BALANCE. As in nature, the fiction writer should strive to maintain balance in the way the villain and protagonist are portrayed, so that neither has a consistently lopsided advantage in the story. If your hero seems to have everything going for him (or her), the antagonist must have some other kind of advantage that balances the hero’s attributes or skills. As the story progresses, for every gain the protagonist seems to make in overcoming the villain, there should be a setback so that the villain still has a good chance of winning the battle. This tinkering with balance naturally creates suspense.
THE UNDERDOG FACTOR. It may seem like a good idea to make your villain incredibly all-powerful and impossible to beat, so that when your hero finally does whip the bad guy, the victory seems all the more sweet. Readers will naturally cheer for the hero who appears to be victorious over impossible odds. However, if you forego believability to ramp up the over-the-top ‘oh-no’ factor, you may lose your readers. Danger must be balanced with credible details.
PERSONALITY DISORDERS. A believable hero is one who has flaws, but not so great that he/she is unlikable. The villain does not need to be balanced psychologically, but everything he does should make sense in within the rationale of his own psychotic world. A villain who is rational and logical to a fault can be just as scary as one who rants and raves like a lunatic. And it certainly isn’t necessary for a villain to be crazy to do bad things. Sometimes people with the best of intentions end up doing very bad things in the name of good.
The novelist who delves equally into the background of both the antagonist and protagonist gives a more thorough picture of motivation and development for the good-versus-evil flip sides of the story. Not every story lends itself to a deep character treatment for the villain, but that doesn’t mean the author shouldn’t use every opportunity to reinforce the villain’s character so that he comes off as real, well-rounded, and believable instead of a laughable cardboard cutout twirling his mustache. The author can’t just invent a villain and put him in the middle of a story, doing a bunch of dastardly deeds for no reason. Everyone acts a specific way for a reason, and villains are no exception. The author who’s most successful portraying a realistic villain is the one who is not afraid to get into the mind of his villain and find out what makes him tick.
REMEMBER these simple tips – give your good guys a bad edge and your bad guys a likable edge to keep your readers on edge – and you’ll have a killer story that readers will love.
Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing