Being a Better Writer: Considerations for a Villain Protagonist

Welcome back readers!

By now, unless something has gone desperately wrong, I’m well away from my desk, and this post was actually written back in April! So you’re getting this via the scheduler (which is also why some external links like Patreon or the Facebook page won’t have it until later). Me? I’m presumably experiencing salt air and endless rain. Because, you know, Southeast Alaska.

There’s a reason I live in a sunny location now, but it is nice to visit home every once in a while. I just need to make sure I return from there in a timely manner and have a few months to dry out.

So, what are we talking about today? Well, this post is a sort-of follow-up to our post a few weeks back about how to deliver an effective villain. A reader hit up the Topic Call post active around the same time asking after a villain protagonist.

See, as par for the course when discussing terms that are easily conflated, that prior post (as well as a few others) had discussed the differences between a villain and an antagonist, noting that they are not the same thing (and if you’re wondering how or why, hit that link up there, because this is a very important distinction to get right). Same with a hero and a protagonist: They’re not the same thing. They can overlap, but they’re two different roles that aren’t exclusively linked.

And today, we’re demonstrating that link by talking about one of the rarer combinations out there: a villain protagonist.

That’s right. When the villain is your primary character that the story revolves around.

Now, while I did say these are rarer, that’s not the same as nigh-impossible to find. Sands, I linked a video clip in our discussion on effective villains from Megamind, which is indeed a movie about a villain protagonist. There exists a Star Wars comic series that’s all about Darth Vader and has him as the protagonist killing jedi and wreaking havoc. There are even video games that explicitly put the player in the shoes of a villain protagonist.

So this isn’t rare on the level of say, naturally occurring nuclear reactors, but if you were to do a breakdown of all stories out there, villain protags would definitely be on a small end of that list. Especially if you took into consideration all the stories that claim to be about a villain, but really aren’t, and just paint them as the victim of a misunderstanding or the hero of another story (once again, as noted in our post on villains a few weeks ago, a villain by definition chooses evil actions, so a misunderstanding, accident, or “I’m really the hero” don’t count unless they truly are a villain, something most shy away from).

Then again, it’s not hard to see why most stories are reluctant to embrace a villainous protagonist: It’s hard to get a reader to root for a character doing morally repulsive things. AKA, the bread and butter of a villain.

Which again, isn’t to say that it can’t be done. Megamind for instance, paints its villain protagonist as perpetuating evil … but out of the belief that someone has to fill that narrative, and he might as well engage it if he’ll take blame for it anyway. He still openly admits he’s a villain and does immoral things … but at the same time is a very good example of “evil has standards” since he deliberately goes out of his way to keep bystanders from being harmed and the like. For the most part.

However, Megamind is comedic, and also follows its villain protagonist having a change of heart over the course of the film, switching from villain to hero. And again, he’s a villain with standards. So while he’s still “evil” the film is able to use laughter to mask some of the more despicable acts (like another villain-themed film released around the same time) and of course, he does end up good in the end.

But what about a darker villain? What about someone without those same standards against say, killing innocent bystanders? How can we get a reader to follow along with a character when they’re well, not good? When they’d rather kick the dog rather than pet it, or maybe just flat out incinerate it, listening to it howl in pain?

How can we make a villain protagonist work?

The answer is more complicated that one would likely guess at first glance, and that’s because it largely comes down to how you want to present and develop your villain protagonist. For example, if you’re going to tell a redemption story, such as Megamind, you’re going to take a different approach to how you present and handle your villain than with, say, the Darth Vader Star Wars comics which are set long before his eventual change-of-heart and have no such redemption. Each takes a very different approach because how you win over the reader will be quite different in each case. Megamind (the titular character) is funny, yes, but he also utlizes the sympathy angle of showing (and telling, if I’m honest) the audience why he became a villain. Darth Vader, by contrast, does not talk to the audience, does not narrate, and instead acts almost as a bound force of nature … with the audience just waiting to see what is unleashed.

I’m getting ahead of things again. What I’m getting at is that if you’re going to write a villain protagonist, a lot of what you do and how you present and write them will be very much decided by the story you want to tell. What will their arc be? Because yes, just as with any other protagonist, the villain protagonist needs an arc. Will it be the tale of their rise to power? The tale of how they lost power and had to reclaim it from another? Their journey to good? Their journey to deeper evil?

This might seem unimportant, sort of a “What does it matter, just tell me how to write a villain as the protagonist!” but I assure you, knowing what path your plot will take is vital to how you write a villain protagonist.

Why? Well, remember that bit earlier about “kick the dog?” Writers often bring up “pet the dog/kick the dog” moments as a way to accomplish two things: First to show the attitude of the character, and second to form empathy or disdain for a character. A hero protagonist that stops when seeing a starving, whimpering puppy, to take the example literally, and pets it and gives it some of their lunch, well that’s a pet the dog moment. It shows what sort of person the protagonist is, at least with dogs, and also is for many establishes an empathetic connection with the character, because they like that the dog was cared for and approve of it, even hope they would do the same when they encountered a similar situation.

Kick the dog does the opposite (and again, I stress that despite the name, this doesn’t have to have anything to do with an actual dog). The character punts aside the whining, starving puppy again to show what sort of person they are, but also to drive a wedge between them and the audience. After all, who likes someone who kicks puppies?

But here’s the thing: With a villain protagonist, you don’t want to drive a wedge in the same way between your protagonist and your audience. So “kick the dog” isn’t quite as useful. And if they pet the dog, well, what kind of a villain are they?

“But,” some of you might be saying. “There are movies with villain protagonists that kick the dog!” And you’re right! But they’re funny. Or they use the tool to illustrate something else, subverting it to win favor with the audience in some manner. For example, Despicable Me had a “kick the dog” moment as one of its initial trailers (and the first scene of the protagonist). In fact, I’ll link it right now.

All right, so that bit you just watched with the child and the ice cream cone? That’s a “pet the dog” moment to a textbook T. But Despicable Me has Gru kick the dog, er, child … but only after appearing to pet them. And done with such a sudden shift, from the pop to the satisfied smirk as the kid stands there in pure shock, that it’s hilarious.

And see, that brings the audience back around. Sure, he made that kid cry … but it was so sudden and surprising for most that it was funny. Then they keep watching because despite everything that Gru is doing being “kick the dog” they’re laughing at it, and along for the next laugh.

For the record, they also use the long-line scene to build sympathy through catharsis, because who hasn’t wanted to just do what Gru does in a line before?

But without getting sidetracked, the times when “kick the dog” is used to pull in an audience, it’s in a specific way, most often comedy, the shared mirth of disbelief of “did they just do that?” that keeps people involved.

Which again, brings us back to the direction you want your story to take. Because if, for example, your story is about a protagonist’s descent into evil, and you want it to be dramatic rather than comedic … well then you probably shouldn’t use a comedic “kick the dog” to get your audience invested.

This is why knowing what kind of story you want to tell about your villain before you start is key. With a villain protagonist a lot of the “common” tools for getting an audience to empathize with and connect to a protagonist won’t work. Either without changes, or entirely. You’re playing with a very different kind of fire, in effect, and the same resources won’t burn the same way.

This may sound daunting to some of you, but really it shouldn’t. The fire comparison above is apt: You just need to find a different combination of resources to utilize, and the fire can burn brightly still. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any stories with villain protagonists.

So first, before anything else, work out what kind of story you want to tell, because the type of story you’re telling will determine how you’re going to draw the audience in. You can’t rely on the traditional protagonist investment, but if you don’t recognize that beforehand, you’ll write yourself into a corner.

So, once you know what kind of story about your villain you wish to tell, then you can begin to lay the groundwork for telling it in a way that keeps the audience invested and interested.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something where I can answer all questions of “How?” because that’s sort of asking me to come up with every possible villain story and a solution to attracting an audience to each one of them. It’s just not feasible for me to do that.

Rather, what I can do is offer examples of a few different strategies I’ve seen stories take, talk about why they work, and hope that his opens you to thinking about the various strategies and methods you can make use of.

For example, we already talked about petting or kicking the dog above, and the use of comedy to make a character more endearing to the audience. Often with some kind of sympathy that the audience can understand or agree with. Megamind was never accepted because he was different and awkward, for example, while Gru never found approval from his mother and instead filled that void with pride in his own accomplishment at proving her disdain wrong.

But what about say, a Darth Vader story? What makes those gripping? Well, as I see and understand it, many of the Darth Vader stories treat the titular character like the force of nature he is, and the audience enjoyment comes from the suspense of everyone around them. For example, Vader is sent on a mission somewhere and everyone around him is tiptoeing out of fear that they might set him off. The audience, meanwhile, is waiting to see what will happen when Vader—our villain protagonist—reaches his breaking point and sets aside that restraint. Combine that with usually some sort of mystery, a foil that the protagonist is forced to work with—and maybe at the same time against—and you’ve got yourself a story that can keep the audience invested, hanging on that thread of “When is Vader going to snap? Or will he surprise us?”

Or … you can have a story with a villain where the audience understands what they’re going for, maybe even agrees, but sees that the villain is struggling to find the balance between doing what’s right, and doing what they believe is necessary. That kind of story can be heart-rending and even brutal by the end, but it’ll keep the audience turning page after page.

Sands, you can even have a villain story where the thing that draws the audience page after page is the horror of the protagonist’s actions, and the grim need to “see the car wreck” combined with a faint hope that just maybe they’ll be caught beforehand.

By this point you’ve likely noticed a very common theme with this type of story and knowing how to write it: Audience. Knowing what kind of audience your villain protagonist story is for is going to be almost as critical as knowing what kind of story you want to tell. Choose that—the kind—first, then figure out how you’re going to present it in a way that an audience will want to read. Or, in other words, work out what about the presentation of that story will attract and keep the audience invested.

This may seem like a tough task—and it is! Especially if you’re unsure about what the audience might want.

But don’t worry too much. As authors, this is a common problem, and there’s an out: Write the story you would want to read. Think about what would keep you reading about this villain protagonist, tell that story, and then hope like made there’s more of an audience for that than you.

Okay maybe that last bit was slightly over the top, but it is true that there isn’t an audience for everything. And some stories that work for you as an author with a villain protagonist may have a limited audience indeed. Believe me, I’ve seen this firsthand.

But that isn’t the same as no audience. And the more you write, and the more you see people respond to your work, the more you’ll see what sort of tales and events can draw people in. Tales and events that you can use with a villain protagonist to keep the reader invested and turning every page.

There you have it! Important things to consider when writing a villain protagonist. First and foremost, decide what sort of villain story you want to tell. Once you’ve done that, look at how you can tell it in a way that will be interesting and engaging to the audience, which will be different depending on who your villain is and what your plot is.

I won’t lie: Writing a villain protagonist is hard. In fact, I’m going to make a note right now to do a separate post on nailing an ending with a villain protagonist, because that’s even harder. But while yes, it’s hard, a good villain story can be just as gripping and thought-provoking as any other kind of story.

And in a way, isn’t that what we hope for?

So good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Considerations for a Villain Protagonist

  1. You can’t reflect on a villain as protagonist without a nod to Dr. Impossible of Soon I Will Be Invincible fame. He’s a scenery-chewing, trope-smashing, over-the-top-and-then-some villain so powerful that he… Well, it’s a spoiler so I’m not saying.

    (quote) I’m the smartest man in the world. Once I wore a cape in public, and fought battles against men who could fly, who had metal skin, who could kill you with their eyes. I fought CoreFire to a standstill, and the Super Squadron, and the Champions. Now I have to shuffle through a cafeteria line with men who tried to pass bad checks. Now I have to wonder if there will be chocolate milk in the dispenser. And whether the smartest man in the world has done the smartest thing he could with his life.(/quote)


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