one, The Joker, every villain is laden with layers and layers of typical mannerisms. Some people might call this exaggerated villainry, but it is good to seek inspiration from.
The mannerisms are also what set your villain apart from the rest of the crowd. You could use them for an added thrill in conversation and can also incorporate them in major plot points. Once you have these behaviors pat down, there is no end to how you could use them.
Give Your Villain a Shady Past
A secret is always interesting. It makes people sit up and take notice when it is revealed. By secret, I do not mean a flashback which justifies the villain’s actions. That is something we must avoid as much as possible. If you justify your villain’s actions too much, you are watering them down and reducing the impact drastically. But, it could be a secret that could add to the character more. Remember how the world reacted when Voldemort’s secrets of the Horcruxes came tumbling out? Yes, we need such wow moments in our work!
Now, what past you create depends on the nature of your villain. But I strongly suggest creating this backstory before you start writing your book. The backstory, even though it is revealed much later in your book, it will help you drive the plot forward in the most plausible way.
As an endnote, I would like to say that though you keep these points in mind, it is necessary to keep your villain unique. Work with the elements and come up with something original. Steer away from cliches, because that will kill your villain before the hero can.