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Almost any strong plot is basically a story of someone’s struggle against something. That something is the villain of your story. Now sometimes you have a real human villain. If your story is middle grade humor, the villain might even have a thin mustache which he twirls at times of peak villainy. But often the bad guy is more subtle. A villain may be trying just as hard at the main character to do the right thing, but one person’s “right thing” can be another person’s road block. Sometimes the thing resisting your main character isn’t a human at all, but circumstances or nature or even the main character himself.
Let’s start by talking about human villains. Unless you’re doing a book that is zany comedy, your villain will almost certainly be someone trying to do the best they can. Even “bad guys” believe that they are doing the things they are doing for good reasons. A good villain is one with many layers and strong motivations that readers can understand. The villain who does bad things just because he enjoys doing bad things might be okay for comedy (such as Count Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events) but in a more serious book, the villain needs reasons. Sometimes the best villains are those who would actually consider themselves the hero.
It’s generally best to choose a villain who isn’t representative of a group that you, yourself, feel very, very negatively about. That almost always results in a caricature, not a character. For instance, if I felt all athletes were pampered bullies, then it would be easy for me to choose the star football player as my villain, but he probably wouldn’t end up being a very nuanced creation. Instead, the character would simply grow out of my own negative feelings, and he’d be shallow and certainly not ring true for any reader who played sports. But if I view athletes with admiration, I might create a character who bullies my main character, but whose reasons for his behavior felt more real, and more specific to that person. That character will pull on the reader emotionally even while we connect with our main character’s struggle.
Books with nuanced characters tend to stay longer in the mind of the reader and become books people talk about. The characters become real for us. And the book is generally more successful. Now, one thing to watch out for are the “easy villains” that seem to appear over and over in children’s books:
• The mean teacher who doesn’t care about the kids (the mean principal who hates kids is a variant of the mean teacher)
• The pampered, bullying athlete
• The pampered, bullying cheerleader
• The nasty rich kid
• The bullying coach who hates everyone who isn’t a star athlete
• The grouchy (almost always elderly) neighbor
• The narrow-minded, controlling (usually religious) community leader
• The cruel, animal-hating animal control officer (in the past, this was the mean dog-catcher)
Do you see what these all have in common? They are very easy to sum up. This is because their motivations are actually nonexistent. They’re just caricatures with no substance. They’re also extremely common. The more your characters feel common or tired or over-used, the less likely they are to help you sell the story. Give the villain a very strong reason for their villainy and we’ll better understand why they are opposing our main character and that will make for a stronger story.
But Do You Need a Bad Guy?
Not every story has a bad buy. Some stories might have some mild conflict but no overt bad guy. However, this is because the primary, strong story conflict is with something non-human. For instance, if you have a story about a boy who is yelled at by his dad while camping so he stomps off into the woods to “collect kindling” but his anger drives him deeper and deeper until he is good and lost, you’re quickly going to have a much bigger conflict than a little yelling from the dad. You’re going to have the kid against nature, and nature can be fierce. In that story, nature is your “villain” and nature simply doesn’t care about the kid. Sometimes an adventure story like that will introduce an animal villain that endangers the child such as a hungry bear or a coyote or a snake. And animals can make very scary villains (anyone who has read Cujo or Jaws can vouch for that), but even in the case of a bear or other animal, the story will be stronger if you think about the animal’s motivation. An unmotivated animal (like the shark in Jaws) is actually just a cartoon, but an animal with its own motivations (like the book version of Cujo who just wanted to be a good dog until the sickness drove him to violence) will ultimately be much stronger.
Still, nature can be a very scary villain, partly because it is so indifferent to humans. You cannot appeal to nature to give you a break. Floods will drown you and snakes will bite, not because they’re angry, but because they exist in a world that is not human. But for a story, they serve the same purpose as a human villain: they give the main character something to struggle against.
But My Character is Three Years Old!
Keep in mind that the level of struggle is relative to the age of the character and the reader. The Shining is a book for adults, but the main viewpoint character was a five-year-old boy. Despite his age, the conflict Danny encounters in The Shining is huge and complex. But if written for five year olds, Danny would be unlikely to be attacked by vicious ghosts or a drunk dad. Instead, Danny might have an encounter with wasps (but would likely get away with only one sting) or he might imagine things in the dark only to discover the dark only holds the same things as the light.
For a very young child, a story might feature a child trying to look after a kitten who seems intent upon creating havoc (which the main character is certain will get them both in big trouble). The kitten would serve the villain role because his actions are endangering them, but there would be no serious potential harm in the mix. Keep in mind that parents are often the “villain” of a story for very young children because they stand in the way of the main character’s desires. Mom doesn’t let the character bring a frog into the tub. Dad doesn’t let the character finger paint the garage door. To be a good villain for this age, the parents don’t have to be mean or unpleasant, they just have to stand in the way of the child character’s plan. For very young children, the frustration and struggle in the conflict feel very real and strong, but we don’t need to make them adult level conflict.
So keep up the struggle and make your villains multi-layered and believable. The story you produce will be better for it!
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.