As our modern stories continue to take deep dives into characters, even in fast-paced superhero movies, one of the trends in the past decade has been to increasingly make villains more and more sympathetic. While the discussion on if this is good or bad or how well it is done is a whole entire topic itself, what does it mean for your characters?
If the villain of your story is a living being or multiple characters (as opposed to a concept, a natural disaster, a sickness, etc.), do they deserve as much time, effort, and development as your other characters? Do they have a motive, one that you are going to dive into?
Consider that this is your story, and they are your characters. There are many compelling villains throughout literature and cinema, and it may influence writers as they form their stories. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that if your villain isn’t a compelling, deep creation that you’ve failed in some way.
If the point of your story isn’t how the villain grows or changes, then maybe you shouldn’t make your villain the center.
While many people believe that your villain needs a strong motive, I would argue that there are so many styles of stories, narratives, and perspectives that it could depend on the way you write and how your story is being told. Consider this popular and compelling question: In the movie Titanic, is there a villain? Is the iceberg a villain? Is the design of the ship a villain? Are the panicked people who push and shove people out of the way the villains? That may be quite detailed, but it begs the question; Does a disaster movie need a bad guy?
If your bad guy is a character as well written as your other characters, and their presence is compelling and memorable, I would say that is a strong feature of your story, but don’t force yourself to make it necessary. Depending on how sympathetic you want your villain to be, you may just touch on their backstory, or you may take a deep look into their past. Or, perhaps you have a villain who is so evil that there is very little in their past that would explain their actions, other than to show that their corruption has always been there.
If you aren’t sure what to do about your villain’s backstory, don’t worry. I think the trend lately of displaying villain’s backstories and motives, while not a bad thing, has made authors feel some sort of pressure to explain the past of the antagonist. Don’t fall under that pressure if you din’t feel it’s necessary for your story! You want your characters to be memorable. Their backstory doesn’t have to be the takeaway at the end of the day. If your villain is memorable, even likable, your reader may not care how they got there, but they’ll be glad they met them.