The one thing a lot of amateur writers forget (and by now, there are a lot of things that amateur writers have forgotten) is that your story’s villains are also human. It’s surprising how little thought is given to this very fact. Ever wonder if Lex Luthor liked cream and sugar in his coffee? (DC lore nerds can probably tell me that one) You ever wonder what it’s like for Darth Vader to wear his suit? (Hint–it’s uncomfortable)
But, there is a point at which all villains pass beyond their humanity. If yours is well-written, they’ll have good reason for doing so: hubris, ambition, revenge, and obsession are all classic picks. Whatever their purpose, the villains sets out along a life of crime and villainy until their journey is complete. A well-written villain will have an arc, just like the hero.
But there are a few…cheeses when it comes to writing legible villains. By “cheese”, I mean low-effort processes that look like you did a lot of work. You’re probably familiar with the use of the word if you play a video game in which there’s an overpowered yet simple to use weapon or ability that allows you to defeat your enemies.
One such cheese is the “Damned-As-I’ll-Ever-Be” mentality. It helps you to shift less of the villain’s current motivation on their beginning motivation. Villains are, after all, human. Humans’ motivations, even towards certain goals, often change. Oftentimes, what your villain set out to do is completed, but you need a reason for them to retain their “villain-ness”.
So let’s start with your villain’s motivation for evil. We can pick from any number of classic ones: revenge, ambition, to protect someone they love, etc. Revenge is probably the cheesiest of all of them, though, so let’s go with that one for the sake of example. Let’s say your villain is obsessed with killing the man who accidentally killed his daughter.
The man who killed the villain’s daughter is a statesman in congress. The villain pours all of his resources into assembling a criminal underground with the miscreants that he formerly hated. Eventually he makes a team of the most cutthroat of scum (whom he’s now come to trust and love because they worked with him when all else abandoned him) and breaks into the statesman’s house and brutally dismembers him.
But wait? Is that just going to be the end of the story? But the statesman’s son who’s cowering in the corner (the hero of our story) needs an adversary to hunt and fight against when he grows up! If the villain’s achieved his revenge, why does he need a reason to keep being a villain?
Enter the DAIEB mindset. So the villain goes home to his criminal underworld, full of scum who now basically worship him. But (since he’s human, remember?) he realizes that his daughter’s still dead and that nothing can get her back. And after all of his work in the criminal underworld, there’s no way anyone can forgive him. So it’s only logical at this point that the villain falls into a state of moral despair, unwilling to believe that redemption exists for him. This is the turning point that signals his descent into crime as something that defines him. So he thinks, “I’m as damned now as I’ll ever be, so why do I even care?” and goes back to being a criminal, still knowing that it’s wrong.
Darth Vader is a good example of a DAIEB villain. Of course, it was always possible that Anakin Skywalker could win out, defeat the emperor, and return to his good ways, but one of his main motivators was the fact that even he believed that he was beyond redemption. It was only when Luke saw the potential for his father’s forgiveness that Vader finally turned back to the light. DAIEB villains are still human inside, and oftentimes, if they’re presented with a chance to reform, they’d do so.
DAIEB villains are not proud of their actions; many times, they regret them. But they’re in such a state of moral despair that they can’t even contemplate what it would be like to stop being a villain, similar to a druggie’s addiction. From that initial point that they feel there’s no turning back, you can start developing the character as a villain, adding some villain-like tendencies. For instance, he starts to view his criminal underground as a kind of orphanage, sheltering the homeless who became society’s outcasts (similar to how he became an outcast by murdering the statesman).
This kind of villain is probably a bit more classic than you at first realized. A lot of villains use the DAIEB mentality, some even without acknowledging it. What you can do, however, is take a villain who currently has little or no motivation to do what they do, and insert a DAIEB clause in there. The versatility of this technique is truly wonderful.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!