Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Creating Villains or Other Bad Guys in Middle Grade Novels

When I started to research this post, I learned that villains are only a subset of a larger group of conflict-inducers called “antagonists”. Antagonists are often a character, but they don’t have to be. And not all antagonist characters might be described as villains. [Kristin Lamb explains this well with examples in her guest post at Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing: Kristen Lamb on Scene Antagonists and Big Boss Troublemakers.]

Creating a good villain is challenging. In The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass discusses the difficulty of writing a good villain: “…they are frequently cardboard. Most are presented as purely evil.”
To create villains with depth, it’s important to consider positive character traits as well as negative ones. I love the character of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books, because early in the series, Harry sees him as a typical, mean, unlikable villain, but as the books move along, Dumbledore has mysterious faith in him, and it leads me, as a reader, to question how I feel about him.

Tips for creating convincing villains:

Give the villain a brain. Villains are smart, as clever or even more clever than your hero. That means the writer has to be smart in creating situations where what the villain is going to do isn't obvious or typical.
Think beyond traditional negative traits. What mades your villain different from lots of others out there? What is unique about her?
Consider the positives. Think of your characters on a continuum from good to bad, with none of them completely at one end or another. People aren't completely good or evil, so characters shouldn't be either. What makes your villain a little bit good? (You can also think about what makes your hero a little bit bad).
Donald Maass suggests an exercise where you think about your villain from the point of view of your protagonist, and find three ways they are alike, and one way they are different. Then think about the thing about your villain that your protagonist will never understand.
Revisit your story from the villain's perspective. What does he or she want? Are his actions consistent with how he's going to get it? The villain needs a strong motivation, just the way your protagonist or hero does. The story should make sense and develop from the villain's perspective too.

How do villains in MG novels differ from villains in YA or adult novels?
Many people might say that villains in MG novels are less mean or less violent. I’m not sure that’s true. But more of the violence or  mean behaviour may be “off screen” rather than being described in gory detail. Villains in upper MG books may be more violent than villains in younger MG books, in proportion to the plot conflict.

Villains in MG books often have more humourous or even ridiculous characteristics, in keeping with the tone of the novel, of course.

How do you make your bad guys convincing to the reader? What villains stand out to you as unique?

Barbara Watson and her followers discuss how depth and layers make for a good rascal in a MG novel.

Kelly Barnhill lists some different possibilities for villains – from the perspective of fourth graders  
In Muahaha! Does Your Villain Have What It Takes? author Amy Kaufman talks about writing villains for MG and YA books.

Some tips for Writing Good…Er…Bad Villains by Vanessa Di Gregorio at Let the Words Flow
Over at Project Mayhem, Hilary Wagner gives us examples of great villians in children’s literature.


  1. The best stories have a villain worth beating. An easy win doesn't feel very satisfying.

    Good post.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

    1. So true, Moody. If the villain isn't strong enough, then I think the whole story becomes less captivating.

  2. I know I probably don't tell you this enough, but your blog rock! Your posts are consistently helpful and timely and I always come away with something I can put to use in my writing. Thanks! :-)

    1. What a nice compliment, Car! It's great to know that my posts are helpful.

  3. I recently edited my wip so that one of the bad guys was more dimensional. I made him nice in two scenes. Then I felt really bad that he was the bad guy. lol

    1. Creating an emotional reaction is always a good sign! It's funny to think about making a villain nicer, though that's what I'm working on lately.

  4. I'm nearing the end of a WIP and have a note that I need my villains to be more developed, more rounded, and not just all bad. It's easier for me to make them all bad at first and then revise them into more real people. (Thanks for the link to my rascal discussion too!)

  5. villains are my favorite to right - i always imagine their voices in the most vivid way. thanks for these tips - great post :)

  6. In the past, I've written a paragraph or two from the bad guy's POV where they are actually the protagonist. My problem is that I end up liking them too much and wanting to reform them, so then I have to come up with a worse villain!


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