We planned and plotted, knew where the story was going, who was going to tell it. Our setting was imprinted vividly in our minds. And the scenes were flowing like never before, until…
We hit a brick wall.
It came out of nowhere, knocking us square in the forehead. What did we miss? We reviewed our outline, revisited our characters, and everything seemed to be in line. Then came the voice. At first it was quiet, but slowly began to get louder and louder...insistent.
“I will tell the story better. Let me tell it,” he demanded.
Did you hear that? I asked my co-author. And she had. It was one of our antagonists, insisting on taking the lead.
But he was our bad guy. How could we possibly give him center stage? We decided we couldn’t; his role in the story, his fate, had already been decided. So we plugged on, picked up speed again, until...we hit yet another brick wall.
“I told you. I will tell the story better. Let me tell it,” he demanded again, becoming even more insistent.
This time, rather than writing him off as a pesky annoyance, we thought about what he said, what it would mean to make him the lead player, the protagonist. A villain protagonist.
After reevaluating our story and characters with the role change in mind, we realized he was right. He would tell a better story. And so, he got his way.
What is a villain protagonist?
A villain protagonist is a character that exhibits traits of a villain but takes center stage. A few examples of villain protagonists include Dexter, American Psycho, and Gone Girl.
What we’ve discovered so far is that writing villain protagonists isn’t easy and there are a few things that must be kept in mind for it to work.
5 Tips for Writing a Villain Protagonist
1 | CREATE AN AUDIENCE BOND: Your reader should be able to empathize with your protagonist on some level. Even a villain protagonist. This empathy is what fuses a bond between reader and character. This doesn’t mean that the protagonist must be pleasant, or that we even need to induce sympathy for him. We don’t. We don’t even have to like him. But we do need to be able to empathize with him.
For example, take Macbeth. He’s a ruthless killer who becomes a tragic, empathetic hero because he was given a conscious. We’ve all done things only to end up asking ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” And on this level, we can relate.
Another example is Dexter. Throughout the entire series we witness this serial killer's attachment to, and protectiveness of, his sister. These are traits we can empathize with, and they create a shared bond as we all have people in our lives we love and want to protect.
2 | WILLPOWER: His willpower must be enough to sustain his desire through whatever conflict he faces.
3 | CONSCIOUS DESIRE: He must have a need or a goal, an object of desire. Ask him, “What is it that you want?” He should have a very clear answer to this question.
PRO TIP: Need, goal, object of desire can be internal or external.
4 | UNCONSCIOUS DESIRE: Consider the possibility that what he believes he wants is opposite of what he unconsciously wants or needs. This complexity creates an inner contradiction and multidimensional protagonist.
5 | CAPABILITY: He must have a chance at attaining his desire. Everyone believes they have at least a slight chance of fulfilling their desires, and this is also true for the protagonist in your story. Without capability, your story will fall flat and your audience will become frustrated.
It must be remembered that a villain protagonist cannot be written in a one-dimensional manner, meaning, he can’t be all bad, or pure evil. Instead, the goal is to write a multidimensional character, a character with contradictions (for example, he could be guilty and ambitious or ruthless and compassionate or sane and mad) thus creating complexities and a character that on some level the reader can empathize with.
Characters with multiple dimensions are fascinating and contradictions in behavior riveting. Pull this off with your villain protagonist and you’ll create a character your readers will love and hate.