“Whenever you take on playing a villain, he has to cease to be a villain to you. If you judge this man by his time, he’s doing very little wrong.” -Colin Firth
Everyone agrees that a supervillain should be antagonistic, amoral, willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want, and for the most part, these sorts of villains are easy to write. Darth Vader. The Joker. Sauron. These are terrifying characters that you never forget, but for all their scariness, they are surprisingly easy to write. Put them in a dark suit, give them an army, and strip away every quality that made them relatable, and you have the Dark Lord.
What isn’t so easy is writing a villain who is still a human. The sympathetic villain is still evil, but on an understandable level. With this kind of villain, readers know why they do such horrible things, sometimes even identifying with them, and thus are invested in a whole new facet of the story- that of the antagonist. It is well worth the effort to learn to create sympathy for the villain, for this is the sort of character that first frightens people, then confuses them, and at last wins their unfailing approval. All in all, a humanized villain keeps the audience’s attention and ultimately makes them think.
So here are a few tips on how to humanize your villain. Minor spoilers may follow…
Show them to be human. Honestly, this was the element in The Force Awakens which scored the most points with me. Kylo Ren is a faceless machine and, as Rey says, an inhuman beast. Looking at that dark mask, we remember Vader and hate this new Sith with all our renewed fury. But then this monster pulls off his helmet. When he shows a human face underneath that unfeeling stereotype, Ren ceases to be Vader to us and becomes a person, a real character like Finn and Rey. This, perhaps, makes him even more frightening than Vader ever was, because we realize that even normal young men like this can become bad. That’s why I liked this movie so much better than the others- in just five seconds we see the human side of the villain, something that Lucas’ six hours of prequels were never able to achieve for Vader.
It needn’t be a literal mask that is removed, either. First appearing in the classic Peter Pan, Captain Hook is now well-known for being malevolent and heartless toward little lost children. For crying out loud, he replaced his lost hand with a gleaming sharp hook. He even kidnaps Wendy. What sort of understandable person does such things? But then we realize why- all Hook ever wanted was the same thing that Peter wanted, and that was a mother. It’s a very human, childish thing to do, kidnapping a girl just so she can play mom to an orphaned pirate crew, but even the smallest of children can identify with Hook’s wish. Even as he commits such a vile act as kidnapping, Captain Hook sheds his fierce pirate mask and becomes a human, albeit an evil one.
Give them a cause. Shakespeare understood this when he wrote the play King Richard III. As anti-Richard as he was, he knew that even the infamous Machiavellian humpback needed a motive. People don’t just up and drown their brothers in wine-barrels every day, not without a reason. Why would Richard do such a thing? Shakespeare decided that the unimportant Duke of Gloucester wanted to be the very best he could be, but caught as he was in a web of complex politics and superstition, his only route to greatness lay in villainy. As Richard says in the opening monologue, “Therefore, since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain.”
Again, when I watched the movie Thor (which was so bad that it deserves its own post), I found myself hoping beyond hope that Thor would die and Loki would win. Isn’t that sad? Of course Thor was so flat that it wasn’t worth the effort of redeeming him, but why did I give a fig about his evil little brother? After some thought I realized that Loki, and not Thor, had the one thing which drives a story: a cause. Thor (or perhaps the screenwriter) was too lazy even to find out how to pick up his hammer. Loki, however, wanted to prove himself to the people of his magical star-kingdom-thing, and what is more, he was doing everything in his power to achieve his goal. All discussion on villains aside, that’s what I call a sympathetic character.
Give them the potential to do good. Even my mother, an unflagging critic of all fantasy including The Lord of the Rings, loves the little guy on the left. Gollum wasn’t always a wretched cannibal; he used to be Smeagol. He was a hobbit, good and innocent, with friends of his own. In a thematic sense, he was Frodo. Then the Ring came and corrupted him; but not entirely. He still has the potential to choose between killing and saving. He is truly capable of doing good things, which makes him seem real to us. When he promises to show Frodo and Sam the way into Mordor without being caught, we realize that he has all the bravery of a Halfling, and when he begs for food, we realize that at heart he is still a hobbit. By the end we realize that we care about him, and we cry to ourselves, When did that happen? It happened when we realized that this villain still has potential to be a hero.
Make them afraid. Fear is both a very human emotion and a powerful motivator. Take Lady Tremaine of the 2015 Cinderella movie. She starts as a normal and even likeable widow who has fallen in love with a wonderful guy. She can even forgive his daughter Ella for being so beautiful- “like her mother”. Yet, even before her honeymoon season is over, Lady Tremaine receives word that her new husband is dead, gone away forever, leaving her all alone in the world with no income and three girls to care for. No wonder she is afraid. “Where will we go?” she cries. “What will we do?” Oh, but how convenient that the prince is throwing a ball and will choose himself a wife from among the young ladies there; now all she must do is make sure that no other beautiful young lady, not even Ella, stands in the way of her own daughters. Lady Tremaine is afraid- first of the future, and then of Ella.
Personally, I find that this is usually the key to unlocking the human side of my own villains. When I wrote Son of Ren, it was easy to make Sardar an unethical creep without exerting too much imagination, but I was only able to make him seem human when I realized that he was afraid. In his introductory scene, Sardar acts tall and powerful like “a young lion”, pretending that he has the upper hand, but Elkay can see through his act. Sardar only wants power. He is afraid of losing what little power he has, and this kingdom-building Elkay is a threat to him. When people feel threatened, they are capable of doing many dangerous things.
So that’s my list. Every villain has a human side; we as the writers just need to learn how to bring it out.
How do you humanize your villains? Did I miss any technique that you like to use? Share your thoughts in the comments.