7 Tips for Writing an Altruistic Villain
[Courtesy of flickr by Lucky Lynda]
Most stories feature a character or characters in opposition to the protagonist. We call these characters villains. Some villains are more effective at evoking sympathy and indignation from readers than others, which is ultimately the goal for many writers. Some of the more effective villains have good ideals that give shape to their actions. The main problem with their morality is usually that they push their ideals too far. “The ends justify the means,” is often an applicable statement in this regard. These types of villains are very compelling, because we can see where they’re coming from. In the sections that follow, I’ll discuss some concrete methods you can use to write an altruistic villain. Note that not all villains need to be this way. Some are extremely effective at being raw forces of evil and mayhem. The Joker is the most-often cited example. Now let’s get started!
1: Start out with an ideal that most consider to be a morally good one.
Examples include the ideals of freedom, honesty, equality, love, generosity, tradition, security, change, faith, aspiration, justice, independence, honor, redemption, and knowledge. These all sound like good things. But it’s easy to imagine how these could become problems if taken too far. Design your villain with one or more of these ideals in mind. It will eventually become the basis of their villainy. It’s often said that everyone is the hero of their own story. The same goes for villains. Usually, they’ll solidly believe that they are doing the right thing. This is easier to accomplish if their actions are based on a verifiably moral goal.
2: Develop your villain’s background so that it fits with their ideal.
Many villains had to endure some terrible event in their childhood or years before villainy. This will frequently shape their worldviews and instigate them to action. Interestingly, heroes and villains often go through the same sorts of instigating events in their early years. It’s how they react to these stimuli and what they’ve done in the time since that makes them a hero or a villain. So develop your villain’s history such that it reconciles with their malevolent state in the present.
3: Make the villain’s struggle relate to the hero’s in some way.
There are a number of ways to do this, but character foils are always a good bet. You could have the protagonist’s ideal be identical to the villain’s ideal. Then it becomes a matter of the villain going too far and the hero trying to reign them in. The tipping point occurs when the hero realizes that this other character is not redeemable. Alternatively, the hero’s ideal could be in direct opposition to the villain’s. For example, the hero might believe strongly in unity and the villain might believe strongly in freedom. These are both good ideals, yet when put into extremes they come into conflict with each other. The hero will want to unite people toward a common purpose or to face a threat. Meanwhile, the villain will want to keep the people free from this unity so there’s no opportunity for systemized oppression from the leadership.
4: The villain needs to enact a change in the current state.
The villain is dissatisfied with the current status, and feels a need to change it to create a better world or society. A villain who believes strongly in tradition will have little villainy to accomplish if the society is already deeply rooted in tradition and shows no signs of changing. Your villain needs to have their strongly held ideal come into conflict with others. An example might be that the society is constantly being infiltrated, exploited, and invaded by barbarians or spies. So the soon-to-be villain rises up to the challenge to protect his people. But he becomes a villain when he starts controlling everyone’s lives to keep them safe. This is an example of the ideal of security stepping on the toes of the ideal of freedom.
5: Make the villain reluctant to step into morally gray territory.
Villains are much more compelling if they have a line they will not cross. Give them sufficient reason to do so in the end, but show their reluctance in some way. However, when the time comes, their actions need to be decisive. Otherwise they become too wishy-washy. Keep them on their moral pedestal. Or at least clinging to the side of it for a while. At some point, the villain might realize that promoting their ideal to the degree they require means sacrificing some other ones. They realize that they have crossed the point of no return. And they won’t stop until they get their desired result. At this point, the villain becomes truly terrifying, because they have nothing to lose.
6: Give your villain at least one relatable personality trait.
All characters become more relatable when we know more about their general habits and hobbies. It can also be important for villains. This grounds them in a way, and allows readers to follow them on their journey to villainy. If the personality trait is tied to the villain’s ideal, then it makes the progression particularly logical and impactful. However, the opposite is often effective as well. A ruthless warlord might have a flower gardening hobby on the side to relax from their murder and carnage during the day. Giving the readers a glance at the villain’s downtime provides more perspective and also serves as a reminder that the villain is still a human.
7: Don’t sympathize too much with your villain.
Once you’ve gone through and developed your villain using the previous six tips, you might find yourself in love with this new and complex character. Just don’t forget to keep them a villain. That’s what you set out to write, after all. Your story needs a powerful antagonist with a compelling psyche and motivations. Don’t ruin it all by turning your villain into the hero of a different story.
Hopefully this has provided some insight and ideas for use in your story. Villains are a major piece of most narratives and they often end up being just as memorable as the main characters. This has been a glance at how to write altruistic villains, but there are multiple flavors of antagonists. Some work better in certain narratives than others. Maybe an entity of pure evil like The Joker is needed for your story. But maybe it would be much more compelling if the readers have a hard time deciding who to root for.
Note: This post was originally published in May or 2015.