One theme that’s been cropping up quite often lately in the manuscripts I’ve been getting for the writers’ advisory services I work for, is the subject of characterisation – and particularly the villains of the piece. I work mostly on children’s writing, but this applies just as much to adult fiction – particularly genre fiction like thrillers and crime.
Most writers will have come across the advice about drawing up mini (or not so mini!) biographies of characters to help bring them to life. It’s a very useful practise, although I believe that basing characters on real people, or at least people who represent ‘types’, is also very effective. I once worked with a rather irritating alpha male type, and he has been the basis for several characters who have appeared in my fiction! One reason why this can be so effective is that real people have different sides to them. Alpha males aren’t always trying to dominate or lead; they have other, more subtle – sometimes surprising – traits, and this is one of the things fictional baddies often lack, leading to them becoming one dimensional.
Too many antagonists are like cartoon baddies or pantomime villains – the sneering voice, the evil laugh, the delight in evil for evil’s sake. This last comment is important, because many baddies don’t really have any rhyme or reason to them – they just want to destroy, take over and the like. We don’t know why, and we don’t know what good ‘taking over’ will do them, what they will get out of it, what their future plans are. We are just expected to accept that they are acting this way because, well, they’re baddies!
Make baddies interesting! Treat them like goodies: protagonists in stories are trying to achieve something, and they are doing it for a reason that we understand and find believable. Why should baddies be any different?!