Kami Kinard: Hug the Mean and Nasty. Finding the Humanity in Villains.

Head Shots from Carpe Diem 005

You know those kinds of people who are so mean and nasty they make everyone else’s lives miserable? I’m talking about the back-stabbers, gossip mongers, cat kickers, boyfriend-stealers, and world-domination plotters. Those types? What do you DO with people like that?

You, the authors, should embrace them – bear hug style! They may make undesirable companions in reality, but these characters can be an author’s very best friends.

Why? The reason is simple. They add CONFLICT and create TENSION. And tension drives your story. It keeps your readers turning the pages. It forces them to root for the main character. You want this!

But creating believable villains is tricky. See, even the most rotten of villains shouldn’t be all bad. Your readers don’t need to like these characters, but they need to be able to relate to or understand them on some level.

 Villains need to have something about them that reveals their humanity, no matter how despicable they are.

Here are five ways to achieve humanity in your villains.

  1. Make us feel sorry for them. You can evoke sympathy for your villain in all kinds of ways. Give them a back story. Did they have miserable childhoods? Have they been heartbroken? Do people make fun of them for the way they look?
  2. Bestow endearing qualities upon them. Do they take care of an elderly aunt? Secretly donate to charity? Are they kind to caterpillars?
  3. Help us understand what motivates them. Are they trying to overcome unhappiness? Do they have something to prove? Do they want to impress someone?
  4. Give them admirable qualities. Are they attractive? Smart? Musically gifted?
  5. Show their humanity through the eyes of other characters, or even a pet. In Cassandra Clare’s popular City of Bones, the nemesis, Valentine Morgenstern has a group of followers called the Circle. Disney frequently employs the technique of giving pets to villains. For example, The Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid has pet eels, and Jafar from Aladdin has Iago the parrot. If this formula didn’t work, Disney wouldn’t use it.

Let’s take a look at a great villain from Harry Potter that you’re all familiar with. Lord Voldemort’s humanity is revealed in several of these ways.

 

  • harry potter 2He was an orphan, which evokes sympathy.
  • He is motivated by hatred toward the muggle father who abandoned him. He is also motivated by the desire to improve his skill until he is the most powerful wizard ever.
  • He was a very handsome young wizard who was particularly smart and skillful. These qualities evoke admiration.
  • Other characters hold him in high regard. These include his followers, the Death Eaters, his former professors, and his pet snake Nagini.

 

Notice that Rowling uses four of the five techniques listed above to show Voldermort’s humanity. But does she give him any endearing qualities? I haven’t been able to find any! Which brings me to this point: You don’t have to incorporate ALL of these traits into your villainous characters! Consider your genre. If there is a villain in your picture book, you may only have room to give us a peek into his humanity. Or you may use the Grinch method of creating a character that seems villainous on the outside, but has humanity waiting to burst forth from within.

 

the boy problemBoth of my books, The Boy Problem and The Boy Project, are humorous middle grade novels so I did not delve deep into the psyche of the antagonist, Maybelline, in them. I gave her a pack of admiring friends, so we could see her value through their eyes. Kara CoverShe is also considered cute and stylish, characteristics admired by many of her classmates. Yet she is vulnerable. We are able to feel sorry for her when she is dumped by her boyfriend in The Boy Project, and we see her insecurity in The Boy Problem. Whether or not you spell out all of these character traits for your readers, you should develop a good understanding of your villains. I know that Maybelline is as insecure as the next girl, and that her actions are motivated by a desire to stay at the top of the tenuous middle school social pyramid.

 

Maybelline purposefully ruins one of Tabbi's fundraising cupcakes in THE BOY PROBLEM.

Maybelline purposefully ruins one of Tabbi’s fundraising cupcakes in THE BOY PROBLEM.

She is one of my favorite characters, not because she is nice, but because she isn’t! Maybelline continuously creates conflict for my main characters Tabbi and Kara. Their learning to navigate around her is part of what makes them grow.  She is essential to their stories.

 

Where would the Harry Potter books be without Voldemort? Where would Peter Pan be without Captain Hook? What struggles would Katniss face without President Snow? And how many cases would Encyclopedia Brown really be able to crack if Bugs Meany moved away? We need the antagonists, the villains, the nemeses! So embrace them. Appreciate their plotting, scheming, mean and nasty ways. Thank them for making your story a story.

Kami Kinard is the author of The Boy Problem (Scholastic, 2014) and The Boy Project (Scholastic, 2012). Her poetry, stories, articles, and essays have appeared in some of the world’s best periodicals for children and adults. Kami also works as a teaching artist, and teaches continuing education writing courses for adults. She lives at the edge of the universe (or at least the United States) with her family and the world’s smartest dog. Visit her at www.kamikinard.com or at www.NerdyChicksRule.com where she blogs with Sudipta. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking HERE.

Kami Kinard is giving away a 20 page manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #Kidlit Summer School.

 

Webinar tonight 9:00 EST. Details HERE!

 

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247 comments on “Kami Kinard: Hug the Mean and Nasty. Finding the Humanity in Villains.

  1. I’m with Carol Munroe – I tend to leave villains out of my pbs…mainly because I’ve always tried to make life smooth (in real life)…and I HATE conflict. 🙂 So thank you, Kami! This is a post I really needed. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Geralyn says:

    Took the kiddos to see Maleficent today and was thinking about making a villain likeable just before reading this! Thanks for the insight on looking at your villians.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. joannesher says:

    Fabulous post – and tips. Villians without redeeming qualities are flat – just like heroes without faults. Super suggestions for jeering up the bad guys. Thanks a TON, Kami!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Sheri Dillard says:

    Great post, Kami! Thanks for the list! Very helpful!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. HilleryRubens says:

    Kami, great post! I will have to think of ways to incorporate humanity into my villains (and ways to make them a little more mean!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Kami, Thanks for the post. I know exactly what you mean. My mc in a new pb ms has her faults big time and shows out. Thank you for this timely post.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Needed this! I have a ton of fine tuning to do in this area.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Carrie Brown says:

    Wow, Kami! This is fabulous! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Ann Palmer says:

    Hi Kami, The Cooking up a Believable Villain exercise helped me to put more meat on my villain. The funny thing is that the villain’s dark, 3-D persona is helping to flesh out my protagonist, too. Thank you for a great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. kamikinard says:

    Thank you all so much for your comments. Today was a whirlwind that included a 3 hour car ride, and a webinar! I haven’t had a chance to read them all yet, but I look forward to delving in tomorrow.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. JaNay BW says:

    Thanks for the insight! Really, when I think about my own life I would say that the villains in my own story have certainly helped me grow. I think that it is imperative for characters to have similar development due to the conflict caused by a villian! Thanks again!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Pamela Courtney says:

    I’m doing a non-fiction. Nevertheless, from reading your post I am learning that even nature can be the villain in a story. This is such good stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. lisakwillard says:

    I don’t have a villain yet, but can’t wait to write one! Thank you for the great lesson!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Keila Dawson says:

    I am going to revisit an ms I have with a character who is not “nice”, okay, a villain, and didn’t get great feedback on his behavior from a critique. I knew I needed to make him less of a tool and thanks to your post I have some guidance. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Aimee Norris-Haburjak says:

    I have a whole new love for the villains! Great post! Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I’ve got a character who’s particularly nasty, so I’ve got to work hard to find some redeeming quality. Or maybe he just needs partial redemption.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Laurie L Young says:

    I love villains that are sympathetic. Thanks for all the great advice for making them vulnerable!

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Kim Mounsey says:

    This was soooo helpful. Thank you Kami!!

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Yvonne Mes says:

    What I connected with most in this wonderful post was how your main character grows by having a villain in your story, and how the villain still needs to retain his/ her humanity.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Brook Gideon says:

    I love a good villain! I just picked up Chuck Klosterman’s new paperback all about villains and I can’t wait for him to make me laugh about them. I think another good example of a villain handled well is Elphaba in Wicked aka the Wicked Witch of the West. When I read that book, I found myself rooting for her and against Dorothy, interesting to make a reader switch a long standing allegiance to a character! Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 3 people

  21. pathaap says:

    Great post! Villains really do help make a story come alive.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. kirsticall says:

    This is a fantastic reminder, Kami! My girls and I just finished reading your two books and they were so MUCH fun!

    Liked by 2 people

  23. This gave me lots to think about. I try to write balanced characters but this gave me some new ideas.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Amy Benoit says:

    LOVE the advice (top 5) qualities of a villain…definitely something to use as I review my picture book villains (and heroes)! VERY enjoyable article, Kami!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Kami,
    Showing the antagonist’s humanity through other characters and pets is one I’ll do my best to remember. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Carella Herberger says:

    I really like the list of 5 ways to show humanity…I like having those options to give my villain something to admire! Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  27. Jessica Miller-Nims says:

    I love this. I think that most people forget that PEOPLE in general are inherently good AND bad. And, that there are different levels of each. So, no one real person is all one way. Thanks for the reminder!

    Liked by 2 people

  28. I do fine with villains in my novels, but not so much in picture books. That said, I certainly should make my villains more well-rounded and this post is great for telling me how. Thanks so much.

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Eisen says:

    Great post! I like your list of 5 ways to show the villain’s humanity. Very useful!

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Jess Capelle says:

    great post! Good villains are key!

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Doris Stone says:

    Kami, thanks for going to bat for villains! I will now be searching for them in my day to day life.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. furfilled says:

    One person’s villain is another person’s hero. Thanks for the reminder and the (handy) list.

    Liked by 2 people

  33. Deborah Allmand says:

    Kami, great info. I’ve seen the Exercise Book mentioned. Where might I find that? Loving summer school!! Just wished I was taking two other classes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • kamikinard says:

      Hi Deborah, It is under the eraser at the top of this blog in the tool bar. If you have registered, you should have been sent a password via email, or have access to it via the FB group.

      Like

  34. Thanks, Kami. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Nat Keller says:

    Thanks Kami– a great post on breaking down on what makes a good villain!

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Julie Dillemuth says:

    Great post, thanks for giving us a new way to look at villains. I don’t like to write characters with traits I don’t like (annoying, inconsiderate, evil, etc), but doing what you suggest, adding some not-all-bad, relate-able qualities will help.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Danielle says:

    This gives me a lot to think about! i don’t think i have a traditional villain or antagonist in my story…hmm..

    Liked by 1 person

  38. I love this post! Finding the right squishy part in a villain’s steel armor is like striking gold. If an author can make me feel sympathy for their baddy, even after all the wrongs he or she has done, then the author has done a great job.

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Mindy Alyse Weiss says:

    Thanks for the awesome post, Kami! I especially love the five ways to achieve humanity in your villains list and the exercise. I can’t wait to use it on all of my novels!

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Rita says:

    Thanks Kami for your great insight into creating believable villains…. I never thought about the villains and their pets in the Disney tales before.

    …. “have you hugged your villain today?”

    Like

  41. gail cartee says:

    Thanks Kami. Your post really made me go back through my stories to make sure I have a villain that is affecting the MC yet is human enough to create sympathy from the reader.

    Like

  42. linnshekinah says:

    Kami, thanks for your 5 points. After thinking about the motivation behind my villain’s behavior and after coming up with his back story, I begin sympathsize with him. But on surface he’s still not likeable.

    Like

  43. […] am incredibly honored that Kami and Sudipta asked me to be on the Summer School faculty. Thank you! So, here goes […]

    Like

  44. Kit Grady says:

    Thanks Kami, great stuff here- even the comments are so amazing- Hoping to add this link to my blog if ok-

    Like

  45. kamikinard says:

    Sure Kit, that’d be great!

    Like

  46. donnacangelosi says:

    Thank you for a great post, Kami! The villains in my stories often lack depth because I focus so much on the “good guys”. The points you shared for building humanity in villains helped me re-examine the personalities, backgrounds and motivations of all my characters.

    Like

  47. This was so helpful! Such useful, thoughts provoking strategies for developing villains/antagonists. Loved this post! I’m going to revisit my antagonist’s characterization. Thanks, Kami!

    Like

  48. Yes! This was the exact post I needed for a PB I’ve been struggling with. I am going to totally re-approach my villain. Love it!

    Like

  49. sherwa says:

    Thanks, Kami. One of my writing weaknesses is not having enough tension in my stories. I tend to avoid conflict like the plague, so it’s sometimes challenging to incorporate it into my stories. I’ll keep working on it.

    Like

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