I have noticed a trend recently in how-to-write blogs which focus on how to develop a believable villain/antagonist. That is, the person in a story who goes against the objective of the protagonist. The problem is that a lot of writers seem to forget one importance of building a villain. Often times, it is the people around the bad guy who build up suspense for the villain or bring a more human side to them.
Take, for example, the Harry Potter Series. I use this often because most people have at least heard of it. Voldemort is the main villain. However, he actually rarely appears in the earlier books. And yet, it is his minions—his seconds—who present more of an obstacle to Harry and his friends. Examples include Lucius Malfoy, his son Draco, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Peter Pettigrew. While they all play very different roles, the one thing they all have in common is they work for He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.
All these “Right-Hands” present very different pictures of the insanity, slyness, and betrayal. So, let’s go through some major positions a villain’s surrounding minions might hold and how they bring depth to the conflict.
One of the biggest parts of understanding a villain is by first figuring out where they came from. This is where parents (or other relatives) come in.
One of my favorite teen books growing up was Abarat by Clive Barker. It tells of a sea world filled with islands signifying hours in a day, and a young teen girl from our world who gets thrown into it. In this world we meet Christopher Carrion, the Lord of Midnight. He is the main villain in the series, and yet when we meet his grandmother Mater Motley we get a whole new look at evil.
While he is the main protagonist, she is the one the reader really hates. She is disgusting. There is nothing good about her, and it is in this fact that Carrion almost seems good compared to her. She is not his minion—in many terms he is hers—and she drives more fear into hearts than her grandson can. This character is a parent figure to our villain, and yet she is also a hint of what he might become.
Parents, however, do not necessarily have to be more evil then their children. Some parents’ positions in the story are to show a contrast to their child’s wickedness. I will give the example of the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens (not a book, but its characters are well-rounded). Kylo Ren—the villain—is the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia (who are always portrayed as good). In this case, the parents are trying to bring the villain back towards good.
Parents fall into three different categories in a villain’s life. First, they can be a driving force towards bad. Second, they are the driving force towards good. And third, they are either not in the picture or a stagnant force in their child’s life. That is, they simply go along with their evil but do not dissuade or encourage.
Adding these family characters (whether a brother, parent, father-figure, etc.) is a great way to contrast the villain or bring out a different side of them.
The Villainess Right-Hand Man
As I talked about with Abarat, some people around the villain can actually be there to make him/her not seem quite so bad. This even more villainess right-hand man (or woman) can be someone who works closely with them, is their subordinate, or merely is influenced by them.
The first is like a partner. One example I love (though not a real antagonist) is Marley from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. Marley is Scrooge’s partner and friend, and it is made clear that they are both horrible people. They feed off of each other’s miserliness (yes, that is a word). When Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge, it is to warn him of how he is headed to hell if he continues to live like he is. However, in life Marley was just as bad as Scrooge. You might create a character who is the partner to the villain with much the same motivations (in this case, greed).
Another option is to create the subordinates around them. Going back to my example of Harry Potter, all of the people I listed work for Voldemort. They answer to him. I love these types of characters because you can create any person as long as they follow the villain. Compare Bellatrix and Pettigrew. The former is powerful and insane and the other is winey and frightened. Now take Lucius and his son Malfoy. Lucius is happily following Voldemort, whereas Malfoy cannot even kill Dumbledore.
Subordinates can be following the villains for any reason—whether blackmailed or zealots—and this can bring depth to the antagonism the protagonist faces.
The third type of secondary villain is not directly connected to the main antagonist, and yet they are influenced by them. The one example I will give is Saruman from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. While he does not directly work for Sauron, from a distance he follows the ring and his lust for power. These antagonists may not work for and directly with the main villain, but their existence and motivation poses a similar threat to the hero as the main antagonist does.
Maybe mindless minions would be a better word for these types of antagonists. If you have read any sci-fi or fantasy book, you will probably have guessed the type I am referring to. These are the orcs in Lord of the Rings and the nameless Death Eaters in Harry Potter. Usually these followers are easily killed and of no importance to the plot individually. Instead, they are merely a horde of which the villain commands. One would think that their existence then would not be very important.
Well, you would be wrong.
These mass followers are who the villain derives much of their power from. Alone, he/she would not be as scary. These followers do the dirty work while their master watches from above. However, what I have noticed with a lot of authors is that they think just because it is an army that they need no development.
The thing about these mindless followers are even they should have interesting qualities about them. In Lord of the Rings, Saruman breeds Uruk-hai (a race of orcs) who are extremely powerful and bulky. While we learn little of individual Uruk-hai, we learn a lot of about their race. In this way, understanding these followers should be confined to the big picture, in a sense.
What do they generally look like? Are they goblins? Vampires? Aliens? Do they wear a certain type of uniform? A hat? A symbol/insignia? Do they carry a certain weapon? Do they have certain skills? What in them harkens back to the main antagonist? All these things make a story really pop.
Now, not all villains have an army, so if your story does not feature an epic villain, ignore this part.
The Red Herring
Being a mystery lover, I could not help but add this section. Mostly what I have been talking about is concerning fantasy/sci-fi/historical genres. However, in most plots there is some sort of antagonist (say for if the conflict is man-versus-self or something like that). This section is talking more about the villains in murder mysteries and many romance/gothic novels.
Usually, there is some person trying to get away with something in these books. It might be a murderer the detective is trying to catch. Or it might be the evil girl trying to steal the love of the male protagonist by lying to him about the female protagonist. Either way, these characters can offer moving hurtles for the main protagonist. And yet, they would not be half as potent if there were not red herrings distracting the detective from discovering the truth or their identity.
In murder mysteries, for example, everyone is a suspect. And usually, every other character is up to illegal activity and distracting the focus from the true murderer. While these characters do not always work for the main villain nor are they influenced by them, they add interest to the plot.
These characters are like a cloak which surrounds the villain, keeping their identity or wrong-doings hidden.
So, I guess my argument is that how good a villain is often depends a lot more on who surrounds them.
What are some of your favorite secondary antagonists? Is there a type of minion I missed? Let me know in the comments and, as always,
Best wishes on your life full of adventure,