The villain is the hero of his own story

posted in: Creation, Writing | 0

I frequent the web a good bit, and sometimes I can’t help but engage in conversations.  Some of my surfing takes me to writing sites and electronic water holes where would-be authors show up.  Every now and again they ask something that I chime in on.

This post is a copy of something I threw up in response to someone who was struggling to figure out why their villain characters felt so flat and unfinished, and was looking at famous villain characters (Sauron, Voldemort, Emperor Palpatine, etc…) trying to understand how they didn’t also fit into the same flat and problematic issues.  One of the main questions this person had was “if Sauron/Voldemort/Whoever wins, wouldn’t they be bored afterwards?”

Every (properly written) villain is the hero of his own story. The converse is true; every (properly written) hero is the hero of his story. IMO, I think what’s tripping you up here is you’re only used to seeing stories through the lens of the hero, as an audience member. Because most people read rooting for the heroes.

The villain(s) and the hero(es) don’t exist solely to defeat each other. Most conflict arcs do have those goals as their keys; but characters also (should) have other arcs in good stories other than merely winning.

In your question, you ask “what does (the bad guy) think he’ll be doing after winning?” Two things here if the writer can’t envision that answer. First, that speaks to a lack of the villain (or any other) character being well rounded. That is, the character as designed and presented only exists to ‘win.’ Which is bad, poorly written, and not done being created for use in the story. Second, turn it around and ask what does the hero do after ‘winning’?

Most heroic arcs end with “and they lived happily ever after” or one of any number of variations that amount to the exact same thing. What did Harry Potter do after ‘winning’? He married, had kids, raised them, lived a normal life. HEA.

How would a villain be any different? The villain is the hero of his own story. From the villain’s perspective, the hero is the villain. From the villain’s perspective, the villain is the hero.

If this sounds simplistic, I would strongly encourage you to sit on the knee-jerk reaction and think it through. Study storycraft, consider your story and your characters, and look for the thin spots that haven’t been filled in properly.

Take Voldemort. You say “wouldn’t he be bored if he won?” Why on Earth would you assume that? He wasn’t “trying to be the villain” or “trying to be evil.” He didn’t exist just to be a foil for the Order of the Phoenix; he didn’t kill the Potters because he wanted to make Harry an orphan and be mean.

He felt, very strongly as we saw over the series, that he was right. That focusing on pure-blooded Wizarding lineage, that discriminating against non-pures and non-pure-human creatures, was the correct course for Wizarding society. The Order of the Phoenix, including Harry Potter, disagreed. Harry answered the call to action pushed on him from multiple sources (including Voldemort, Dumbledoor, his friends, and even his own moral code), but Harry also believed he was right to oppose Voldemort because he couldn’t stand by and let a world matching Voldemort’s vision come to pass.

The “good guys” weren’t fighting against Voldemort because they were good; they were battling because they felt very strongly that he was wrong. Voldemort wasn’t striving to defeat his opposition because he was evil; but because he felt very strongly that he was right.

Consider this as a storycraft exercise: How would HP7 (aka The Deathly Hallows) have ended if Voldemort had won? What would have come to pass in the Wizarding World? One obvious answer is it would be the perfect setup for another book(s), or a new series (perhaps even set a generation or two past Harry Potter’s defeat) that follows the classic “hero’s tale” motif. Doesn’t a HP7 that ends with Potter losing and Voldemort triumphing sound like SO MANY setups for SO MANY classic Hero’s Tales?

If you have a character that is “set on ruling the land”, and that’s it … that character isn’t done being created. Why does the character want to rule? Even if it’s simple megalomania, that’s still a motivation that requires setup and will inform the character’s character.

A “simple” villain who desires power for power’s sake can be done very well and very entertainingly; doing so requires much more setup than simply having the character state “because I want to be in charge”. Why does the character want to be in charge? Maybe he fears not having control? Maybe he can’t trust anyone else to make the ‘right’ decisions?

But, as a storycraft decision, especially since you’re ‘stuck’ on how to fill out your villain, I would strongly encourage you to set your villain up as a more rounded character with a more obvious motivation than megalomania.


  • Your guy wants to be in charge because his (town/county/region/whatever) has been abused in the political process by the (rest of whatever) for (a long ass time); so he doesn’t trust they’ll not continue screwing (him and his peeps) over.
  • Your guy needs to be in charge because he fears some external overarching threat to the (whole whatever). By being in charge, he’ll be able to marshal the resources (armies, magic, whatever) to be strong enough to defeat this external threat. The hero, of course, is probably pursuing some arc that involves diplomacy or coaxing or leading-by-example-to-entice the (individual pieces of the whole whatever) into choosing to band together against the external threat. Your villain could not be willing to risk what would happen if the (whole whatever) doesn’t come together in time or whole-heartedly enough to fight against the external threat.
  • Your villain could be looking for something and needs to be free to search for it. A lost relic, some technology, a crashed alien spaceship, someone’s ancestor; whatever. By being in charge, he’ll be able to look efficiently and without interference. And whatever he’s looking for will have some result once found, like bestowing power or knowledge or whatever.

IMO, a writer knows he’s on the right course in a story when the decisions characters make flow organically from those characters. Things A, B, C, D, etc… don’t happen because it’s time for them to happen due to a beat sheet or shit like that. They happen because “well the character would obviously do this now”, and then after “this” happens, the next “this” occurs in the same fashion, because it’s the obvious reaction for that character to then turn to. And so on, and so on.

My final example would be to point you at the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel gave us individual movies with Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. What was the next logical step for those characters? Banding them together as the Avengers to fight a threat greater than any could handle individually.

This same arc repeated with the phase 2 movies, but something was added that’s leading to the climax of phase 2. As the individual heroes did their own things, and then came together for Avengers 2, the world suffered as their battleground. Cities, even whole (small) countries suffered while the superheroes waged war.

So Marvel, organically, is taking the next step. What happens if the heroes are in a world where they can’t defeat evil without having the battles impact that world with collateral damage.

Thus we have Civil War, where the heroes are taking sides over whether or not to allow themselves to submit to control by the government(s) of a country or the world. Why is this a question? Because the world and the heroes are taking sides on it; some believe there should be regimented oversight of the heroes, telling them where and what and how they fight evil. Others believe that would be the greater evil, that it would allow worse evil to happen because it would tie the heroes’ hands and prevent them from being able to stop bad things from happening.

Iron Man and Captain America are the leaders of the two sides in Civil War. Both are heroes, yes? Each believes, strongly enough to fight people who they once considered not just allies, but friends, to ‘win.’ Are Stark or Rogers wrong? Are either evil? They both are the heroes of that story, from their point of view.


My latest novel, Grift Girl Gone, launches on 11-April.  Fans of con artists and caper crimes might find it interesting.  Have a look.