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Writer On Writing Villains

Nimdok

Archaeologist
Character
I’ve been putting off writing about this topic because I wasn’t sure if I actually had any wisdom to impart, but then I remembered that I don’t know anything. So here we go.

I have a limited range in the sense that I only really enjoy writing certain types of characters. I can write characters outside of that range, but they don’t typically hold my interest for as long and I usually regulate them to serving a specific role or purpose in a larger narrative. This is not a problem unique to RP—I ran into similar problems during my first serious attempt at writing a novel—but the nature of RP writing exacerbates the issue because you’re limited to the character you’re portraying and have only so much control over the narrative. (Unless you don’t play fair, but then if you do that soon no one will want to play with you.)

Anyway, I’m going to try and explain everything I’ve learned so far about writing villains, with my customary vague organization and rambling.

1. Don’t write a villain at all.

Haha, gotcha! But seriously. If you struggle to write villains, it’s not that big of a deal because you don’t have to have a villain to tell a good story anyway. All you need is conflict.

I assume that all of you reading this at home were taught in school about the different types of conflict in literature. My 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Neeley, gave us a list that looked a little something like this:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Self
Man vs. Technology

There are numerous variations on this list, but you’ll notice right off the bat that only two of these types of conflict involve a central villain: Man vs. Man and Man vs. Self. The others are much broader, and while they can be represented in the story by a person who acts as a villain, you won’t stress as much about writing them. Or maybe you will, I dunno lol.

2. Don’t make a villain who is the embodiment of everything you hate or consider immoral/evil, unless you have a very good understanding of why people do or believe such things.

This is sort of similar to the general advice you’ll hear, which is to “avoid creating a Dark Lord™ who is pure Chaotic Evil” because those types of characters are usually boring, flat, one-dimensional, static, etc. But because I’ve seen dark lords done well, I wish to clarify that if you understand a character’s motivation (or, more disturbingly, are familiar with such feelings and motives from your own personal experiences) you can pull just about anything off.

I mentioned earlier that I ran into trouble with villains the first time I tried to write a novel, and this was unfortunately the main source of my problems. My primary antagonist was the fantasy equivalent of the Inquisition—a large and well-established religious institution which had far-reaching influence in society, but was corrupt and abusing its power. My protagonist was a member of a tiny new religious cult which had been deemed heretical. Much of the story revolved around ideology, philosophy, and persecution.

The single representative of the villains whom the protagonist had the most interaction with was a guy motivated by a desire to destroy this tiny cult out of ideological hatred. My beta reader found him annoying and I had my own reservations and concerns about this character even while I was writing the scenes with him in it. He had not completely gelled, I didn’t have a clear idea of who he was or what made him tick, so I threw in the hatred thing as a motivation because I had nothing better to put in there. As a result, the character became a strawman of a certain mentality which I considered wrong and harmful… but also couldn’t really wrap my head around. I don’t understand people who go out of their way to destroy ideologies and ideas which differ from their own beliefs, because my personal experiences in life are different from theirs and I look at the world very differently.

Some of the alternate motivations I came up with which were easier for me to grasp included greed—the character then became simply a hired mercenary who only did what he did for money. His backstory hinted that he had been forced to flee his homeland after he was framed for a crime he didn’t commit; the people he was working with didn’t really trust him, both because he was a foreigner and an accused criminal. In fact, nobody really trusted him or wanted to employ him. He was a desperate man who would take any work offered to him. While his overall attitude and methods were slimy enough that he was never truly likeable, he did become more sympathetic (and I preferred him this way).

Which leads me to my next point…

3. Just write a character.

Alex_cryptid Alex_cryptid (Desert on Discord) wrote: “Villain is just a descriptor. Maybe it would be better to just write a character with their own complex personality and history and motives and flaws and strengths and the whole nine yards. If some of those aspects (mainly the motives) correline with villain stuff then you’d get a villain, but one that is also their own individual person and just happens to fit under the descriptor of villain.”

They’re right, you know. This was something I knew deep down but had never really articulated before, and because of that I didn’t think about it when I set out (for the first time in my life) to deliberately write an evil bastard as an RP character.

I am of course talking about Messala. Poor Messala. He’s been doing a bit better lately, but I don’t know if I’ll keep him around for much longer. Granted, he originated as an NPC villain for my other characters to fight/pursue, and one of the biggest issues I’ve had with writing him as a PC is the weight of his limited characterization as an NPC dragging behind him. He kidnapped and experimented on a child—how am I supposed to comprehend this guy? How do I get inside his head? Do I even want to get inside his head...?

The only solution I found to this was to downplay everything I had established about him beforehand. Kidnapping children? Nah, that was a one-time thing, and it was really his NPC henchman who did the experimenting. He just wanted to use the kid as bait. Wearing a cloak all the time to hide his face? Sure, he’s a hideous monster, but he used to look much worse. Being an incompetent scientist? He’s very much aware of that, feels bad about it, and has to work harder to succeed in that area. I didn’t necessarily have to rebuild the character from the ground up… but that kind of is more or less what I felt compelled to do, if I was going to be able to take this guy seriously as a character, much less an antagonist.

Looking back, it strikes me as kind of weird that most writers can't pull off a character who breaks certain social taboos. They inevitably become cartoonish and even silly, even though we all know that there are actually people in the world who do these things. I used to be really into true crime, where I studied the psychology of serial killers and people who were so far removed morally from the rest of society, they might as well have been aliens from another planet. I drew on my experiences with true crime a little bit when it came to Messala, but most of it was excised (not the least because this site is rated PG-13). Actually, I drew on a lot of different sources while shaping Messala (which I may talk about in more detail someday, idk when), and quite a few of them didn't even qualify as villains. They were mostly misunderstood souls who found themselves in unfortunate situations, either because they were born into it or simply made a mistake.

A flawed protagonist can be their own antagonist, too. I’m working on that with some of my other characters. One possible route I could be taking soon would involve Nimdok doing something rather villainous, albeit for understandable reasons. That’s another thing—when it comes to writing characters, if there’s anything you take away from all this, it’s that there’s a difference between something being understandable and actually excusing something. If someone is nasty to you because they’re having a bad day and the stress is getting to them, that is an understandable (or even sympathetic) motivation, but the action of being nasty is not excusable. It’s still a bad thing to do, one that will have consequences.

That’s an ultra simple example—uh, let’s say you steal some artifacts during a battle. You reason that you are saving the artifacts from destruction, but you’re still technically stealing them. Then you get caught in the act, a fight ensues, and your hand gets cut off. You lose the artifacts too. Oh well. Don’t do stupid chit next time, Starlin.

Or how about identity theft? You steal this dude’s identity with the intention of using his credentials, fame, reputation, etcetera for a good cause. But now you’ve pissed off evil people who think you’re the actual guy you’re impersonating, and they’ve attacked the guy’s family and friends in retaliation. That’s the entire basis of Nimdok’s character. He’s a terrible person who must work harder not only to be worthy of the identity he's stolen, but to be the hero he really does want to be. At least, that's what he was supposed to be when I first conceived him... he's grown quite a bit past that now, but like I hinted at earlier, I can't go into that without divulging spoilers.

Bottom line: my personal philosophy is to make villains look more sympathetic and heroes look less excusable (at the beginning of their stories, at least), but you can do this however you want. Just try to make it good.
 
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Jsc

Disney Princess
Writer
My favorite villain came from my aunt. She is terribly old, cranky, and believes in a very old world view of things. It was her unwavering loyalty to bygone times and bygone standards of living that showed me how to write a great villain. Especially from a cultural stand point. In just one afternoon with her I watched as she villainized the world around her. Criticized everything, lacked empathy, feared change, and disrespected adventure. She only saw righteousness and goodness through a very narrow, rose colored lens. Her favorite thing to say was "I just don't understand..." followed by whatever it was that just so happened to walk in front of her.

So my next villain I created was just that. An unadaptable, unsympathetic, and unwaveringly bad parent.

They never did anything evil-evil per se. But man, was it easy to hate em'. Just, right in the gut, hate them. Lol. Best villain I ever made. Thanks auntie! :D :p
 

Nimdok

Archaeologist
Character
Jsc Jsc

I did something similar with my dad, who is a self-described political extremist and “bigoted and proud of it”. Only I didn’t make that character a villain, he was more of an antihero. Misguided and certainly stuck in a rut, but there was still hope for him.

My dad... well, he’s my father and I love him. We share a lot of interests and personality traits. I wouldn’t say that I ever agreed with him—I’ve always been pretty apolitical—but it was something I gradually became aware of as I grew up, that what was considered normal in my house was unacceptable outside it. Writing about it has helped me sort out my feelings, and in a way it allowed me to re-humanize my dad, who I had demonized for so long out of sheer frustration.

At the end of the day, he’s just some guy who is always angry and/or annoyed about something. Lol.
 
FOREPLAY!
Character
"Avoid creating a Dark Lord™ who is pure Chaotic Evil because those types of characters are usually boring, flat, one-dimensional, static, etc."


Having played a pure chaotic evil character that achieved Dark lord status thrice(also other promotions) since being created 2003 on boards of star rp past I can agree with this statement. Yes I said agree because far to often writers think I am going to be the insane character with absolutely no morals and wants to destroy and destroy.

It is often the easy path so leads to boredom quickly the characters often become one dimensional they are crazy or static and unchanging. It has a lot to do with not putting a lot of thought into the character and just taking what seems like an easy road to writing a villain. I have seen so many try and give up on the endeavour out of boredom or not getting the reaction they think the character should deserve in threads.

If you look at Tegan on surface you think oh great another crazy darksider and most everyone over the years scoffed at her and just shook there heads a t her existence. Yet she has persisted a long time across the star wars boards being pure chaotic evil.

The reason she lasted where so many failed was a well laid out backstory as to why she was the way she was, Leaning into the fact everyone underestimates her and thinks she is nothing, and giving the character growth showing her chaotic neutral nature isn't all there is to her.

Her backstory started out simple she was kidnapped as an infant and was raised in enslavement to those who stole her. She was tortured, beaten, and treated poorly. I wrote a very not pg-13 story about some of the things that happened to her there was a purpose to this story to show her madness was a result of the torment she endured until her father finally rescued her when she was already an adult. Despite all the despicable things she does underneath she was a victim before become the tormentor. It creates this thing where you hate the character but you understand where the crazy comes from.

As for the behavior she is everything I rolled my eyes at in the early days of rp. Egoistical, Thinking your character is a god or the best, and unwilling to concede even when clearly bested. She was everything I disliked but with room to grow.

Her growth was leaning into the fact that everyone just wanted to ignore her or pretend she was nothing. Because people just wanted the old chaotic trope to go away she got away with a lot until the point she couldn't be ignored anymore. To many times chaotic evil are all about wanting attention and wanting to the bethe best or acknowledged in every instance. Tegan wanted to be acknowledge ic but if she wasn't it allowed her to get away with stuff like for instance planting explosives in her master ship and backing him into a wall where he had to acknowledge her. Instead of gettign discourage by people wanting Tegan to just go away I as a writer embraced and used it as part of her story.

I wrote a couple of times her going sane to show just how broken of person she really was. The point is to write Chaotic Evil well you have to craft a good story around the character don't make it they are just crazy or despicable. You build what I call a lovable monster, you sympathize with why the monster is the way they are even when you don't agree with there actions. You know where there darkness comes from they are more then there crazy.

Don't do chaotic evil if you just want the easy crazy character it will lead to boredom. Truly invest in it ask yourself why they are crazy, ask yourself what would they be like if they had not slipped into madness. Next if people what to ignore or scoff at the character embrace build it into the character use it until they are forced to notice you weather for good or ill. Always remember no character is evil by choice something makes them that way.

I think the reason people go for chaotic evil is they just think its the easy path with little effort.

Anyway it was a good this was just my two cents and experience.
 

Kitter Bitters

OOC Account
Writer
I've never been able to write a villain. Even writing a darksider I struggle with because in the films etc the darkside is portrayed as "evil" and "all consuming." But I see a lot of people here who write darksiders that are jolly and downright nicer than some lightsiders. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's very creative but not true to source material, but then again with the expanded universe there is so much source material out there maybe it is.

I think part of the issue is I've never had a darkside mentor. At the board most of my characters started on training was kind of a joke and it got to be where people had so many alts they did not want to train a billion times. What might be easier for people like me is to start out writing a neutral outlaw or something. Someone who doesn't always do good like a Jedi and then slowly work your way into being evil.
 

Nimdok

Archaeologist
Character
I've never been able to write a villain. Even writing a darksider I struggle with because in the films etc the darkside is portrayed as "evil" and "all consuming." But I see a lot of people here who write darksiders that are jolly and downright nicer than some lightsiders. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's very creative but not true to source material, but then again with the expanded universe there is so much source material out there maybe it is.

I think part of the issue is I've never had a darkside mentor. At the board most of my characters started on training was kind of a joke and it got to be where people had so many alts they did not want to train a billion times. What might be easier for people like me is to start out writing a neutral outlaw or something. Someone who doesn't always do good like a Jedi and then slowly work your way into being evil.
This is strictly my own personal opinion, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but this is something that has bothered me as well. The portrayal of Sith characters as morally "better" (or at least nicer) than Jedi seems to be a mixture of some intentional writing and a lot of unintentional consequences.

I've spoken to people who joined Chaos well before me, and they said that at one point a few years ago there were far more Jedi characters on the board than Sith. Now it is the opposite. The Sith are overrepresented compared to the Jedi and Light Side factions. I won't pretend to know exactly why that is, but the fact that many of these Sith characters barely even qualify as evil, especially given that the Sith in SW are meant to represent evil, seems strange indeed. However, I have studied certain trends in modern media and I am inclined to believe it is part of a popular trend of subverting old tropes and the traditional concept of morality found in earlier works of literature (the "classics"). I'm not talking about The Last Jedi and Rian Johnson saying in interviews that he went out of his way to "subvert the fans' expectations"... but I also kind of am. That is a perfect example of what I'm referring to. It also means that we now have a precedent in Canon for turning the old themes and symbols and ideas established in the Original Trilogy on their head. I've seen arguments that this is a good thing, as it forces SW to adapt to the modern era and will give the franchise a longer lifespan, but I'm sure most of y'all as fans know how divisive this creative decision was. I certainly have very mixed feelings about it.

A lot of people would probably say "it isn't that deep", which is probably true lol. I admit that I've enjoyed reading the NJO's war crimes plotline and how they've turned the concept of being a Jedi on its head, but in a lot of ways I prefer the simpler black and white morality that SW was built around. Not only is it easier and less stressful/confusing, it makes more sense with the bulk of the material. It's also worth nothing that when I originally posted this thread, I was still trying to write a Sith character. I have since given up on that because it didn't feel natural and I became bored/miserable with the character. For whatever reason, whether it's my personality or just a lack of interest, I couldn't portray explicit evil without it coming across as phony. However, I may in the future try to lean into portraying a more... well, not a goody two-shoes, but certainly a more sincere and blatantly Light Side character, if only because the Force on Chaos is currently unbalanced. ;)
 

Kitter Bitters

OOC Account
Writer
My thing is I don’t understand the appeal of writing what’s supposed to be the bad guy... as not a bad guy. If I came to a Star Wars board to be the villain I’d probably write a Sith. But I see a lot of Sith who are just good guys using the dark side. I guess I don’t understand why they wouldn’t just be Jedi? Maybe being a Jedi comes off as having to follow a really structured way of life. People don’t want to be evil , they just want freedom.

I dunno. The movies tell us the dark side corrupts and that the power physically rots away your flesh and will eventually consume you. But we have darksiders who are whole and healthy. It does make it confusing but it might also add some type of depth. I don’t play video games and I’m suspecting there must be some of this in games because it’s very popular.
 

Bianca

B 1 4 - N C 4
Writer
Kitter Bitters Kitter Bitters
The movies go out of their way to frame that the dark side itself does the whole physical rotting phenomena as a consequence of what you're doing with it. While I can't speak for other writers, I tend to follow the legends/canon idea of presenting beauty as a veneer on the surface that coats a corruption that lies just beneath. Like those portrayals of sirens in classical art where their exposed torso/faces are beautiful as a facade for the ugly, monstrous, creatures submerged beneath the waves. That's just a preference to the brand of deception, though, it isn't really indicative of the dark side itself, just of the sort of allegory being made in writing as a "all that glitters isn't gold" kind of deal, or beware of temptation or some other moral/ethical grandstanding.

As for the whole moral dilemma, I think that was the entire point of the prequel trilogy, most dark siders are originally just "good guys" trying to tap into a power they either don't really understand or think that they'll be the exception to the rule and manage to go without corruption before inevitably turning into the villains. Most villains, even in star wars and other black-and-white portrayals of evil, don't typically start at their end, they have to get there from something first. Obviously there's exceptions to that rule, with people who are raised and cultivated in an environment with conditions that breeds hostility and sort of nurtures that bedrock of villainous "virtues", but it's actually much harder to write that convincingly than to just write a normal or well-intentioned person who is led down a bad path on a road of no return (or sometimes with a redemption arc in there).

Edit: I base this on the last dozen years of writing villains almost exclusively, some to greater effect and with greater ease than others. I tend to think accomplishments of your character aren't objective metrics to your success, as they're mostly social constructs beholden to the way you're treated by other writers. Self-satisfaction in writing is, in my opinion, more important.
 

Nimdok

Archaeologist
Character
Bianca Bianca Kitter Bitters Kitter Bitters

In that case, maybe the problem would be starting a character in order to eventually make them into a proper Sith, but then never actually reaching that point for whatever reason. Your character stalls in development, or you lose interest, or hell, maybe you leave Chaos altogether... and you never become the villain in anybody's story. Social constructs or no, if you aren't enjoying it, chances are you won't become noteworthy, period.

But I do agree on the prequels stuff, much as I have a hard time taking those movies seriously. The basic story of "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" is fine. It works. Good job, George. A great Sith could very well start out as a Jedi and then gradually become Sith. Actually, I haven't seen a whole lot of that here so far, except maybe with Nida Perl Nida Perl going through a Sith brainwashing phase and Amani Amani being tempted by the late Adrian Vandiir, and I don't think the latter ever really went all the way. She was just mildly intrigued and got a fresh steaming new arm from Sith alchemy. Amani, are you evil now?

Anyway, yeah. That's probably why I found TSE boring. Granted, I was only there to see it this past year, and I hear it's heyday was well before that, but I got the vibe that all the good downfall-to-evil stories had already been told, and now everyone's just sitting pretty in black robes. It feels stale. No offense to those writers, I'm just late to the party and now everyone is chatting about things I don't know nothin' about rather than dancing or playing video games. As I mentioned earlier, some of the Jedi characters on the board are really quite corrupt, but it’s played straight rather than as a downfall story. Because the writers are trying to make a point about how labels mean nothing, I guess?
 
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Amani

C'est la vie
Character
A great Sith could very well start out as a Jedi and then gradually become Sith. Actually, I haven't seen a whole lot of that here so far, except maybe with Nida Perl Nida Perl going through a Sith brainwashing phase and Amani Amani being tempted by the late Adrian Vandiir, and I don't think the latter ever really went all the way. She was just mildly intrigued and got a fresh steaming new arm from Sith alchemy. Amani, are you evil now?
Didn’t expect to be brought up here lol but for a little bit yeah! Kinda sorta. Not anymore though.

Since this is the sort of thing this thread is about, I’ll talk about it! I found it pretty compelling at the time, though it more or less fits with concepts that have all been touched on before, and you all have already addressed. Amani went to the dark side using it as justification for means to an end, and was a little too stubborn in the belief that she would be able to properly control it without falling too far. She got back around to not being all Sithy though when she saw the mission through. As you say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a pretty good summary of how it evolved.

She was doing what she had to do to right her own wrongs and live up to the ideals of self-sacrifice and heroism that she glorifies. Part of the goal with the character was to start with someone who was very much a hardline traditionalist, only to have the sanctity of those beliefs eroded over time as she began to see things in gray rather than black and white. Even when she didn’t really believe in the righteousness of what she was doing, she told herself that at the end of the day it was for the greater good. And of course a little encouragement from Mr. Vandiir helped with that process. In reality, her control was far from perfect and it was steadily corrupting her, and only through the will of the Force and a never-give-up attitude did she manage to pull herself back. Had never really intended for the transformation to be permanent, merely an arc for the character to overcome, but left the possibility out there based on how things turned out in writing.

Honestly I didn’t actually get to do too much with it, due to a number of outlying circumstances including IRL business getting in the way, so by the end of things, it was a largely unexplored story with only a few key moments actually being played out. Still, the concept was one I was interested in fleshing out but after a little too much time I was ready to have her story move on to its next chapter.

At the end of the day it's about writing what’s appealing to you. Generally, people will have a hard time writing a villain who is completely immoral and just wants to be cartoonishly evil. At least not if you wanna have some nuance with your writing, though I’m sure some have managed to pull it off which is great. But I find that generally the most engaging villains are those that have reasons for being where they are, and are human beyond their perceived villainy. And I tend to have a hard time making up reasons that I’m inspired by as to why someone would be evil, which is why I’ve yet to make a dedicated Sith character. And really, I think I'd be hard pressed to define Amani as a proper 'villain' even when she was at her lowest.

TLDR Kinda went dark but isn’t anymore. Thanks for letting me abuse this as an opportunity to express something about my character OOC for once lmao
 
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Commodore
Character
So to throw my two cents in...

It's always been interesting to me that people often struggle with writing villains. I usually find myself in the opposite camp. I personally find it easier to write a totally evil character, than a Superman/Goku-esque good character. Maybe it's because I find it more believable that someone could be that purely evil instead of purely good. That probably says something about the way I feel about people lol. Hell, Arcturus is the closest to a good guy that I've created on this site thus far, and he's an anti-hero at best.

To add to what Nimdok Nimdok has said, I definitely think that the primary focus when writing any character, is to write them as a character first. Everyone has their own goals, desires, needs, etc., and is willing to do varying levels of good or evil to achieve them. If you develop a character enough, then you will likely naturally take them in one direction or the other.

Also (and this is probably gonna be a bit of a hot take), I don't necessarily subscribe to the idea that everyone is the hero of their own story. For example, I've seen characters that know that they've gone down the wrong path, but feel as if they're too far to come back. They'll get stuck in an endless cycle of evil, but still be aware that said acts are evil. There's also the force of nature or agent of chaos ideas, of course, but that's a different story.

Speaking of force of nature and agent of chaos, I think that it those kinds of tropes are very doable. I think that it just takes a level of understanding of what you're getting into. You have to kind of understand how that role functions in order to really sell it.

When it comes to the dark lord stereotype, we have to look at iconic dark lords that established the trope. Sauron was a force of nature more than anything. Vader was a tragic fallen character on a path to redemption. Voldemort, well, he was a wizard Nazi, but still had nuance to his character due to the insight we had into his past. I think that it's easy for people to just look at the face value of "dark lord" and leave it at that. I mostly chalk this up to the fact that a lot of later famous writers took these examples and replicated the most base qualities of the characters, sans nuance.

Furthermore, I definitely agree that you don't need a villain for conflict. I think that understanding the difference between an antagonist and a villain is super important. You could even have two heroic characters who come to blows due to opposing objectives (ie. Marvel: Civil War).

Idk, I guess the TL;DR of this rant is this:

Write characters as characters first. Don't worry about alignment. Understand why you're writing the character the way you are. The more you understand your character, the more effective of an antagonist and/or villain they will be. Also, you can go the cliche route, but just go into it with an understanding of what you're doing, and you'll be thanking yourself later.
 
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