This post leads on from last week’s on antagonists, but is aimed a slightly more specific type of antagonist - the villain. In this, I’ll be looking at some of the most famous antagonists from fantasy-adventure works - the ones who genuinely strike fear into the hearts of our protagonists and are a real threat; the ones we remember long after the story is finished. Villains like Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, The Witch-King of Agmar, and even the White Witch from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
It should be noted that all of the suggestions I give in the post come in tandem with last week’s post. You should not forget as you read that your villains, like all antagonists, need real motivations, arcs and faces to be interesting.
That being said, how can you write a fantasy villain that inspires that deep sense of fear, power and gravitas?
What Not To Do
Tell, rather than show.
Please don’t write: Lord EvilMan, the most powerful and scary man in all of EvilTown, walked in the room. He looks at the people and says: “I’m so powerful. I could kill every single one of you. Don’t cross me!”
Okay, my example is a bit exaggerated, but the point stands. There is nothing less impressive than a villain telling you how powerful he is, or you simply telling the reader that he is very powerful and scary. More than most things, these traits need to be shown to be effective.
So how do you show these things? Well, here are some ways to consider it:
Reactions and Fear
One of the things that make all the above villains so ominous is the way that other characters react to them over the course of the story. When we discover who fears them, we discover a lot about how dangerous the character is.
Sometimes, it will be the way they react to their presence, for example when Darth Vader enters a room, people will cower and look subservient without him really needing to say anything. Film, of course, has the added benefit of being able to throw some great music and sound design onto this as well, but what is important is that you are capturing the tone in your writing. You should be trying to capture this in your prose and one effective way of doing then is describing how people - especially strong and important people - react to them.
This is even more impactful when the villain isn’t there. Consider how we are introduced to the White Witch in CS Lewis’ wonderful The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The beavers are extremely scared when her name is mentioned. Tumnus is so scared that he actually betrays his new friends, just because he is worried what will happen to him if he doesn’t. By making the characters do things that are out of character and against what they would usually do at the mere mention of the villain, without the villain actually being there, tells us a lot about their power.
The most obvious example of this working is Lord Voldemort. The fact that before we even meet him people are too scared to say his name in public has a huge effect on our perception of him as a reader. It’s a very clever narrative trick.
This is amplified by the fact that even after he has been defeated people are still too scared to speak his name. They actually flinch when others do it. This helps paint him with all the danger and gravitas that he deserves and means that when we do actually see him rise again at the end of The Goblet of Fire, it becomes one of the most memorable scenes in modern literature. This is because of how Rowling has set him up using others reactions.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to be scared to say your villain’s name. That would be a bit too on the nose and bit too similar to Rowling, I think. But do consider other ways that you can have common and normal people react to discussing or mentioning the villain. This really helps build up their danger.
While having common folk fear the villain is a good thing, sometimes this is even better demonstrated by someone very powerful fearing the villain. In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is set up as being an extremely powerful wizard, so when he becomes afraid of the Balrog, we know things are getting serious. This happens again later on where Gandalf is used as a narrative tool to indicate that the Witch-King of Agmar is someone to be really scared of, as he has no desire whatsoever to fight him.
If you can have otherwise powerful and competent heroes suddenly become quite afraid of something or someone in particular, this contrast will really help develop the villain’s sense of strength and danger.
Stories and Mythology
Real worlds and cultures have stories and myths built into everything. Don’t forget about this when you build your world. In The Name of the Wind, the Chandrian appear in fairy tales and songs sung by children. They are very much an old part of the world and that lends them a certain gravitas.
Imagine if your character is walking through a town and their one claim to fame is, “one day Lord EvilMan stopped here to stay the night. Up there is the house he stayed in, they say no one can stay a night in there without going mad.”
This is a demonstration of how your villain becomes part of the cultural tapestry of your world. Name things after them. Have stories, apocryphal or true, told about them. Make people scared.
Real Power and Threat
Your villain needs to pose a real threat to your protagonist. A real threat. There are two things you need for this to be the case.
1. Have them actually do something
Please don’t make your villain all talk and no action. Good examples:
Give your villain some real gravitas and don’t wait until the second half of your story to do it. If you want us to be intimidated and threatened by them, give us reason to be.
2. Imminent Threat
Great villains work well if the protagonist feels like they could be killed at any time. The threat feels very imminent. For all that I love the books, and the villains, my mine gripe with Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles is the fact that the Chandrian appear so violently at the start and then basically disappear for the rest of the books. They stop feeling like a threat and lose all of that great fear that was built up at the start.
There are many ways of creating an imminent threat. The White Witch is a constant and imminent threat because she has Edmund captured and is slowly turning him against his siblings.
3. Have them far more powerful than your protagonist
Nobody wants a villain who is easily defeatable. The best protagonist / villain relationships are ones that are hugely unbalanced. Our villain needs to be a real threat. Our protagonist should be the severe underdog in any conflict.
Consider Lord Voldemort - apart from some other clever narrative tricks like having the same wand, Harry doesn’t stand a chance. If it was a normal magical duel with no extenuating we all know that he would be dead. There’s no question of the matter.
What power does Frodo have to defeat the Witch-King of Agmar or Sauron for that matter? None, except for the possibility of destroying the ring. But in one on one combat they are a clear and impossible threat.
The White Witch even kills Aslan, our great hero and saviour, without much of a fight. (I know, I know, he comes back, but at the time it has a lot of impact).
A great example of this actually comes from Brandon Sanderson’s YA novel, Steelheart. I think Steelheart is great villain precisely because he is so completely unstoppable. When they do stop him, it isn’t because the protagonist is stronger or more powerful, but because of another narrative twist.
If you want a really scary, memorable and intimidating villain, consider doing the following:
Next week I will be in Sri Lanka, so may not be able to update the blog. If I am unable, then the week after I will be writing about how to construct individual scenes and chapters and what goes in them.
See you in two weeks, probably.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.