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I just wrote a long way into a first draft for Nanowrimo before realizing my villain’s evil plan kinda wasn’t interesting at best (and at worst was something we’ve all seen a thousand times before).

It’s a long story about the worldbuilding but it basically involved kidnapping and using the descendant of an ancient species to network with an artifact that would only work with people with the right magical DNA. Villain’s plan was to use that to reach their level of magical ability. It just wasn’t particularly interesting. I guess it feels reminiscent of a lot of generic sci fi action movie plots?

I’m curious if anyone can recommend a resource or offer tips on how to come up with better villain plots or write villains better generally?

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    Why was the evil plan not interesting? What are some good examples of evil plans that are similar? – hszmv Dec 4 '19 at 16:25
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    Sorry, should have provided more detail. It’s a long story about the worldbuilding but it basically involved kidnapping and using the descendant of an ancient species to network with an artifact that would only work with people with the right magical DNA. Villain’s plan was to use that to reach their level of magical ability. It just wasn’t particularly interesting. I guess it feels reminiscent of a lot of generic sci fi action movie plots? – DanB Dec 4 '19 at 16:27
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    I don't think Sauron's plan to conquer all of Middle Earth was interesting. In fact, it was pretty run-of-the-mill. – RonJohn Dec 5 '19 at 14:37
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    @RonJohn - ...and for the contrary, the two most interesting evil plans I remember were Goldfinger's and Sir August DeWynter's in The Avengers (umbrella, not cape). Both involved a decoy evil plan. But I don't think either really significantly contributed to the quality of the work. A great Evil Plan is not what I came there looking for. I just ask that it be somewhat feasible to pull off (within the fictional universe). – T.E.D. Dec 5 '19 at 19:17
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    Something that might help is coming up with a cogent personal definition of what you think "evil" is. Example: it is right and proper for the strong to take advantage of the weak to achieve their goals is one, but it's not the only possibility. Once you have a cogent definition of evil, does that inform you as to the motivations of your villain? – Eric Lippert Dec 6 '19 at 0:42
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The best villains (and villainous plans) are ones that are relatable. And by that I mean ideally the reader would be able to understand why the villain is doing what they are. One of the ways I've used for doing this is asking myself "But, why?" repeatedly until it either a) becomes something interesting or b) is exposed as the boring 1-dimensional sham that it is. Doing this can give you an idea for whether what you are proposing is going to give you interesting material to work with.

To use a slightly silly example - take a villain (we'll call them Bob) with an Ice-o-Matic (Patent pending) doomsday machine that can plunge the world into the next ice age in a matter of moments. (I'm sure most people are going to agree that would be a Bad ThingTM, and that any passing heroes would likely be interested in stopping it). So your villain has their plan, and it provides a suitable level of threat. But why?

Why does the villain want to do this, after all what does the Bob get out of it?

Money? No-one who can afford an Ice-o-Matic is short of a bob or two, you can't exactly pick them up for ten bucks at WalMart.

Power? Maybe, but since any use of the Ice-o-Matic is likely to have pretty severe consequences for Bob too. And since money often brings significant power with it (and Bob has money - see above) there's going to be easier ways for Bob to get power than bluffing (probably) with an Ice-o-Matic.

Revenge? Someone with the resources to build/acquire an Ice-o-Matic can probably find a way to take their revenge on the person or persons they wish without destroying everything, including themselves.

Oh dear.. it's not looking good for Bob and his Ice-o-Matic! Certainly holding-the-world-to-ransom type plans aren't really clicking here and the revenge option doesn't feel all that believable either.

Let's have a look at your example..

kidnapping and using the descendent of an ancient species to network with an artifact that would only work with people with the right magical DNA. Villain’s plan was to use that to reach their level of magical ability.

Sure, it's not massively original - but that's not a reason to dismiss it. Star Wars wasn't particularly original and that did okay. So how does it fair under the "But why?" test? I'm going to go with Steve this time... and I'm going to fill out some possible answers off the top of my head.

Steve kidnaps the descendant of an ancient species.

But why? - Because only these people have the DNA to make Steve's ancient artifact work.

But why? What does this ancient artifact do? - Because using this artifact will grant Steve magical ability to match the ancient species' powers

But why? Presumably lots and lots of people don't have magical powers, why does Steve care so much? - Because these powers will let Steve raise his late wife from the dead.

But why? Why does Steve have to do this himself? If there's people out there with the necessary powers to raise the freaking dead why isn't this just a public service? - Because raising someone involves sacrificing 2 more.

OK so Steve's actions feel sort of relatable, I'm not saying I'd personally go in for kidnapping and then multiple murder to get someone back from the grave, but if I'm being completely honest I could see how someone might. Any reader who has been through intense grief at the untimely loss of a loved one is probably going to read about Steve's plight and have some empathy for him. But killing two innocents to get said loved one back puts you in the "villain" bracket most of the time.

Do we have any interesting material to create a story with? Well there's the obvious conflict - stop Steve before his mad-with-grief plans result in innocent deaths. There's also some mileage in having a hero potentially examine that decision themselves - do they have someone they would give anything to get back?

You can have multiple acts to the story and multiple victories and losses for the protagonist:

Act 1 - Oh no our beloved family member Sam is missing!

Act 2 - We know now that Sam has been kidnapped by Steve! Must Rescue Sam!

Act 3 - We got to Sam, but not in time! Steve has POWER now and is going to do the ritual and kill people!

Will our hero(es) pick themselves up from the loss of Sam and stop Steve from killing more innocents? Will they choose to use the power/ritual themselves to save Sam?

Yep.. looks to me as if we've got something that would work - obviously I'm not aware of your world building etc but just taking that basic idea for a villain and their plan gave natural springboards for situations to put characters in and see how they respond. Ways you can naturally build them up, make their motivations natural, and that is what matters here - not whether their evil plot is new or one that's been told a million times. If it gives you a framework to tell an interesting story about interesting characters that's what counts.

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    "Star Wars wasn't particularly original and that did okay." Heck, Star Wars was purposefully derivative of many tropes. – RonJohn Dec 5 '19 at 14:29
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    This could be made even more interesting if it turned out that the two people Steve is planning to sacrifice are the two that broke into his home and raped and murdered his wife. That would make for a great moral dilemma for the hero. – Frauke Dec 5 '19 at 14:41
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    @motosubatsu given that "All stories told have been told before", I don't see how "100% original" is even possible. Every good story is just about implementation. For example, The Matrix was also purposefully derivative of all sorts of ancient tropes, but it was implemented so awesomely. – RonJohn Dec 5 '19 at 14:52
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    @RonJohn Essentially it isn't possible, doesn't stop many new writers trying (and getting discouraged when they can't achieve it). And you hit the nail on the head - implementation is king! – motosubatsu Dec 5 '19 at 15:20
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    Re "Star Wars wasn't particularly original", True that. Most people overlook that Star Wars is a high fantasy story, the kind of adventure one might find in D&D. I mean, it's even got magic-wielding clerics! Not exactly an innovative plot. – ikegami Dec 6 '19 at 3:50
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This may not work for everybody.

The key to villainy is that the villain is acting in their own selfish interest, and harming innocent people in the process. Perhaps a lot of them. harming others for personal gain is evil. The gain may be of any kind, including pleasure or the thrill of it, revenge, hatred, greed and power are not the only motivators.

An interesting plan involves an unusual "selfish interest", an unusual reason why the villain is willing to harm innocents to get his way. For example, in the Star Trek movie Generations; the villain (Soran, a brilliant scientist) isn't trying to seek power or fame, he is killing planets full of billions of people to be reunited with his lost wife, trapped inside a space anomaly. The anomaly follows a gravitational gradient, Soran is altering its path by destroying suns in occupied systems, to manipulate the anomaly into a particular position where he can enter it and be reunited.

One way to generate an interesting plot is to figure out an interesting, unique "want" for your villain. Power, fame, money, sex, love are all motivators, and still evergreen in their use as plot devices. But to make something interesting, you either need to make the method of pursuit different, or the reason for pursuing it different, or the very thing that the villain wants different from the cliché reasons for doing evil.

You can also make your hero very different from others, the Will Smith movie Hancock gives us an invulnerable superhero that lives like a homeless person and just doesn't give a shit how much property damage he creates while saving people. He's depressed, unhappy, careless, bored, relatively uninterested in personal hygiene. He does stop and catch bad guys, that's kind of in his DNA. So he isn't a villain, pursuing any selfish interest, but an interesting flawed hero with a problem.

Novelty (something being interesting) is achieved by making something about your villain or your hero (or sometimes your setting, sometimes combinations of these) very different from the norm, significantly enough that it affects your plot. It doesn't have to be totally original, but it should head in an original direction. Readers will want to see how that turns out, because they are in new territory and that is interesting.

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    @MateenUlhaq I don't know the reference to Nolan's Joker, but if Raphael is right, that he wants to prove anybody would become a criminal: Then he is harming innocents for his selfish interest, pride or not wanting to feel like a freak or whatever it is, to make himself feel better. That's no different than a guy that feels shunned by beautiful women making himself feel better by raping and killing beautiful women. Nolan's Joker sounds like he's causing hardships to force people to resort to crime, in order to make himself feel better about himself. He harms others out of selfish interest. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 5 '19 at 10:54
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    There are plenty of villains who do not have a self-interest. For example, those with misguided plans that they think are in the best interests of humanity as a whole, but involve killing plenty of innocents in the meantime. – JBentley Dec 5 '19 at 12:27
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    @Amadeus I'd agree with JBently actually. The argument that acting on what you believe to be best for humanity implies selfishness, kinda makes any action or interest selfish by definition. Or potentially, makes it so actions are only selfish if the audience thinks they are wrong - that doesn't seem to be a useful definition of selfishness. – HammerN'Songs Dec 5 '19 at 18:38
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    @HammerN'Songs Acting on what they believe to be best for humanity is not selfish, harming other people for their beliefs is the selfish part, and evil part. Otherwise, by your standard, genocide is not necessarily evil if the perpetrator truly believes they are acting in the best interest of humanity. A "belief" is a selfish interest. Sacrificing oneself for a belief is not evil; evil centers on the harming of innocents. As for readers, they are the judge of whether your fictional character is good or evil; a hero or a villain, and this is the psychology that informs them. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 5 '19 at 19:30
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    @Amadeus I agree that evil has the attribute of harming innocents, but I think the details/definition are not that clear-cut, and that classifying actions based on their consequences rather than their intentions can be flawed. My argument wasn't that genocide wouldn't be evil under those circumstances, but that it's more complex than just calling the perpetrator 'selfish' - it may be better described by arrogance or delusion. I think equating 'following a belief and allowing it to impact how you treat others' with mere 'selfishness' would lead to fairly flat and non-realistic characters. – HammerN'Songs Dec 5 '19 at 21:04
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To paraphrase a character from one of my stories:

"Evil is subjective. Nobody thinks of themselves as a villain because nobody likes to think that they are wrong."

The key to writing an interesting villain is to write someone who does not believe they are a villain. They may acknowledge the immorality or illegality of their actions, but they will nonetheless believe that, for some reason or other, they are doing the right thing. They don't have to be correct in that belief either.

This can take any number of forms:

  • They believe that their actions are "for the greater good", and/or will ultimately benefit society as a whole (Examples: Thanos, N from Pokémon Black/White)
  • They believe that their actions will ultimately benefit a loved one (Example: Mr. Freeze, Soran from Star Trek: Generations (as mentioned by Amadeus))
  • They are trying to hold back some even greater evil (Examples: Lordgenome from Gurren Lagann, the villain of Fable 3, Galeem from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate)
  • They are acting on the orders of some higher power, who has brainwashed or manipulated them into believing they're doing the right thing (Examples: Fate Testarossa from Season 1 of Lyrical Nanoha)
  • They are retaliating against a (real or perceived) injustice that was done to them or someone they care about (Examples: Carrie, Syndrome from The Incredibles - and the character of mine that said the above quote (and the character they're saying it to))
  • They do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the laws they are breaking and/or the government that enforces them (Examples: Anarky from Batman, Lelouch Lamperouge from Code Geass)
  • They have no traditional concept of morality and genuinely cannot comprehend that what they are doing is wrong (Example: Kyubey from Madoka Magica)
  • They started out committing crimes for one or more of the above reasons, but are either "in too deep" and can no longer back out, forcing them to continue, or have "jumped off the slippery slope" and physically cannot stop themselves from committing crimes (Examples: The Riddler, Walter White, Light Yagami from Death Note)

Once you know what drives them to commit villainous acts, you can start planning out what kinds of villainous acts they might undertake, and why. To use your example:

it basically involved kidnapping and using the descendant of an ancient species to network with an artifact that would only work with people with the right magical DNA. Villain’s plan was to use that to reach their level of magical ability.

So your villain wants magic power - but what do they want it for? Just for the sake of having it? That's not a very compelling motive, and will make your villain feel flat and generic.

Instead, there needs to be some greater end goal for which they need that power. Perhaps it's to carry out a large-scale act of vengeance. Perhaps it's to resurrect a loved one. Perhaps it's so they can do something for the "greater good". Make the plan an elaborate stepping stone to their real goal, and the kidnapped person an "unfortunate sacrifice", and suddenly it's a lot more interesting.

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So my first question is "Did you treat your villain as the most important character for your story?" If your answer is no, stop right there, and beep beep back the truck up.

Your villain is going to be agency of the entire plot. There's no story about your heroes without the villain so you need to know the villain as well as we know your hero, if not better. It's a lot of work... but the good news is, you the storyteller only have to do four things with the villain to make him better. Simply answer the following four questions your audience will ask the villain: "Who are you?" "What do you want?" "Where are you going?" "Why are you here?"

We can look at any good villain and see the answers and some maybe more important than others. Consider the last scene with Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. By the end of the film, we know the answer to all of the questions posed to Thanos.

Who is he? Thanos, the Mad Titan and the sole survivor of race too foolish to heed his advice, an intergalactic warlord who seeks not conquest or glory, but order in all things, the adoptive and deeply loving father of six children who cares for them despite their disagreements.

What does he want? The six infinity stones so that he may kill half of all life in the universe, so that the other half may survive an inevitable environmental cataclysm brought by overpopulation and limited resources.

Where is he going? No where, as he has succeeded... though the film is about him getting to the "snap" successfully.

Why is he here? To recover because the Snap was taxing and Thor did not aim for the head. Because he has won, but there was a price.

The first two questions are best using a literal interpretation. The first asks, prior to the the story, who was this person... what happened to him, and what was his life like and the second is purely about the win condition for the villain. To answer the first, you need to show the steps prior to the villains conflict with the hero... and since no one is evil, what caused the start of darkness. The second needs to show the thought process between the answer to the first, and the ultimate goal. Thanos was told that killing half a population to save another was crazy... yet all but he died... and because he doesn't want to see another civilization die because of the mistakes of his, he will make the choice for everyone.

The third and fourth are more metaphoric and speak to the progression of the story and are constantly updating. Where are you going speaks to the steps between the beginning and the end of the story and will probably be the hardest to answer. In the case of Thanos, his answer over the film changes from "Thor's Ship" to "Knowhere", to "Thanos's Ship" To "Volmire" to "The remains of Titan" to "Wakanda, Earth" to "The Garden" over the film's run. The final question is immediate now related and asks why is the villain in this place right now. Given the answers to all the stories, this can be the easiest to answer... With exception to "the Garden" Thanos is "here" because there is an Infinity Stone here as well, and he needs that for the answer to "What do you Want?"

With that in mind, you should be able to say here's the villain, here is his goal, here is the steps of the story where our heroes will face him, and here is the reason for each of those steps.

Your biggest bad guy will only lose once (at the end of the story) and if he directly confronts the hero(es) before the final battle, the villain must be a clear threat to all. Except for the climax, when the two meet, the hero is on the defensive and "wins" if he survives the encounter with the villain's ability to persue him momentarily disrupted. The villain doesn't win, so much as temporary stop a threat to achieving a goal. I always recomend that the villains be encountered sparingly. There are very few times Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are in the same room together and Luke is the best chance the rebels have in a fight with Vader... and is not as good as Vader in combat. In the original trilogy, they are barely in the same room in IV, once in V, and twice in VI (if you count the scene on Endor as seperate from the Death Star). Vader's menace is that he's difficult to beat for Luke and impossible to beat for anyone else... but he's rarely encountered by any heroes... but the first time you hear his signature breath in any scene, you know the good guys are in big trouble.

If you must have frequent fights, minions are good places, but the villain may send the minion to accomplish a goal that doesn't matter to the villain if the heroes succeed. The character David Xanatos in Disney's Gargoyles was famous for this kind of plotting. It was quickly noted by fans that Xanatos' goals were not counter to the gargoyles goals. For example, one episode a robot duplicate of his frees five members of another foe of the Gargoyles, the mercenary group "the pack" from prison (only one of the five is left in jail).

It doesn't matter to the real Xanatos if the Gargoyles don't stop the Pack's crime spree, as his goals are achieved, and if the Gargoyles do stop them, he can get more data from the robot duplicate. In fact, the crime spree itself doesn't matter to his plan. The real reason he broke out the Pack was so the one left in jail could do so by refusing to break out... which impresses the paroll board who grant the remaining prisoner her request of early release... and we then learn that Xanatos is dating her so his goal was won before the Gargoyles could even make a choice to act or remain out of action... If the pack is allowed to run free, that's fine, as it still shows his love has reformed. If they are stopped, then dangerous criminals are recaptured and his love still appears to be the lone reformer... getting more data from the Bot was just the icing... the Xanatos had the Cake in the opening five minutes of the 22 minute story.

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  • I have one complaint about using Thanos as an example of a good villain, while he has strong convictions and a goal that is relatable his means of achieving his goal are incredibly short sighted (especially since he goes and destroys the stones after) . This to me runs too contradictory to Thanos' previous planning and meticulousness. It seems a clear oversight that Thanos can imagine halving the population once can save the universe indefinitely – BKlassen Dec 5 '19 at 18:11
  • Plus, I always wondered why Thanos didn't just double the resources and/or halve the birth rate. He's supposed to be so smart, I mean – DSKekaha Dec 5 '19 at 20:34
  • @BKlassen: I'm only looking at Thanos as presented in the Infinity War... Endgame is a separate matter and not germane to this answer (I have loads of problems with Thanos in Endgame as a villain). And part of the point is you're not suppose to think Thanos is right, just understand why Thanos thinks he's right. – hszmv Dec 6 '19 at 13:32
  • fair enough, the point I was trying to elude to is just that the goal and plan for your villain should be consistent with their abilities. A clever, meticulous villain should have a plan that is clearly thought out – BKlassen Dec 6 '19 at 15:59
  • Doubling resources doesn't work. It sounds good in theory, but where exactly are you going to place another Earth in the solar system without breaking literally everything? – Winterborne Dec 6 '19 at 17:11
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In just about all fiction, the focus of the story will be on an element of the world that is different from our own.

In more realistic fiction this could simply be an invented character (or cast of characters) while in SFF it could be any number of greater differences.

When you put on your villain hat, you need to, too, focus on these changed elements to make your plan relevant to the world and the story. You look at these elements with a specific question in mind: "How can I best benefit from this?"

'Benefit' in this case is a nebulous term that is defined by the villain's personality, but will ultimately be a gain in whatever drives them. This could be monetary gain, power, status, service to a deity, 'the greater good'... It does not really matter. Ultimately, they will have to interact with your world in a smart way to get (more of) it.

Ultimately, this breaks down into a system of 'means', 'method' and 'end'. The means are the world elements (characters, resources, opportunity) that the villain will be exploiting. The method is exactly how they will do that; the plan. The end, in this case, is the same as the benefit discussed earlier: What exactly they want to achieve through their plan.

Quick examples:

Character: Thanos
Means: The infinity stones
Method: Gather them, use them to erase half of all life.
End: The survival of the universe (and personal glory)

Character: Gaston
Means: Enmity between two factions (townspeople/Beast)
Method: Lead one in an attack against the other
End: Claim Belle, 'saving' her from Beast

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One approach is to build the plan from the character. An interesting character has interesting desires, which lead to interesting plans.

Some examples.

  • Lucifer (Paradise Lost) Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. Jealous and self-obsessed. When God doesn't love him as much as he feels he should be loved, he rejects God, but is never capable of letting go, and spends his days trying to corrupt God's most beloved creation.
  • Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War) A broken man, who suffered a great loss. Somebody who understands his limitations, and only wants to strike one simple blow to the people that hurt him. There is a sadness and a modesty to his plan that comes from his backstory.
  • Voldermort He-who-must-not-be-named is frightening and powerful, but what drives him is a fear of death. He is so scared that he perverts himself, splits his soul and visits his worst fear on others. There's is a nice parallel with the protagonist, who is afraid of the same thing, but faces his fears.
  • Dolores Umbridge The banality of evil. I would characterize her as somebody who is in a great deal of denial, who lacks the humility to accept her flaws and goes to great lengths to keep from having to face the truth about herself.
  • The Joker (Dark Knight version) An agent of chaos, with little humanity or preconception. The only thing he wants is for people to see the world "as it is". He is infuriated by the way people pretend there is order and good in people.
  • Thanos (comic book version) The comic book version is more narcisistic than the movie version, and driven mostly by the fact that lady death will not love him back. Despite his power and intelligence, his failure to understand basic emotions, and how others perceive him, causes him to nearly destroy the universe.
  • Thanos (movie version) The movie version of Thanos is far more composed and mature. He is a classic example of the villain who sees himself as the (dark) hero, the only one who will do what is necessary. His only flaw is a lack of humility, and there is a logic to his plan that would be convincing if it weren't so extreme.
  • Darth Vader A villain with an arc. He starts out simply as an enforcer just desiring to maintain order, which turns to a desire to grab power together with his son, which turns to a desire for redemption. All this follows from his background of having his anger manipulated by the Emperor. His arc is essentially peeling away the layers of his past.

As a counterexample, I've personally always thought of Sauron (as presented in the Lord of the Rings) as one of the most boring villains in fiction. He's simply a force of nature, with no character or actual presence in the book. All he wants is power for power's sake, and to recapture what he lost. If the villain doesn't have a character, they can't have interesting desires, and they can't have an interesting plan (although you can still have an interesting book).

Which type of villain works for your story depends on what you want to achieve. Sometimes it's interesting to make the villain really sympathetic, so that the reader experiences a little dissonance in their allegiance. Sometimes you want to inspire fear and set up a great challenge for the hero. In this case building on character flaws can actually reduce the awe that the villain inspires. Sometimes you want to inspire the kind of frustration you feel when somebody shallow and petty and utterly lacking in self awareness has control over you.

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My process for writing the villain is to actually 'flip' the story in my head, and work on the villain as if they are the protagonist.

Look at the evil plan as if it is the righteous plan is actually a very interesting process because you can start to develop a lot of nuance for it. It can help create moments of doubt with the protagonist because by developing from the righteous plan angle, one of the things you do is develop WHY someone should get behind this plan to later use against the hero.

In my novel series, my hero does wonder if there is some benefit to the evil plan because there are elements of rationale to it. So, my evil doer's over reaching plan is to essentially raise the devil and snuff out all magic. Bad right? But one of my hero's, fighting against the evil doer doesn't necessarily believe snuffing out all magic is a bad thing because of how it's impacted on his life, so he could be turned, could create later conflict, could become a second antagonist as he finds another way to snuff out magic.

It's stuff like that which can make evil plots interesting.

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