Where Do Villains Come From?

The other day I talked about the concept of Evil and Humanity; today I want to discuss where these villains come from.  In fiction there are spheres of influence around your hero which touch and overlap, providing a variety of directions from which a villain can emerge.  There is always a reason behind a villain’s presence, and while I’ll go into detail about motivation in another post, you need to know how your villain can contact or is in contact with your hero.  That is the foundation for creating a villain of substance who holds a believable position in your story.

Characters; villain origin

In this handy-dandy diagram, you can see your hero in the middle.  All the spheres around them are circles of influence where potential villains can emerge.  At the very top you have Friends and Family.  Statistically, many times a perpetrator that hurts us is someone we already know.  This is why, when a violent crime occurs, police will look at significant others, family members, and friends first.  This kind of villain can be known to the hero, but they can also be unknown or vaguely known.  Think of your own family and friend relationships.  There may be that one aunt that likes to snare you up or make your life harder.  There might be a cousin that gives you the creeps, or even a friend that seems to have your back, and yet, seemingly out of the blue, they will betray or hurt you.

Then you have the Acquaintances.  These are people you interact with at work, your usual barista, the neighbor down the street, etc.  You don’t know them, but you know of them.  Acquaintances as villains are a bit harder for the hero to see unless they are overtly strange or obvious about their actions.  They hover around the edges of the hero’s vision, filling up space but also kind of invisible.  A great example is David Morse’s character of the neighbor, Mr. Turner, in the movie Disturbia.  He acted opposite of Shia LeBeouf, the teenager on house arrest whose boredom helped him uncover Mr. Turner’s serial killer pattern.  Mr. Turner perfected that veil of casual invisibility, staying to himself, being quiet but charming during interactions, and managed to murder women right in the middle of picturesque suburbia.

A Past Relation is another villain that can seem to come out of nowhere.  A family member the hero doesn’t talk to anymore, an old friend or flame, even an old acquaintance of some sort.  Past relations are fun villains to work with because there is some sort of history between them and your hero, even if it’s completely one sided.  Your hero and villain may remember how the other was in the past, and that can bring up complications and secrets, but there will be difficulties on both sides as both characters have changed and grown since then.  Maybe one character overcame a fear or developed a new one.  Maybe one or both acquired new skills that can mess up carefully laid plans or assumptions.  Because of that time gap between them there are so many possibilities to play with.

Now we have the Opposition in Power.  This villain has some sort of a leg up over the hero in the story.  Perhaps it’s a person at work, someone with a higher social status, someone with a bigger bank account or more influence.  Think President Snow in The Hunger Games.  Until Katniss became such a threat to his control they didn’t directly know each other, but he still controlled every aspect of her life.  Not all Oppositions in Power will have that much control over your hero, but they have more than enough to be formidable enemies, especially when the hero is made known to them and becomes a threat.

Now we’ve come to the Nature/Supernatural/Manmade villain.  Nature can be anything from the weather to the landscape to the wild animals that inhabit it, such as the wolves and winter Liam Neeson faces in The Grey.  The supernatural covers every monster, god, or legend in mythology, or that you can create.  Depending on their level of intelligence, move them into a sub-category of either human or animal, which will then help you develop their needs and drives later.  Manmade covers villains in the form of disasters, plagues, and/or ecological changes that happen because humans changed or messed with some part of its natural order.  Weaponizing a virus, triggering a drought or a flood, or the extinction of some species because people tampered with the environment, these are all inhuman villains that can’t be beaten so much as survived and hoped to be cured or diverted.  Though they can’t be categorized as human or animal, you still need to do your research and planning to determine how things progress and get worse, and how, or if, they can be made better.

Last of all, you have your hero.

Yes, it is possible for your hero to be their own villain, and there are so many different avenues you can explore with it.  This villain type could be their darker self, such as forbidden desires, or their anger, or their jealousy.  It could also be a separate personality within them as portrayed in Fight Club.  It could even be their own nature, foiling themselves due to culture, religion, habit, or their personality inhibiting what they want or need.  We tend to be our own worst enemies, after all, and the mastering, or failure of mastering, ourselves is a challenge everyone can relate to.

Now that we’ve covered all that, time for some homework.  Using the spheres, place your hero or heroine in the middle and use what you already know about your heroes to branch into each circle, exploring the people around them that best fit in each.  Which direction is the best villain likely to come from?  And by best, I mean a villain that will truly push your hero or heroine to their limits and then past them.  It’s possible and even probable that the villain may cross over into several different spheres, as well.

Next, write a short piece for each sphere using different characters in your hero’s life.  No need to be polished or even set it stone, this is just practice and details can be changed later.  Once you have them all laid out, I bet you’ll have a better direction and idea of how to use a villain or villainous force to further your story and make it engaging and interesting.

Other Resources:

A Conversation on Evil and Humanity

Suffering for Happiness: Keeping Characters Interesting

Happy Author Smashing: Torturing Your Darlings

Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: Writing the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Morrell


2 thoughts on “Where Do Villains Come From?

  1. Pingback: Menstruation and the Zombie Apocalypse | Crazy Inkslinger, A Writer's Blog

  2. Pingback: Character Roulette: The Art of POV | Crazy Inkslinger, A Writer's Blog

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