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How to Redeem a Horrible Villain in Fiction Writing

Updated on January 1, 2013
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Since the beginning of time storytelling has often revolved around the idea of the battle between good and evil. War novels pit one army against another and usually there is one army considered to be just and another the not so much. In scenario people would usually identify the aggressors as the party in the wrong while the defender (and sometimes the underdog) as who is in the right. This same instance also applies to characterization in a story, there has to be a hero and a villain, a protagonist and an antagonist. But in writing a story sometimes you want to show a process by which a character changes. This may be because readers enjoy the idea of redemption, it gives them hope for mankind. But when you write your character into a story to be the bad guy how do you transition him into becoming a good guy and make it believable? This article tackles that very problem.

Designing Your Villain

When you create your villain keep in mind the farther you push him into the realm of evil the more difficult it will be to bring him back to be seen as a good guy. Many things may make the transformation from bad back to good unbelievable for example making a serial rapist in a story become caretaker of a women's shelter to turn his life around. This can leave a bad taste in readers mouths questioning whether he has truly changed considering his path or if he is just trying to get closer to more victims. The more horrible your villain the less likely in reality he would turn over a new leaf, so write for what is realistic. Having him be a graphic killer, rapist, pedophile, etc would be traits to steer clear of.

The actual change in the character would have to be something that when tested even he could do the right thing. It can happen as a pivotal turning point or gradually throughout the story.

Many characters in literature have become very popular walking the line between good and evil such as Lex Luther, Wolverine (in the comics), etc. They possess traits such as killing their enemies and a truly tortured dark side. This often adds depth to their characters and balances what the reader thinks of the character, they have pity for what happened to the character and are more willing to accept his indiscretions.

There has also been a trend in recent years of novels, television and film portraying what is known as the anti-hero. As shown in series like Dexter originally from novels and developed for television. In the series the main character is a serial killer often killing a victim in each episode and sometimes mutilating them. The one saving grace that keeps viewer cheering him on is the fact that he kills murderers and thus is fighting against evil, all the while battling the evil within. Another such series is Breaking Bad in which a brilliant scientist who has been reduced to a high school science teacher. In the series the main character after being diagnosed with terminal cancer turns to selling crystal meth and a life of crime. Again he has a saving grace as he is selling meth to leave his family enough money to live on before he dies. People can sympathize with his motives and are able to overlook the bad things he is doing.

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    • terrektwo profile imageAUTHOR

      Candle Hour 

      5 years ago from North America

      Gypsy Rose Lee - thanks :)

    • terrektwo profile imageAUTHOR

      Candle Hour 

      5 years ago from North America

      teaches12345 - true, I used to read wolverine comic books as a teen, you get a lot more detail on his character, what he is thinking etc, then the films but true Wolverine is a good example.

    • terrektwo profile imageAUTHOR

      Candle Hour 

      5 years ago from North America

      Genna East - I can't say for sure what it means as a society but I think that when we consider a villian and see him breakdown and in pain I think we feel better because we can see he is human like anyone else. That he is not just a ball of pure evil which means he has the ability to change. I think we want to believe that they can change.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 

      5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      What an interesting hub. I recently watched, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” with Matt Damon. Here is a serial killer who viewers still manage to feel some empathy for while others wanted him to get away with his insidious crimes – no doubt, in part to Matt’s superior acting skills and inherent boyish charm. (Part of me felt sorry for this sick young man, and I was troubled by this...that is, until he tearfully felt compelled to murder his friend in the final scene in order to avoid detection.) I couldn’t help but wonder what this says about us as a society. Up ++.

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Just brilliant. There are times when we do cheer for the villain. Passing this on.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      Interesting. I love the character of Wolverine and can see how the dark side of him does redeem him as the story continues.

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