Heroes and Villains, something that every story needs, and yet, a thing that can be harder than it seems. Before you spend too much time writing your characters I would strongly encourage you to take a step back and ask yourself about theming. What theme are you going for with this story? What age-range is the audience? How realistic do you want it? All of these questions will help you determine your approach to character development.
There are several approaches to heroes and villains which I’ll discuss in a moment, but before I dive into different ways that you could do it, I want to talk about how not to do it. Whatever approach you use for your story, there is one cardinal rule about heroes and villains: Do Not make the hero or villain exactly like the readers. This is to say, they shouldn’t just be “an everyday Joe”. They should not be average, and they should not be boring. Average people fail at things sometimes. They aren’t remarkable or amazing, and people don’t care. People don’t want to root for average. The same with villains. How scary is a villain who gets caught the first time the police show up at his house? Not very scary. How scary is a villain who’s just ignorant or grossly incompetent? Not very. Granted, writing is an art and there are exceptions to everything. I can even think of a few exceptions to this advice here – but they are very specific exceptions that likely aren’t going to be what the vast majority of people will be doing. Even if you do break this “rule”, it shouldn’t be something that you do all of the time.
So, let’s start with an easy one: Archetypal Characters. These are the “classic” character types based on tropes or templates. There’s the Good guys (Superman, most Jedi Knights), and the Bad guys (The Joker, Darth Vader (original trilogy)), The Smart Guy (McGuyver, Iron Man), the Rich Guy (Batman, Iron Man), etc. Archetypal characters have their uses. They are essentially the embodiment of an idea. They are really great at communicating those concepts in simple ways: good vs evil, for example. You find these characters a lot in comic books and cartoons. They are probably the best type of character for stories aimed at younger audiences. They can work for other genres and age-ranges too, but it all depends on context and delivery.
Next, we’ve got the classic Underdog hero. This is the hero who starts out ignorant, or weak, or a pushover. Through the course of the tale they grow and evolve and they turn into someone that the readers wish they were. This character resonates with a lot of readers because they see themselves as someone the underdog starts out as, and they see themselves as someone they want to be by the end of the story.
The Anti-Hero is another popular character type at the moment. This character doesn’t start out as a hero. In many cases they are villains or are borderline villainous. They’re rude, uncouth, mean, and typically self-centered to start with. But, throughout the course of the story they begin to believe in something other than themselves. They believe in other people. They develop a small sense of altruism. These are powerful characters when they are well written because they represent hope; hope that people can change for the better and that the world can be a better place.
At the end of the day, heroes are people that the readers want to root for. But what about villains?
In addition to the archetypal villain, there’s also the Underdog Villain. For all intents and purposes they are the antithesis of the Underdog Hero. They start out as a weak, ignorant, unimportant person, and they grow. But they grow into something terrible. These characters are usually shaped by their environment. These characters are better received and more impactful if readers can watch the transformation happen. Walter White from Breaking Bad is an example of this type.
There’s the Fallen Hero, the character who was once good and righteous and through some turn of events or bad decisions they have disgraced themselves and gone to the other side. These characters are often hated by the heroes. And, if the reader was there to witness the fall, they are often hated by the readers too. Darth Vader from Episode 3 is an example of this type of Villain.
There’s also the Misguided/Misunderstood Villain, a person who is not inherently evil for the sake of being evil. Rather, they have (usually) good ideals or philosophies, but they go about them in a terrible way. Examples of this could include the rampant AI that wants to “save humanity” by enslaving it.
Villains are typically well received by readers when they hate them. A Villain that’s not terribly evil isn’t likely to draw a strong reaction. Granted, fiction is art, and there are some examples where that could work, but by and large most villains are one of these types.
If you want to add an element of realism to these characters, remember that unless you are dealing with Archetypal Characters, the characters will not be wholly good or wholly bad. Good characters will have at least one bad trait and bad characters will have at least one good trait. Another important thing to remember is that good guts don’t always wear white and bad guts don’t always wear black – That’s an archetypal trope. As is the idea that villains life in concrete fortresses. Real life villains like Sadaam Hussein and Adolf Hitler had villas, small palaces, and they filled it with gold and ither valuables. Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest had an immense trove of art as well. Remember that bad guys are still people, and people like nice things.
For those dabbling in comedic genres, there’s also the Accidental Hero/Villain. This character is clumsy. They are so clumsy, that their accidents have spectacular results of tragedy or valor. The much reviled JarJar Binks was an attempt at this example.
Thanks for stopping by! Next month is NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month. I’m participating in that, but I will continue to post articles . In light of that, I’m going to devote the next 12 blog entries toward issues related to publishing and self-publishing.