Crafting a believable, versatile, and three-dimensional villain is as important as your protagonist or main characters.
An underdeveloped antagonist will:
- Expose gaping plot holes in your manuscript.
- Flatten the motives of your main characters.
- Slow down your novel’s structure & pacing.
- Force your audience to lose interest.
Conflict drives the narrative. Without conflict, there’s no story. Who wants to read 300 pages about your main character who has a pristine, idyllic life where nothing bad or uncomfortable happens? NO ONE.
I mean, honestly, are you even a writer if you don’t utterly destroy your character’s life before putting it back together in a way that leaves them emotionally traumatized?
OK, maybe it’s just me…but I digress.
That. Shit. Is. Boring.
It’s boring in real life, and it’s snooze worthy in a novel. You’ll never succeed at captivating your audience with lackluster, poorly developed ancillary characters. While it’s essential that your readers care deeply about your protagonist, it is equally vital that your antagonist or villain is not only hated but has believable counter aims to combat your protagonist’s goals.
No one enjoys an antagonist where their only purpose is to block the protagonist’s success.
What’s worse than a producing a boring novel? You will lose the trust of your audience for not delivering on your promise of an amazing book.
So, who is an example of an exceptional, well-rounded villain? You-Know-Who, of course!
Characteristics of Voldemort
Any great Villain is three dimensional. But what does that actually mean?
Well, for starters it simply means that they need positive traits. They can’t be one hundred and ten percent evil. They need good attributes as well.
And conversely, these good attributes should directly influence their negative qualities. You know, the whole every action has an equal and opposite reaction? This applies to the stories and characters you create as well.
Frankly, if you want your readers to suspend disbelief, and fully immerse themselves in the world you created for them, this is essential.
So, what do we know about Tom Riddle that is “good”?
Well, for starters, one of the first things we learn about him is…
He is a great wizard.
Mr. Garrick Ollivander said it early in the series,
“After all, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great.”
Tom Riddle, later known as Lord Voldemort, later known as He Who Must Not Be Named, showed remarkable talent from an early age.
Not only was he intelligent, he was superiorly gifted as well. It’s mentioned several times throughout the series that Voldemort pushed the boundaries of Dark Magic and likely discovered or delved into higher levels of magic that no one else had used or could. Love to hate him, but clearly, he harnessed an enormous amount of strength to pull off the things that he did in his life.
In general, before young wizards and witches are of age to go to a magical school like Hogwarts, they are a well of untapped magical ability.
As a result of being a vessel with unharnessed magic, non-muggle children had unpredictable bouts of magical expression. While these fantastical events were triggered by something that would bring about an intense reaction like fear or anger, its outcome isn’t predictable or premeditated. It’s more of an afterthought or a hiccup.
In an early scene in the Sorcerer’s Stone, with Harry and the vanishing glass at the Zoo, Harry didn’t will the glass to disappear. It was an involuntary reaction to being jabbed in the ribs and knocked over by Dudley.
Voldemort, however, figured out how to control his abilities to his advantage to deliberately do his bidding(well before he ever attended Hogwarts or even knew what a spell was).
Especially to those who crossed him.
“I can make things move without touching them. I can make animals do what I want them to do, without training them. I can make bad things happen to people who annoy me. I can make them hurt if I want to.”
– Tom Riddle, Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince
And because of his brilliance, he in turn becomes…
Arrogance is a fairly common, predictable result of being particularly talented or gifted. If your antagonist is some type of evil genius, you would do well to show that they are also arrogant, and use that as a plot device for their inevitable fall later in the story. It wouldn’t make much sense if you had a humble evil genius.
If they are humble, some type of crisis needs to happen to change this personality trait.
For example, in the transformation of Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley into Poison Ivy, Dr. Isley is a gifted botanist who keeps to herself until a failed attempt on her life changes her perspective. This crisis, in turn, sparks the creation of the supervillain, eco-terrorist Poison Ivy.
After Tom Riddle joined the magical world at Hogwarts, most who came in contact with him in his formative years(with the exception of Dumbledore) were enamored and in awe of the young wizard’s abilities. Going from a lonely orphan with no family, and no real friends, to some hot shot prodigy, definitely worked a number on Tom Riddle’s development and psyche. Maintaining an air of arrogance about his abilities also enabled Tom to fit in easily with his fellow Slytherins, and eventually garner followers later in life.
By emulating a larger than life, fake it until you make it mentality, it made Tom susceptible to making stupid mistakes with unimaginable consequences:
“I miscalculated, my friends, I admit it. My curse was deflected by the woman’s foolish sacrifice, and it rebounded upon myself. Aaah … pain beyond pain, my friends; nothing could have prepared me for it. I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost … but still, I was alive. What I was, even I do not know … I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death. And now, I was tested, and it appeared that one or more of my experiments worked … for I had not been killed, though the curse should have done it. Nevertheless, I was as powerless as the weakest creature alive…”
– Voldemort, Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire
Dumbledore himself, an equally great wizard, warned of the pitfalls of believing the lie of one’s own greatness:
“I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being — forgive me — rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger”
— Dumbledore, Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince
As you can see, this is an excellent example of a positive and negative trait cohesively working together to strengthen the character dynamic of the villain.
Remember, Villains or Antagonists are people.
Their bad behavior is justified in their mind.
Likewise, no one is born evil, so it would do well to show their humanity.
Giving your villain relatable traits that take them on a path gone awry is a key ingredient to crafting a truly evil or dangerous antagonist.
I hope this gives you a LOT to think about when crafting believable villains.
Be sure to check back next week for Part 2 in the Crafting Villains series!
Who is one of your favorite villains and why?
How do their positive traits reinforce what makes them evil?
Let’s chat in the comments!