We’ve been talking character arcs at SNW, so I wanted to bring out once special kind of arc: the villain arc. A good villain can really elevate your story, so take the time to fully develop all sides of your antagonist. And then think about what makes him dynamic.
The Backstory Arc
Usually, the main part of a villain’s arc takes place before the story even starts. By the time a true villain meets your hero, she’s already been transformed from an ordinary person into the story’s antagonist by means of the painful event in her past that warped her morality and/or view of the world. Often, villains act from a place of pain, or fear or weakness. It will help you write her with depth and subtlety if you take the time to trace out that arc – even though most of what you uncover won’t wind up in your story.
You can give the reader small bits of your villain’s painful backstory to help explain why the villain acts as he does. Real people have reasons for their actions. It is not enough to say that a character does bad things because he likes being bad. There has to be something he’s getting out of it that salves a psychological wound or works towards a goal he’s building. He needs to have a reason for that goal.
Why is he trying to amass a ton of money? Maybe he grew up poor and money in his mind equals security.
Why does she want absolute power? Maybe she really does think she knows the best way to orchestrate society/the company/the family.
Why is he trying to ruin your protag’s reputation? Maybe he believes your protag (or someone with similar qualities to your protag) wronged him in the past.
Why is she murdering people? Maybe she never developed empathy as a child and later experienced a traumatic break.
Now you try to come up with a completely different answer to each of those questions. Make it as specific as possible, using logic that makes sense for a specific villain. Just remember – the more dramatic/socially unacceptable your character’s actions, the more thoroughly the reader will need to understand the WHY of those actions.
This can add moral complexity to your story, if even your hero doesn’t see the villain as completely evil. It’s intriguing if your hero can understand the villain’s twisted logic, unsettling if he momentarily forgets he can see the flaws in it.
A story that explores the backstory of a villain’s arc is that villain’s origin story, and can be told from the future-villain’s point of view. In a series, a villain’s origin arc can be layered into the narrative, even if another protagonist/antagonist pairing is the center of the story.
The In-Story Arc:
Characters are never static. The events of the story have an impact on everybody involved. (As Blake Snyder puts it, “Everybody arcs!” In this case, the events of the story are going to exert pressure on the villain’s belief system, prompting change, just the same as for the hero. Just as the protagonist has a flaw to overcome, so does the villain. Only, unlike a hero, a villain usually doesn’t respond to that prompting. Refusing to change is what leads a hero towards a tragic ending – and in the end, it is usually what causes the villain to lose. Even so, the best villains are transformed somehow by the interaction.
The villain may wind up becoming an even worse person – or she could be redeemed. This often happens when the plot slowly reveals to the antagonist that what she believed early on about the hero, about the villain’s own employers, about the world in general, or even about herself is simply not true. The reason she is opposing the hero falls away, and she may even wind up switching sides by the story’s end. The most difficult part for this type of villain is admitting that she was wrong, and confronting having done horrible things in the name of what she mistakenly thought was good. Personally, this is my favorite type of villain.
If you want the reader to be on board with a villain’s redemption arc, you’ll want to give them a subtle hint early on. It’s a variation on Snyder’s “Save the Cat,” moment. You take the same idea – in Snyder’s example you’re introducing an unlikable protag or less than heroic hero, and you want us to like him, so you literally or metaphorically have him save a cat from a tree. Someone kind enough to do that – we’ll follow him as he arcs towards becoming a true hero, even if he slips up from time to time. So you do the same thing with the villain – shortly after you introduce him, give him a moment where he does something noble, even if it feels slightly out of character, and we will spend the entire story waiting for that glimmer we spotted to be realized as a transformation.
The opposite of the “Save the Cat,” is the, “Kick the Dog.” If you want a villain to be redeemable, it is a mistake to have him literally or metaphorically kick a dog (i.e., harm or take advantage of an innocent) early on. It may be tempting to do so, just to prove how evil he is starting out, to heighten the dramatic change in his arc, but many of your readers will never forgive him that first negative act.
This has to do with first impressions. We make snap judgements about fictional people, the same as we do with real people. It’s really hard to change for us to change our minds about co-workers and potential love interests in the real world – and even harder when we’ve been inside that person’s viewpoint. The actions that can be a deal-breaker for redemption will vary with the type of story you are trying to tell, and your genre. It also varies from reader to reader, based on their own life experience and interactions with real people.
Likewise, not every character will trust that the villain’s redemption is an authentic change, and that’s okay. Actions should still have consequences, and trust is hard to get after having behaved poorly. And sometimes, the previous actions are deal-breakers for anyone in the more innocent character’s life. You have to respect the agency of both characters – if they were real people would they honestly wind up as friends, teammates, romantically linked? If the answer is no, don’t force them to be, just because that’s what the plot seems to dictate.
The In-Story Justice Arc:
Let’s say your villain has kicked the dog. What does the reader expect? Some level of come-uppance for those unacceptable actions. Again, this will vary depending on your genre and type of story, and what that story is trying to say about justice.
In the most extreme cases, the villain pays with her life, either at the hands of the protagonist, or through some form of poetic justice. She may realize the error of her ways just before death, especially in the poetic-justice case. Alternately, she may realize the error, attempt to rectify it – possibly by saving the protagonist – and die in the attempt. This is not a true redemption arc, because having kicked the dog, she still has to face the ultimate punishment, and doesn’t then live long enough to prove she has indeed changed.
Depending on the genre, the might be left with a lesser type of loss – someone else gets the job or the girl, the land he wanted to develop is preserved, etc. He may or may not learn from this. Either way, the interaction with the hero will change him – even if it is for the worse.
NOTE: I took this image near the Riverwalk in San Antonio in 2017.