Black Hats – Those Bad Guys and Gals in Our Stories

Does every story need a villain? The simple answer is “Yes”, but the not-so-simple answer is actually another question. What is a villain? How do you define the term?

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary tells us that a villain is

a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot

800px-Villainc.svgWe jokingly refer to them as the “bad guys in the black hats”.  In literature classes and creative writing courses, they’re typically called antagonists, the foil to the protagonist whose story is being told.

Most of us met our first villains through cartoons. We heard the music in the background and knew the evil fellow was about to step forward. We watched him tie hapless females to railroad tracks, turn road signs to point in the wrong direction, and hatch other wicked plots to ruin the plans of the main character hero.

In the end, of course, good always triumphed over evil. The villain would slink away, lick his wounds, and silently contemplate his next malicious exploits. Indeed, Saturday morning cartoons wouldn’t have been the same without these over-the-top, melodramatic characters.

Fiction-writing draws upon the same character archetypes as other forms of storytelling — including cartoons – but villains in fiction require a bit more subtlety. Sometimes, in fact, a villain is so subtle, a reader might not see him or her. Villains in the stories we write won’t be stereotypical bad guys in black hats that are easily spotted. Sometimes they’ll be very nice people. The villain of a story can be the main character, or even an animal or inanimate object.

So, to go back to the initial question, yes, every story needs a villain, but not one who’s an obvious caricature of the black-hatted, mustachioed, hand-wringing, snarling villain from Saturday morning cartoons.

To create better villains for your stories, start by understanding the role a villain fulfills. The main character of a story has an objective, a goal he or she is striving to accomplish. The villain’s role is to thwart any attempt to achieve it. In fiction, there are four primary types of villains:

  • If a character’s objective is safety and freedom, the villain is a deadly force — human or otherwise — that threatens the character’s life and liberty.
  • If a character’s objective is acceptance and belonging, the villain is an individual, a social group, or a culture that rejects the character.
  • If a character’s objective is to find truth, the villain is a person or situation that obfuscates, lies, deceives, and hides the facts.
  • If a character’s objective is to find security and stability or to gain recognition, the villain is an individual, a group, or a powerful force to whom the character is subject; the villain has the ability to cause sudden changes in the character’s position.

These are broad groups, of course, and good fictional villains might have qualities from more than one of these areas. This listing is based on broadly-defined objectives. During the course of a story, characters will also have many specific objectives, some short-term, others long-range. This means that in addition to the main story villain, many different characters and situations will step in to cause problems and conflicts.

In the end, however, it’s the main villain that must be faced. Not all stories have happy endings, but all well-crafted stories must have that final decisive moment when good and evil stand face to face. Choices must be made and consequences must be paid.

To keep your villains realistic, remember to keep them subtle. Remember that villains — the human sort, that is — are people, too. They have strengths as well as weaknesses. Most of all, keep in mind that villains must have reasons for what they do.  What is your villain’s objective? How has he or she come into conflict with the main character of the story? What’s at stake for the villain?

The more you know about your villain, the more real he or she becomes, and the stronger your story will be.

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