How to Play a Convincing Villain
To some, playing a villain seems a daunting task. I'm here to tell you it's not half as difficult as you think, and to offer up some general advice! Playing baddies is my area of expertise, and I'm very passionate about it. ;)
What Makes a Villain?
Let's start off this guide by first discussing the main points of what a villain is. In order for me to consider a character as being villainous, I think that:
- Their actions must negatively impact a larger group of people, and generally comes at some sort of tangible cost to that group- be it monetary, physical, or psychological.
- Their negative actions must be reoccurring and are made consciously.
- The character has a drive for survival, and not getting caught.
- Their reasoning behind their actions falls outside what is conventionally considered socially acceptable by at least one group of people.
- They don't think of themselves as the bad guy.
The last one emphasized for extra emphasis because this is one of the most important things about playing a villain.
So how do you make a convincing villain, then? Well...
What Makes a Character Convincing (3D)?
The same things that make a regular character convincing are what makes a villain convincing. People don't:
- Always know everything, and aren't always right.
- Always like themselves.
- Always succeed.
- Have the same reaction to everything.
- Always know what the plan is.
- Always see eye-to-eye with everyone.
- Behave in ways that are 100% predictable.
- Struggle to do what they think is right.
- Struggle with their ideas of right and wrong on occasion.
- Have obstacles to overcome.
- React differently to different situations.
- Have flaws and fears.
- Have the same basic needs as everyone else.
- Come from a variety of different backgrounds.
- Appear as living beings: always thinking, always doing something, always feeling.
All of these things apply to a villain as well! Additional and optional reading on playing convincing characters include: Conquering the One-Dimensional Character Fear by @Syn, and The 3 Pillars to Bringing Your Character to Life.
Now that we've talked through these points, we can move on to the creation of a villain.
The Development Phase - Before You Play
1. Everyone Has Motivations, Including the Villain
Whether you're good or bad, everyone has a motivation. No one is good just for the sake of being good, and no one is bad just for the sake of being bad- characters that are fall entirely flat and are exceptionally boring, so don't make that mistake. This can easily be avoided by simply giving your character a motivation! The motivation doesn't have to be something which is inherently evil or bad, and in fact it's much better if it's not because it makes it easier to relate to the character.
For example, a character could want to do something about global warming or an environment problem. Protecting the environment is their motivation. So far, this character doesn't sound like a bad person- do they?
2. Why Does This Motivate Them?
The best villains have compelling arguments for why their thing is important to them, so it is good to be able to answer this question. Why does the character so passionate about the environment? Perhaps their deceased mother did work on saving rain forests, and because they had a very close relationship with their mother they want to continue in her footsteps to carry on her legacy and feel closer to her.
What makes someone villainous is the length they're willing to go to pursue their ideals. What are the character's justifications? How do they justify their actions? Can they always justify their actions? How does the character feel about their justifications? Just because they think they have the right to do as they feel they must, it doesn't mean they have to like it or feel good about it.
Maybe the character who's passionate about the environment feels justified in taking matters into their own hands because politicians and charities aren't doing enough to protect the environment, and aren't going anywhere. Maybe they think that someone has to do something now, otherwise there won't be a world for people tomorrow. Violence and vandalism is the only thing that people will listen to, and so the character feels fine about sabotaging logging machinery.
The justification phase is where it starts to become clear that this character is perhaps not a good guy, as we can see from the example.
Before playing the character, I strongly recommend that you don't advertise them as being a bad person. That entirely defeats the purpose of the character and ruins all of the fun of them. You're also shooting yourself in the foot, because the vast majority of people don't have any interest in getting their characters into proper trouble. It's sufficient to just say that your character is very passionate about the environment, if we're running with the example. The fun of them being a bad guy comes from the rest of the board gradually figuring it out through their actions.
After Creation - How to Play
I want the reader to be able to sympathize with my character. As such, I believe it's important that the villain fails occasionally. If the villain is played sensibly, then this failure does not have to be something horrible- like winding up in jail and getting executed. What matters more is that the character feels a genuine sense of loss, and that can happen with fairly small obstacles.
For example, the character could have set up everything to be sabotaged and then forgot their detonator at home or something. This not only makes the story of the villain more dynamic, but also allows for more writing opportunities and creates tension in the story.
Whether or not you're starting off with someone who's just beginning their career as a criminal or they've been one for years, there is usually some degree of escalation involved.
Eventually, it won't be enough to sabotage logging machinery. When police start patrolling the area, the character will be forced to change their plan of action to something more drastic in order to deal with this new hurdle. Will they escalate to assault, or even murder? A villain would take things one step further, while someone in over their head would back off and stop.
This escalation is important, as it will be what gradually shows your character's true colors.
3. Follow Through
If your character says that they're going to do a thing, then they need to do it. If the character decides that the best way to solve the problem of police snooping around the logging area is to blow up the police station, then they need to find a way to do that and see that it actually happens. A character who makes threats but doesn't follow through on them is no threat at all, and therefore not a villain. Don't make threats you can't keep.
4. The Message and Charisma
The villain always has a message or some point that they're trying to make. This might not always be shared in a way that is obvious, but it is often touched upon in some way in the presence of other characters. It might just be in a gesture, or it can be in some bits of dialogue where we have to read between the lines before we know what's going on. Or, sometimes it's stated plainly:
An example of things being not so obvious could be the character mentioning to a friend that they don't want to go to a certain restaurant because its floor is made of some kind of endangered tree or whatever.
However, the villain doesn't often spend much time or energy convincing people of their ideals on a personal level. Their dialogue on these matters is largely one-way, as they aren't interested in having an actual discussion about it since they're simply not going to change their minds. This means that, on an individual level, the character might not be very effective in turning people to their cause. It's far easier to get the allegiance of someone on a personal level when you're offering them something in return for their services and make it more of a business deal.
In larger numbers, it's a different matter. Passion is an effective tool in swaying people, and villains are always very passionate about their cause. This gives many of them a natural sort of charisma to work with, which usually makes it much easier for them to get what they want. This can mean that a well-played villain can actually get "good" characters to give them things or do things for them without the "good" character realizing that they're getting themselves involved in something "bad."
All of the things discussed above creates a presence for the character. Presence is especially important with a villain. It is their reputation. It's what other people know of them. It's what creates fear. Villains are meant to keep us on the edge of our seats, wondering what will happen, who will get hurt, who's going to win. They're meant to make us react and feel something emotionally. This is impossible without a presence.
Imagine Darth Vader. He's not frightening just because he can use the Force, because wields a lightsaber with wicked efficiency, or because his face can't be seen. These all help, of course. But that's not the main reason. He's frightening because we know just what he's capable of- and because we never know when he's going to demonstrate it. There are times when he chokes a fool for saying the wrong thing, and other times he does nothing but walk away. You want the tension, the apprehension, the fear that he's going to do something terrible... and the flood of relief that comes when he does no harm.
Using our example from this guide, you want the loggers and anyone involved with them to be terrified when night comes, if not all times of day. So far, the character has taken to sabotaging equipment and blew up a police station in order to keep their enterprise going. Is it so unreasonable to think that this person might be coming for them next? Are they going to be murdered in their sleep? Waking up the next morning will seem like a blessing- and a curse, because their fears remain unaddressed.
6. Never Tell Another Character or Player How to Feel About the Villain
Never ever do this. Don't describe them as scary. Don't describe them as intimidating. Do absolutely none of this. Expend as little effort as possible on forcing other characters to be afraid, because the more you do this the less convincing it becomes.
Let the other characters and players decide how they feel about the character themselves, and only then use those descriptors. You have to earn the right to call your character frightening- because if no one else thinks they're genuinely scary, then they aren't. It's like saying you're a lottery winner without having first won the lottery: it makes you a liar.
Important Things to Remember
- Because it bears repeating: villains don't ever think they're the villain. They might have times where they doubt themselves or they might not like themselves very much as a person, but they do not think that they are the villain.
- Villains aren't emotionless. Quite the contrary- most of them are very emotional and sensitive people, though they may not outwardly show this.
- All villains don't have to have a tragic backstory that explains them being the way they are, or have some mental problem. Some of them just don't see eye to eye with the rest of us on the way things should be.
- The most frightening villains are the ones that we least expect, the people we thought were normal.
- Power does not have to come from physical prowess, being the best at magic, having the most money, or what have you. Sometimes power is in words, and being able to get other people to do things for you.
- Villainy doesn't have to be massive and dramatic. Someone doesn't have to murder children and entire families to be villainous.
- People admire a character more for trying than they do succeeding.
- Villains have morals as well. Not every villainous person is going to be okay with murder, for example.
- The character still has needs. No matter how terrifying they might be, they likely still need to sleep, eat, go to the bathroom. They've had explosive diarrhea at some point in their lives, same as the hero of the story. They have a drive to feel needed and wanted- the same as everyone else.
Now go forth and be villainous!