The backstory. For a villain, the backstory can be thought of as “why they do what they do.” It is that peek into the past that allows the audience to learn about the roots of the nefarious ne’er-do-well. The backstory could span from last week to the villain’s childhood depending on exactly what the writer intends to reveal. The main purpose of the backstory is to lay the groundwork for events that would otherwise be confusing or unimportant to the audience.
When it comes to villains, there is always something of a gamble as backstories, particularly those that show cause for motives, tend to cause the audience to empathize with the character. In select instances, this may be exactly what the writer intends. With that in mind, here are a few possible villain backstory scenarios that can be useful in fiction:
The Traumatic Backstory
For most audiences, the idea that a villain is “bad for the sake of being bad” is unacceptable. For many, the knowledge that the antagonist has experienced some great trauma or tragedy which has left him/her with a twisted view of the world serves as a “reason why.” Though it is up for debate whether or not Miss Faversham from Dickens’ Great Expectations is an out and out villain, the revelation of her abandonment by her fiancée explains her deep bitterness towards men. Traumatic backstories for villains must be delicately written so that the audience can empathize with the antagonist, but not justify their evil acts.
The Connection to the Hero Backstory
In many instances, the villain is revealed to have some connection to the hero. Through the aid of a backstory, the author can communicate to the reader just why the villain is so determined to destroy the protagonist. Similar to the traumatic backstory, this satisfies the natural curiosity of the audience concerning the villain’s motivation. Note the elaborate and clever backstory in Spielberg’s The Adventure’s of Tintin. In this case, the villain is revealed to have a connection with Captain Haddock which spans several generations, adding to the complexity of the story.
The “Good to Evil” Backstory
In many ways, this can be thought of as the “Darth Vader background story.” Essentially, this backstory is used specifically when a character begins as a “good guy” and turns into a villain. These backstories are often very complex and vital to the story as they must tell cover the full spectrum of the pivot from good to evil. Writer’s should consider carefully whether or not this backstory is vital to the plot, as much time will be needed to provide necessary depth.
At the end of the day, there’s no law that stipulates a villain backstory is even necessary. Depending on their relevance to the plot, it is often permissible to have a fairly one dimensional villain with basic, albeit corrupt, motives. If a gang robs a bank, it’s probably not necessary to delve into the childhood of each gang member to reveal what circumstances brought them to their current state. At the same time, some explanation, even if it’s somewhat vague, should be offered to explain the villain’s actions.
Always bear one thought in mind when forming your villain: no one ever woke up one morning and decided to destroy the world. Remember that your villain is not just a gun toting machine, but rather a complex individual who should be fully fleshed out and developed. Creating a realistic backstory can go a long way in accomplishing this goal.