From Voldemort to Darth Vader, to Mrs Coulter and her golden monkey–even to the nameless witch in Hansel and Gretel–all great Middle Grade villains share particular traits that make them memorable.
Whilst it’s important to note that not all villains have to be individual characters (they can be groups, governing bodies, situations or even concepts), it can make for a more compelling Middle Grade story if there is one character who is the linchpin of its conflict.
The reason for this is two-fold.
- The reader can put a face to the conflict; they know who their hero must defeat
- It enables the writer to develop a relationship between the hero and villain that has depth.
So, if you’ve chosen to make your villain an individual character, you’ll obviously want to create a memorable one. You’ll want to create a great one.
Fortunately, if you analyse villains from popular Middle Grade stories, their similarities work as a good guide for how to do exactly that.
1 – The villain is a ‘dark mirror’ of hero
The most effective villains represent a ‘path not taken’ for the hero. For example, both Harry Potter and Voldemort were half-blood orphans, descended from great wizarding families. They both suffered insults, abuse and rejection as children. They both went to Hogwarts and had the same education.
The difference between them is that Harry Potter had compassion and courage (see Top 10 Traits of a Compelling Middle Grade Hero), whereas Voldemort most definitely did not. Harry’s traits allowed him to make friends and overcome his challenges, whereas Voldemort gave into his dark impulses and followed a path that made him into an irredeemable villain.
On the surface, both hero and villain are very similar but have chosen different ways to handle their situations. This is what a ‘dark mirror’ is.
Of course, it is not always possible or prudent to have heroes and villains that are so similar. In this case, it is not their situation that should create a ‘dark mirror’, but their personalities.
All great characters, including your villain, should have positive traits and negative ones. They should be well-rounded, but some of their traits (not all–there must be contrast!) can be the same as your hero’s. You just need to take them to their logical negative conclusion.
For example, if your hero is brave, your villain could be reckless. If your hero is steadfast, your villain might be stubborn. If your hero is passionate, your villain might be hot-headed. The idea is to show how your hero could easily become a villain given different circumstances. This is especially effective if, influenced by your villain’s actions, your hero briefly shows the ‘darker’ side of their personality traits as well.
2 – The villain should seek the same thing as the hero.
I don’t necessarily mean that the villain and the hero are both searching for a magic biscuit that grants the power of telepathy. The thing that they both seek could be a physical object (the Philosopher’s Stone; the Alethiometer etc.) but it could also be a concept or situation that they seek.
For example, in the fairytale ‘Hansel and Gretel‘, both the witch and the children are seeking a state of being: survival. The children eat the gingerbread house because they are starving to death after being abandoned; the witch tries to eat them because she’s hungry and children are what she eats.
However, as the witch’s search for food directly threatens the children’s survival, conflict is created. In the end, the siblings kill her by shoving her into an oven, defeating her ‘search’ and achieving their own goal.
Alternatively, your hero and villain could seek the same thing but want it to be in different forms. For example, your hero might want their best friend alive; your villain will want them dead.
Whatever your villain seeks, it is important that they seek it with passion and that they have a plan to get it. This plan can involve lies, cheating, playing tricks… any bad method in order to achieve their goal.
Typically, a villain’s motivation for seeking this item or person will be selfish. The hero’s motivation will likely be altruistic. It is this difference that makes them what they are.
3 – The villain must have a relatable reason for what they’re doing
Every villain is the hero of their own story. This is an incredibly important fact to keep in mind when deciding on your villain’s motivations. The best villains are ones that you can understand.
A recent, well known example of this is Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Overpopulation led to his home planet’s destruction; his people were starving, poor and, eventually, very, very dead. He thinks this is a pointless waste of life and, ostensibly, he doesn’t want other planets to suffer the same fate. So far, he could be hero.
What makes him a villain is his method of solving this issue. He decides that the best solution to overpopulation is to kill half the known universe. I’m sure you’ve read enough stories by now to know: heroes don’t kill people. However… you can kinda see his point.
Ideally, you want your readers to understand where your villain is coming from. They don’t need to agree with his methods (I should hope they don’t!) but they should be able to see why, if they were that character, in that situation, they might act in the same way.
4 – The villain must have a story arc and character arc too!
Next to your hero, your villain is your Middle Grade story’s most important character. They should be treated accordingly. When crafting your villain, give thought to the 3 Pillars of Creating Characters and fully develop the character. Your villain should not be just a vehicle for conflict; they should be able to stand on their own as a recognisable and definable individual.
In later posts, I’ll talk about the different types of character and story arcs, but for now it’s enough to say that your villain must end up somehow changed by the events of your story. This is also true of your hero.
It is likely that your villain will start out in a position of power at the beginning of your novel. The most common story arc for villains is the tragic arc, where–once the heroes get involved–everything starts going downhill for them.
If you’re writing series fiction, it’s likely you don’t want your villain to be completely defeated by the end of your first novel. That’s fine. A villain doesn’t have to be dead or otherwise incapacitated in order to fulfil their arc: they simply have to be thwarted and changed. They could become more wary now they know the hero is around to stop them, or they might become more dastardly, realising that they need to pull their finger out if they’re going to succeed next time.
5 – The villains must be more powerful than the hero
If your villain is easily defeatable, it reduces the conflict and lowers the stakes of the novel. Additionally, it makes your hero’s achievements less impressive. If your hero can successfully defeat your villain at the start of the novel, it’s unlikely they will achieve a satisfying character arc.
For this reason, you want to create a villain who is almost unbeatable.
As the villain is usually in a place of privilege during the novel (having more experience, knowledge, power or resources), the hero must improve themselves in some way before they are capable of defeating them. This might be by learning a skill, like magic or fighting, gathering support, or overcoming some flaw like lack of courage.
Ideally, you want your hero’s success to be in doubt until the last possible moment.
Important note: When you’re writing Middle Grade novels, there are some rules to follow regarding your villain’s defeat. It is vital that the hero does not kill the baddie. Your villain must be the architect of their own downfall.
So those are the five traits of great Middle Grade villains. How does your villain match up? Have I missed any? Drop your comments below!