If you missed the start of this countdown, then I highly suggest you first read the first and second post right here:
Why are the last posts so valuable to you today?
- In the first post, we learned the 5 types of villains most commonly found in fiction
- In the previous post, we learned the 4 four most powerful weapons all great villains use
- And finally, we learned numbers 10 through 5 on my ultimate naughty list
You’ll be shocked who ranks in! So please, have a read at my previous post before we learn the do’s and don’ts for a villain’s origin story, and find out numbers 4-1 on my top villains of all time list.
But hey- if you’re ahead of the game and have last week’s post already under your belt, then congrats! You get to move on to the final round.
The best way to encourage readers to invest in your villain is by revealing the villain’s origin story. However, introducing it the wrong way can create a massive wall between your readers and your story. Or worse yet, your villain’s origin story could be so over-the-top or unrealistic that it gags the reader. So, how do you craft an origin story that doesn’t induce an eye-roll from your readers so intense they can see their brain stem?
There are some common mistakes authors fall victim to when revealing their villain’s origin story. So we will discuss a few don’ts to avoid and a few do’s to adhere to. These key tips will ask readers to invest in your villain and care about (or at least pay attention to) his journey. And most importantly, they will keep your villain from being seen as a run-of-the-mill product from Evil Co.
First of all, let’s talk origin story basics:
Even if you never reveal your villain’s origin story in your book, it’s a wise idea to have it laid out in detail anyhow. Understanding who he/she is and where he/she came from plus what made he/she turn into the wicked little troll he/she is today is vital to creating a believable villain with unique layers.
So what questions should you ask yourself in order to create a well-rounded origin story? Take a moment and picture the villain you’re creating right now. Think about that dastardly devil when answering these fundamental questions:
Consider the most basic fundamentals:
- Where is your villain from?
- How did he come into existence? Through a set of parents? Through cosmic creation? By a magical experiment perhaps?
- Did he know or have a personal relationship with his parents/creator?
- If yes, did he have a good relationship with them? If not, why not?
- How did his creator/parents affect his life negatively?
What if his parents were not the ones to influence his turn to the dark side? That’s perfectly fine. Friends, other family members, co-workers, employers, objects, secret desires or ambitions, even an honest desire to secure the safety of family members are all great influencers.
- What two-three majorly life-changing negative experiences affected him/her the most?:
There could be more than two to three definitive moments that influenced your character to begin his turn to the dark side. Or, there could be less! Either is completely fine. As long as you know what those moments are, you have the tools necessary to craft the actions he takes in your story and why he takes them. Whatever factor(s) did influence your guy to become into the devil he is today must simply be pin-pointed and thoroughly understood by you, the writer.
Another factor to consider when creating your villain’s origin story is his personality type. The depth of personality types and how deeply they influence your villain’s choices is discussed in depth in my third workbook in a series being launched in my next blog post!:
Keep up to date on this workbook’s release by subscribing to the Barely Hare Books Newsletter at the bottom of this post.
Now that you’ve built some solid fundamentals, let’s talk do’s and don’ts of origin story pace and placement:
Don’t start your novel with “backstory”– the hero’s, the villain’s- anyone’s backstory.
Why? Because you haven’t given the reader any reason to care or invest in this character yet, so the past means nothing to the reader. It may mean everything to your story, but starting your novel with an origin story is a rookie mistake. It will bore your reader to tears and by page two (assuming he will even read that far) he will put your book back on the shelf.
Don’t do frequent, heavy or lengthy flashbacks.
Flashbacks are a great tool and there is nothing wrong with using flashbacks to reveal a villain’s origin story, but too many too often with too many details will make the reader his lose focus and be wildly confused straight out of the gate. So, strike a balance. Well spaced flashbacks with only key information needed to motivate the current plot are ideal.
Don’t do info dumps.
Info dumps are a lot of information plopped in the middle of a scene, out of nowhere. Origin stories are often mistakenly dropped this way, and let me tell you, it’s completely jarring. Info dumps disconnect your reader from the scene they have cozied into. Info dumps are a burden to read through if one has the gumption to read through the entire dump. Unless the villain himself is retelling a past event through dialogue, then please, avoid the origin story info dump! Even then, use caution and leave info sparingly (obviously, sparingly being the key word here!)
Finally, don’t use obvious introductory statements meant to flag your reader into gearing up for some serious tear-jerker moments.
Okay, so what the heck do I mean by this? Using glaringly obvious statements like, “Something dark and terrible happened to me long ago,” or, “Ever since the day…” or “It was a dark and stormy night”, or “I was never the same again,” or any other cheesy, cookie-cutter phrases, evoke nothing but a gag and an eye-roll from the reader. Why? Because such phrases treat the reader like they are brainless. It’s like yelling, “Hey you! This is sad, important stuff here so pay attention!” Not only this, but it’s painfully obvious and ridiculously cliché. It’s been done before and it’s been exhausted, so don’t repeat this mistake yourself.
So what about the do’s?:
Do let your reader slowly get to know the villain.
Introduce tidbits one taste at a time. Leave unanswered questions every time he appears, drawing your reader into his story. Leave an air of mystery about him without the use of cheesy verbal “fog machines” like “He was dark and mysterious,” or, “He was a man/woman shrouded in mystery.” (Basically, it’s trying too hard, it’s telling not showing, and it’s obvious.)
Do use timing to your advantage.
Timing is everything when it comes to an origin story reveal. Timing is key especially when it comes to major plot points and plot twists! The best time to reveal necessary truths about your villain is when it builds conflict and/or suspense. So consider carefully when you reveal a fascinating or necessary fact about the villain’s past and how it will add tension to your’s main characters’ journies.
What questions should you ask yourself to help you narrow in on the best time to reveal juicy tidbits about your villain’s backstory? This question and 15 other vital questions are asked and answered in the third workbook I’m releasing in my next blog post, Why So Female Villains Suck (and How to Create a Female Villain that Doesn’t) Here’s another chance to peek at all the new workbook will offer, right here:
The 16 Point Checklist Every Author Needs: How to Create Antagonists/Villains Your Readers Will Obsess Over
Now, it’s time to discuss four of the most powerful fictional villains of all time (according to me, that is!) These four bad boys are the kings of fear, the pure embodiment of evil, and the masterminds of suffering. Not only this, but they have intriguing origin stories, they have fascinating personalities, and their minds are mazes of endless bewilderment.
So let’s find out who my top four villains of all time are!:
#4 Bob Ewell
Bob Ewell of To Kill A Mockingbird is one of literature’s worst, playing out an all too terrible reality we still fight against today. That truth alone, revealing the hideous underbelly of a narrow, ignorant society, teaches us all the value of looking at the heart of a person, not the outer appearance. Bob, a violent drunk, wrongfully accuses Tom Robinson, a gentle-spirited black man, of raping and beating his daughter, Mayella Ewell.
From the eloquent, noble, and powerful way Atticus Finch addresses the courtroom, asking not just the jury itself to look past racial divides, but us readers as well, we see clearly the truth of the situation. Bob clearly abuses his daughter in multiple ways. He manipulates and takes advantage of Mayella’s weak mental state by threatening her to lie under oath. Bob likewise relies on the racial divide rampant in town to put Tom Robinson behind bars. Bob’s evil ways don’t end there, in fact, his certain guilt is revealed even more so as he taunts Atticus, mocks Tom’s family right on their own property, and tries to kill Jem and Scout- Atticus’ innocent children.
What makes Bob Ewell an even more sniveling, despicable wretch is the fact that he does manage to walk away scot free from justice because he lives in a society much like him– blinded by ignorance, paranoia, and racial divides. Tom is found guilty, which hits us to our very core because we see from the outside of this small town the more obvious, disturbing problem plaguing it. When Tom is killed, we understand Bob is partially to blame. Bob Ewell truly is a horrible rat, and we clap wildly when Boo Radley takes down this beast of a human. Bob, you represent a very real part of society we sadly still fight against, and for that reason, your villainous actions make you number four on my list of top villains of all time.
#3 Emperor Lucius Commodus
“There once was a dream that was Rome,” and if you’ve ever seen Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, then you know that Joaquin Phoenix’s role as Emporer Commodus turned this dream into a waking nightmare. This was by far Phoenix’s absolute best performance of all time. His powerful depiction of a power-mad, selfish, ruthless, vengeful man-child was mind-blowingly creeptastic.
Marcus Aurelius (first Emporer of Rome) chose his beloved General Maximus to take his place as Emporer when he dies, over his obviously over-eager son, Commodus. Grateful, but humble Maximus only wishes to return home after a bloody battle between the Gauls. After realizing his father’s choice, however, a furious Commodus goes so far as to strangle his father to death with his own bare hands and claim himself Emporer of Rome instead.
Not only this, but this coward takes revenge one step further by pillaging Maximus’ home and farmland, having his wife raped and killed, having his child hung outside the entrance to his household, and sending Maximus to live out the rest of his days as a slave. This disgusting and horrific display of power leads us to hate this little worm of a soul immediately.
His arrogance and pride cause chaos amongst the Senate and his unquenchable thirst for power and praise leads him to please the masses through grotesque gladiatorial battles.
His conniving and egocentric decisions, however, lead him to extreme paranoia and hatred of those closest to him. Unbeknownst to Commodus, Maximus secretly rises through the ranks as a beloved gladiator named “The Spaniard” and soon plays on Commodus’ desire for praise from the Roman people. The people begin to love his brilliant tactics in the arena, and he soon becomes a star. Commodus threatens his sister’s life (btw, he’s in love with her too, yuck) and her child’s in order to obtain answers about this un-killable, celebrated “Spaniard”. An unforgettable battle scene eventually unfolds between the two, unleashing Commodus’ most despicable side yet.
Clearly, Emporer Commodus has earned his rank as number 3 on my list of top ten villains of all time for these reasons and more I haven’t even been able to touch on. If you haven’t seen this movie- do so immediately (But try to watch the made-for-T.V. version, though, as it’s far less gory.) In my opinion, Gladiator is one of the best-written stories of all time.
#2 The Joker
Obsessed with “the Batman”, Joker is an all-around terror, using a disfigured smile as his calling card. His one desire, to tease and play with Batman, is achieved through a deadly, unpredictable game of cat and mouse. In Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, Ledger takes that notorious acidic smile and mocking laughter to a new level of horror, since unmatched. The line between sadistic prankster and bored psychopath is blurred, creating promising scenes of unbearable tension every time the Joker makes an appearance.
While the Joker’s origin story is not specific or crystal clear, it has been noted that his emergence onto the scene as the villain we know him to be came after falling into a vat of acid. And, making his first appearance in Batman #1 (1940) comic, creators believed his nutty, devil-may-care attitude was a perfect contrast for a dark, brooding hero. And so he remained, blowing us away year after year, comic after comic.
So why specifically does the Joker make it as number two on my list of greatest villains of all time? After all, there are plenty of nutty, unpredictable villains who are just in it for the laughs (literally). So what sets the Joker apart? Well, first off, he was the first of his kind, turning even a smile into a sign of destruction. Second, the Joker’s loose cannon personality lands him as a constant source of interest for the reader/viewer. And finally, Heath Ledger’s game-changing take on the Joker put this character’s spine-tingling, psychotic persona in a realm so far above other villains, it’s since left the comic world struggling to produce anything even remotely as iconic. So, bravo Ledger, bravo Joker!
#1 Ben Linus
Well, friends, this is it! We’ve finally made it to number one on my list of top ten villains of all time. You may be wondering how Ben Linus, from the mind-boggling television series Lost makes it as number one on my list. Well, allow me to explain because this character is truly unlike any other I’ve had the privilege of getting mind-bent by.
The infamous, snake-like character Ben Linus has us reeling and questioning everything we know right from the moment he arrives on the scene. Ben, a person obsessed with power, takes his approach to gaining control with the patience and precision of a top-notch chess player. In fact, Ben views others simply as pawns in his game, disposable means to an end. Gaining trust is an uncanny gift he is born with, often turning enemies into friends and then turning that friend into his next weapon. Ben is a mastermind, indulging in his own genius and manipulative prowess time and again in order to gain the upper hand over the victims of this fateful plane crash. Helpless and under attack by a mysterious, mind-altering island, Ben plays effortlessly into the fragile trust of such victims like John Locke, Jack Shepherd, Kate Austen, and Michael Dawson. Ben manages to kill, overtake, and break countless persons without a second thought, starting with his own father at a young age.
Because Ben’s father was an abusive alcoholic who blamed Ben for the death of his mother (died while in childbirth to Ben) Ben’s thirst for power begins at a young age, targeting any who appear weaker than himself (which, in his eyes, is absolutely everyone). No act is too heartless for Ben when it comes down to getting what he ultimately wants- control.
Ben goes through a complelling transition, though, as his relationship with the people on the island grows more complicated and his lies start to fall apart. Soon he is manipulating his executioners into keeping him alive, and through their mercy, begins to rediscover the meaning of redemption and trust. It’s when he loses the daughter he once kidnapped as a child that Ben’s soulless, self-preserving attitude begins to crack. Soon we see Ben as a redeemable character who holds the key to both figuring out and snuffing out the secrets of the island, that are far bigger than Ben himself. And still, that glimpse of redemption is challenged when John Locke begins to take power and ultimately our dear Ben reverts to old habits.
This unpredictable transition makes Ben an elite villain on the list, despite existing within an often fractured storyline in an inevitably dissapointing universe. Ben’s tragic origin story makes us understand and care about him as a person, his conniving, self-serving actions leave us furious, and his artful words have us forgiving him time and again. And a villain who makes puppeteering look like a day at the beach (literally) has certainly earned a crown equally as dark and insidious. Congrats Ben, for being the most dastardly dude of all time, in my opinion!
Well, I’m sure you have your own list of best villains ever created, and I want to hear who they are! In the comments section below leave your top favorite villain and how they’ve influenced your writing.
Did you notice there was only one female villain in this lineup?
Next week I’m breaking down female villains, why they’re stuck in a rut, and what we as writers can do to create totally awesome, totally original, totally believable female villains of our own. Stay tuned by subscribing to the Barely Hare Books Newsletter below!
10 Cloverfield Lane
#4 Bob Ewell
To Kill A Mockingbird
#3 Emperor Lucius Commodus
#2 The Joker
Batman: The Dark Knight
#1 Ben Linus