I recently read the following list of evil overlord rules and found it hilarious:
It also made me aware of things about villains every writer should be aware of:
1. Most of that list involves making sure the evil overlord doesn’t ignore common sense rules. I think a lot of villains, fictitious or not, fall into this trap because ditching goodness for evil makes it easy to ditch the annoying rules that require patience, no matter how much they keep stupid mistakes from happening. You don’t even have to be a villain to experience this. How often have you started a project on your own that’s outside your expertise, then gotten into trouble quickly because you didn’t ask for help or double check your own work? Going it alone, something villains are forced to do if they want to be evil, makes it easy to fall into traps.
2. Even if an evil overlord does everything on the list, he (or she) is still vulnerable. Take #37, the trusted lieutenant, for example. The villain has to trust somebody. The hero would have to be part of a deep cover sleeper cell in his organization, but still. This means there is no excuse to make your villain weak just so that your hero can defeat him/her. Your villain can be smart, and can be beaten in a smart way that doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence.
3. The need for a five-year-old child advisor to point out obvious holes in plans reminds me that most books and stories paint villains as not smart enough to spot these things. After all, only a stupid person could be so depraved to be that evil, right? We like to think of evil people as having simple weaknesses like that. As if merely being smart makes us morally good. Which is why the most terrifying villains are geniuses. Think of a graph with Evilness on the X Axis and Smartness on the Y Axis, with a diagonal line from the bottom left going to the upper right. That line is where the villain starts becoming less interesting, less believable, or less important. If the villain is really smart, but not that evil, they fall below the line. If they’re really evil but not that smart, they also fall below it.
4. The list sounds almost like the evil overlord is trying very hard to overcome his/her weaknesses. A lot of evil is based on emotions and strong wants and people not being able to (or not choosing to) control them. So when writing a villainous character, remember that if they screw up, it might be a good idea to have a strong emotion in the villain to blame for it.
Obviously, a villain does not have to be an evil overlord. A villain can be time. It can be the hero’s inner self. It can be a person with good intentions who’s merely clumsy. But if you’re going to go all out and make the antagonist purposeful about being evil, the evil overlord list is a good place to start.
I re-read a book about how to write good villains recently, and it talked about tapping into the readers’ primal fears or fears developed in childhood. If you’re comfortable sharing, tell me in the comments about things that freaked you out as a kid, or about a villain from literature that managed to frighten you.
For instance, as a kid I was terribly frightened about getting caught reading at night after my bedtime. That didn’t keep me from using my flashlight under the covers, but I was always frightened (and a little excited at the risk) that I’d get in trouble for it. To this day, the parts in books where the hero takes a risk and is about to get caught are the most scary and thrilling for me.
I’m also thoroughly convinced that when I have kids, they’re going to be the ones catching ME up late reading (or perhaps writing). 😀