While readers want someone they can care about in a protagonist, they also need villains. Villains stir up the circumstances that give readers reasons to care about your protagonists. I like to subject my main characters to a heaping helping of villainy. It takes a villain to make a good read. Or two. Sometimes the more villains, the more memorable the book.
Protagonists need trouble with a capital T
One of the simplest formulas for storytelling goes like this: Stick your central character up a tree. Throw stones at her. Don’t let her return safely to the ground until the very end of the story.
Though some writers tend to fall in love with their protagonists, unlike those we love in real life, we shouldn’t try to protect characters from trouble. Let them skin their knees, encounter a world of trouble, or feel a universe of hurt. Or all three. Every time your character gets picked on, shot at, or dumped on, you’ve given your reader chances to bond with her.
The sky’s the limit for villains
There are limitless possibilities to villainy in stories: Villains who look good; villains who look evil; otherwise well-meaning people who make one villainous choice that wreaks havoc with your protagonist. Villains can also be mostly bad people who do one redeeming thing that helps your pro when circumstances are most dire. Or mostly good people who do one heinous, unforgivable thing. Weather, highways, or even screen doors can also be villainous.
I personally love the villains that James Lee Burke packs into his Dave Robicheaux detective stories. They are interesting and ever-present. Obvious ones like the circus rodeo clown who’s a serial killer and not so obvious ones. That includes people in law enforcement, who see everything in black and white, and yet many times, the law calls for decision-making with deadly firearms in the gray areas.
One of my villains in WHO KILLED ‘TOM JONES’? is Grace’s childhood friend, Happy Henderson, who used to be a mean girl in high school. Now that she’s in her late twenties, she’s still mean. She's just learned to disguise it better.
Writing villains can be cathartic
We all encounter people or organizations or bureaucracies in life who victimize us. Wouldn’t it be great to have a way to get back at them that wouldn’t entail a five-year stint in the state penitentiary?
For me, writing has been that catharsis. If you are going to use a real-life character as a villain in fiction, it’s best to conflate her with a couple of other people. That opens up more character possibilities, too, because she becomes a new person and can do other things that that individual in your mind’s eye couldn’t or wouldn’t do. In WHO KILLED ‘TOM JONES’?, Happy is many former friends all rolled into one buxom but also treacherous babe. Do I still get a lot of satisfaction out of creating her even though I got burned by her real-life counterparts? You bet I do.
Find your inner villain
Stories become really compelling when your protagonist has villainous thoughts or is faced with two bad choices but must make one. Think Sophie’s Choice here for a stellar example. Characters should be tempted to stray from their wives. Or at least think bad things. Characters need to come off as human.
Did you know, for example, that most women tell at least two lies a day? Characters can lie and still be sympathetic because it makes them more human.
While we probably want to steer clear of villains and their villainy in real life (unless you are suffering from some bizarre mental disorder like Munchausen by proxy syndrome), your reader needs villains and obstacles in the stories she reads. Give your readers juicy villains, served up medium rare, topped with crab meat, with a side of sautéed mushrooms. Don’t skimp on the villainy. It truly takes a villain to have a good novel.