Start With The Villain: Why Hero and Plot Don’t Come First in Fiction Writing
The Villain of Your Story Shapes The Hero's Transformation, And From There, The Plot Emerges
The villain of your story shapes the entire arc of the hero’s transformation. Know your villain clearly from the beginning, and your hero’s path illuminates before you. Who are they in Act 1? Who must they become by Act 3, in your finale, in the final showdown to defeat the villain?
Without it, Act 2 is a dead end with a question written on the wall in blood: Where do I go from here? Develop your villain, the hero and plot, and you knock down that brick wall to discover the essence of your story.
The Secret is in The Finale
Without a villain, there’s no conflict. Without conflict, there’s no story.
The villain and hero exist in a symbiotic relationship. A yin yang, binary, give and take, one-cannot-exist-without-the-other interconnectedness that you sever in the finale, when your hero finally beats the villain - or doesn’t.
All of that song and dance between the villain and the hero plays out like a composition of music. The loud, fortissimo moments when these two forces of nature clash, and the quiet, piano reprises, the calm within the storm, when the hero has a moment of peace before you smack them in the face with more conflict.
You are the composer of this symphony, and if you skimp on the villain, your hero and your plot will suffer greatly.
What does your villain want? Why do they want it? What are the stakes? Think of the finale, the final showdown at the end of your story. What are your villain and your hero fighting about? What happens to your villain if they don’t succeed in their plans? Start there, go deep into what your villain is feeling. Crack them wide open.
The Villain is Never “The Bad Guy,” In Their Own Mind
A villain believes with all of their being that they are righteous. They are good, and are just seriously misunderstood.
Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming was a regular man who was grievously wronged. He made his living scrapping alien technology from The Battle of New York, until he was told by Damage Control, a government and Stark Industries joint venture, that they were taking over from here and his company was no longer needed. His livelihood was, in that moment, stolen from him.
He felt there was no recourse but to go criminal. To use his skills in salvaging by taking that same technology, and turning it into weapons on the black market. What drove that man to villainy was not an evil heart, but a desire to feed his family using the skills he had. It was circumstance that set him up to become Vulture by the end of the film.
Villains are beings from whom the world has taken something, and it changed them. From there, they made a series of choices in response to events, and those choices led them to become who they are at the beginning of the story. More choices lead them to become the villain they are by the end.
The villain is almost never “the bad guy” in his own mind, unless he has a transformation. If a transformation occurs, it happens in Act 3. Darth Vader’s transformation comes in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of The Jedi, when he sacrifices himself to save his son’s life from The Emperor. In his final moments, he asks Luke to remove his life-giving mask, saying, “Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes.”
Your villain is someone who believes they are making right decision, and fighting for the right cause. Try writing the plot points and scenes you may already have in mind from their perspective, see what happens. I love when a writer gets the villain and the hero together to have a conversation, and the villain explains their perspective so well that the hero begins to question whether or not they are doing the right thing by opposing the villain. That kind of inner conflict, when you can create it, is delicious.
The Villain Shapes The Hero’s Transformation
With a firm “what” and “why” behind your villain’s cause, you get a taste for the skills the hero must master to beat the villain. In my pirate graphic novel, the villain is Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. He seeks a legendary stone - a stone he believes is the key to restoring the exiled Stuart monarchy to the throne to England, dismantling his enemy King George in the process.
King George rescinded all Letters of Marque at the end of The War of Spanish Succession, thereby forcing Teach and 1,621 other licensed privateers into a life of piracy. He took away their livelihood, their choice, their honor - so now, Edward Teach aims to take it all back.
Your villain and your hero are mirror images of each other. Opposite figures trapped on either side of the glass until they break through and take each other head on. Edward Teach had his choice taken away from him. His livelihood. Conversely, the heroine, Ryn, this 17-year-old girl from English-occupied Jamaica, striving to keep her deceased-father’s apothecary shop alive, would need to be dealing with a similar set of circumstances, the same feeling, in Act 1.
Knowing that Ryn would meet a seasoned, beast of a pirate in Act 3, it was clear that she needed to learn skills in Act 2 that would enable her to go up against such a man in the finale. Ultimately, it would be her skillset she had at the beginning of the book, in her Ordinary World of Act 1, that she would synthesize with her new skills to become the heroine she needs to be in Act 3. Both these things would come into play when writing a heroine for my villain.
Act 2 is the hero’s stage of “becoming.” It’s the phase in which they learn the skills they’ll need in Act 3. When you discover your finale, and the visions for scenes come to you after working on your villain’s desire, their why, and the stakes behind it, when the plot starts to unfold - work backward.
What skills are they using in Act 3? Which skills would they have already, and which do would they need to learn? Are any of these based on the profession your hero has? Chances are, you’ve started visualizing what your hero is like by this point, and have something to go on. Any skills they would need to learn are skills they must develop in Act 2, and that is your guiding light for getting through the middle of your story (the hardest part to write).
Plot Emerges Through Character Development
Developing Edward Teach gave me a basis for the world of the story - what was going on in politics, trade, employment, and what the social climate was. The very act of King George rescinding those Letters of Marque - the commissions from the crown to act as privateers, attacking Spanish ships - put over a thousand men out of work, and laid the groundwork for piracy in The West Indies to flourish in 1715, the year my story begins to unfold.
This allowed me creative license to tie in the first Jacobite rebellion, historically occurring in 1715. James Francis Edward Stuart, the exiled Prince of Wales, was seen as the champion for the needs of the common man, and with so many seafaring men out of work - I saw this as an opportunity for pirates to join his cause. For Edward Teach to back a monarch who promised to restore him to his former honor.
Getting that backstory through researching history, what was happening in 1715, who the real-life Blackbeard was, and thinking about this villain’s wants, his why, and the stakes behind it all - that’s what blazed the trail for the rest of the story to unfold. Once Edward Teach’s character was developed, I was able to match him with a heroine worthy of his cause.
Starting With The Villain: The Ultimate Boon
For months, I struggled with writing my heroine. Draft after draft would find itself in the trash can of my laptop as I wrote Act 1 over and over again, my story hitting a dead stop once I attempted to cross the threshold into Act 2.
It’s not that I couldn’t push the plot forward - but that the story I was writing, wasn’t the story I wanted to write. My heroine wasn’t who I wanted her to be. Her intention, her wants, her why behind it all - the stakes if she didn’t get what she wanted, they didn’t feel right.
I didn’t want to proceed with a story that wasn’t the one I truly wanted to put out into the world. So I would begin again, and again, and again. I can confirm my husband, a film and TV teacher himself, was thinking, “Get on with it already. Write the story.” But that story I was writing, wasn’t the story. I could feel it in my soul.
What I needed was a shift in perspective. Literal perspective. To stop viewing my story through the eyes of the heroine, and writing her story. I needed to write the villain’s first, have the two meet in the finale, and work backward to find out who the heroine needed to be, then become, to match up with this fantastic villain I had created.
The path to the treasure was not linear, full of many unexpected twists, turns, and perceived setbacks, but in the end, I was led to the ultimate boon: the story that my soul has been urging me to write. Start with the villain, and you’ll have your boon, too.