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  • John Hearne

Writing Great Villains for Children’s Books

Part of the reason writing villains is so much fun is that it’s one of the few legitimate ways of giving vent to your own neuroses, spite and well, villainy. To write with conviction you’ve got to slip into the skin of your hero’s nemesis and so you get to be casually cruel, you get to snap your fingers and watch your henchmen spring to attention, you get to toy with the hero before you flick the switch and watch them drop into the shark-filled tank, you get to watch them writhe in agony as…

Hmmm. I may have said too much.

The funny thing about villains and narrative is this: For 95% of the time, they’re in control. The hero may gain the upper hand from time to time, but the odds usually remain overwhelmingly on the side of the bad guy, and it’s only at the death that the roles are reversed and the villain is vanquished. That’s why good endings are so memorable, and so difficult to pull off. You’ve got to reverse the rhythm of the entire story in a way that’s neither predictable nor ridiculous. I’ll say that again. You’ve got to deliver an ending that cannot be predictable, but in hindsight will seem inevitable. Not easy.

The villain is the only one who can upstage the hero. In fact, if the hero is not upstaged by the villain, you may well be doing something wrong. Film critic Roger Ebert famously said that a film is only as good as its villain. Your villain has to sparkle. They have to command the page. Whatever they do, they must be brilliant at it. This is a no bumbler zone. We need brilliant repartee, brilliant scheming, breath-taking deceit, dazzling strength…Perhaps not all of these, but more than one. We need to be left in no doubt that the hero is no match for this character.

Oh yes, and we really do need a single character. Your enemy maybe an army of vampires or hoard of zombies, but there has to be a vampire king or zombie CEO or something, so that we have a single point on which to focus attention. Ensemble baddies can work, but it’s a tougher ask.

Note: We can no longer get away with moustache twirling, cape wearing nasties who are in love with chaos and for whom evil is simply a way of life. The villain, just like the hero, has to want something. They must be driven by something no less compelling than that which drives the hero.

Captain Hook wishes to destroy the noisily egotistical Peter Pan because Pan behanded him. Voldemort wishes to destroy Harry simply to survive. The horribly wonderful Ledroptha Curtain from the Mysterious Benedict Society books wants to take over the world. These people are driven to do these things with a single mindedness that trumps the hero’s, since, invariably, it’s the hero who reacts to the villain, not the other way round.

So when crafting a villain, it’s essential that they be tended with as much care as the hero. You need to work out where they came from and how their experiences made them what they are. Character work in writing a novel has that iceberg quality. You need to know far, far more than will ever end up on the page. You need to know hero and villain so well that when they come together, their interactions vibrate with reality.

So spend time with your villain. Get to know them. Understand how they would react in any given situation. If there was an incident that helped to create them, let us feel their humiliation, their anxiety. Think of Buddy in The Incredibles, being sent home by Mr. Incredible – and how he brooded and blossomed into the hateful Syndrome.

The reader – you hope – will disagree with the villain but they will recognise how they became what they are, and will be able to sympathise with them. In The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud, I latched onto the whole idea of sibling rivalry to set up the central conflict of the story. My villain, Peaches, is the first born, the apple of her father’s eye...then of course Indigo comes along and ruins everything. This is the point from which Peaches’ villainy emerges: a jealousy that spirals out of control.

The standard advice when creating a villain is to ensure that they have a Fatal Flaw, which will eventually trip them up. I agree that they need to be flawed, but thinking too deterministically about characteristics can give you a paint-by-numbers villain who may end up becoming clichéd and hamstrung. Make them real, and you get a deeper commitment from the reader.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t have villains that are pure evil. An eldritch horror from beyond our own world will always be a terrifying antagonist: Sauron, the Other Mother, the horrifying elves in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. These supernatural villains obey different rules and present a different – but no less compelling – sort of story.

The key thing is that your villain must be much, much stronger than the hero. They must hold almost all the cards. Hook has a crew of blood thirsty pirates, Smaug is armour plated, instant death; terrible to behold, Ledroptha Curtain presides over an army of thugs whom he sends against the four children out to thwart him.

Make them real, make them sparkle, and make them strong. They set them free and see what they get up to. Cue villainous cackle…

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