Star Wars’ Darth Vader and Conan’s Thulsa Doom have one thing in common. Well, two, but this blog post isn’t about James Earl Jones. The commonality is that they have strong, powerful villains who strike the audience with fear and hatred.
Building a character beyond the antagonist role, into a true villain is something that brings both challenges and rewards to an author. A powerful villain can bring instant emotional involvement to the audience, in a way that makes them root for your protagonist(s). A powerful villain is memorable and the elements of their character can heighten the audience’s emotional highs and lows as the villain and heroes clash.
The two examples above are from movies, and in movies they have some advantages. They can make use of impressive audio and visual techniques to impress an image on them. In writing, we don’t have that advantage. We can describe the villain, but in that, we need to pick our words with care. Getting overly verbose can distract the reader, while a few quick words can too easily be overlooked. It falls on an author to choose the description carefully and to insert it in such a way as to avoid distracting the reader.
But a description doesn’t tell the whole story. It gives the reader a few words to capture their imagination, but it doesn’t tell them what makes the character a villain. True villany requires acts of darkness and it is this that makes a villain truly vile. As with most writing, showing is better than telling. Don’t tell the reader that the villain has no value for human life… show it. Such callousness is part and parcel for evil characters. A caution here, it is better to make implications rather than dive too deep in such darkness. With small implications, you capture a reader’s imagination. Often the readers can paint a darker idea of the character’s actions than you can describe on paper. Wallowing in such details can also quickly go from tasteless to ghastly. An atrocity is there to remind us what the hero opposes, not for authors to work out latent psychological issues.
Making a villain distinct is the next important area. This is difficult for a number of reasons. Science fiction and fantasy are replete with villains, both well developed and… not so much. The tropes and cliches are such because of the vast scope of the genre. The genre lends itself to powerful, maniacal and insane villains, and you’ll see scores of these chewing on the scenery and sending forth their Legions of Doom. This is where being able to build strong, vibrant characters is important. If the villain feels real and the actions they take seem to follow from their motivations, then the tropes and cliches won’t jar the reader. Making those characters as unique as possible goes a long way towards this as well.
Hopefully this helps you to develop strong, powerful villains in your stories.