Your villain has to be three dimensional.
We spend a lot of time making our protagonist(s) multi-dimensional. We give them heroic characteristics, flaws, quirks, and even pets. We assign our heroes and heroines an emotional wound that they must overcome by story’s end. (If you haven’t done any of these things for your protagonist, email me. We need to talk.)
But you need to do the same thing for your villains. Nothing is more boring than a one-dimensional bad guy or gal. A bad guy who’s bad for the sake of it. You can only see so much of that before you shut the book or turn the channel.
I’m a fan of The Walking Dead for lots of reasons, none of which are all that important for this blog post. But they’re killing me with season seven and I’m about to stop watching. There’s a new bad guy in town. His name is Negan played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. At first I thought, “wow, he must be having a blast playing this guy.” After six episodes I said, “He must get tired of doing the same thing over and over.” You see, Negan is bad for bad’s sake. Boring. We get it. He’s made his point. The first time we see Negan his level of bad (and some really good stage makeup) makes us cringe and back up from the television. Now I just want to get to the point where our heroes kick his butt. I don’t care about the stuff in the middle of that. There’s nothing sympathetic about Negan. At least not so far. There will be sixteen episodes maybe the writers will give us a little backstory on this guy, but for now, I’m not interested. He’s just a one-dimensional character walking around with a baseball bat and threatening to kill everyone if they don’t give up their belongings. He’s a bully. Boring. Did I say, boring? (This is in no way a knock on Mr. Morgan’s acting abilities. He’s doing a great job with what he’s got to work with.) Here’s a clip of Negan for your viewing pleasure.
One of the best bad guys I’ve ever seen was Joe Carroll from The Following played by James Purefoy. First off we have to give a round of applause to Mr. Purefoy’s fantastic portrayal of the sympathetic psychopath. Few actors call pull off playing such an evil person we’re willing to route for. But he couldn’t have done such a great job without some very good writing. Joe Carroll was a cold-blooded killer and he had a slew of people willing to kill for him. But, gosh darn it, we liked this guy. We didn’t want him to win really, I mean, what would that say about us, but the writers gave us a multi-dimensional character. Yes, he was a total scary guy, but he also loved his wife and son very much. Nothing was to happen to them. He wanted a family and he wanted his family safe. He wanted to be a dad to his young boy. Who doesn’t love a man trying to be a good father? It worked. I couldn’t get enough of Joe Carroll and I routed for him till the end. (Of course, I wanted Kevin Bacon to catch him. I mean, come on, it’s Kevin Bacon!) Here’s a clip of Joe Carroll for your viewing pleasure.
Do you have a villain who is nothing more than a cardboard cut-out with a greasy mustache who throws his head back and laughs a hearty laugh? Or do you have someone whose mother tried to choke him while he slept when he was only four, whose father shot himself in the only bathroom in their apartment when our bad-guy was coming home from the second-grade? Did your bad guy trust a teacher only to find out the teacher was a psychopath in-training? Was your bad guy bullied, beaten, burned? Does he love dogs, but not people? Ask yourself, what does my bad guy want? Maybe it’s just to be loved. Make us care about this person. You’ll have us hooked from the beginning willing and ready to go for a long ride with you.