Reader Question: How to approach writing a villain Protagonist?

How to write a hero when they are an anti-hero.

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A question from Ryan Covert:

How about a Schrader-esque analysis/discussion on how to approach the writing of an anti-hero?

A villain as the story’s protagonist. Obviously this is more of an advanced screenwriting theory, as well as probably something that has better roots in independent cinema, but I’m about to tackle such a scenario and a few pointers, ideas, or advice would be great.


Good question, Ryan. Although the particulars would depend upon the genre of your story and whether the villain is somehow redeemed as a result of what happens in the story (Road to Perdition) or ends up in a ‘negative’ state (Scarface), the basic approach is, I would think, very much the same as how you develop any Protagonist character. That said, I would encourage you to focus on three points as you work with your villain Protag:

  • They must have a coherent and justifiable world view. Since your P is a villain, presumably they are doing ‘bad’ things. Why? What is it about their background, life experience, and beliefs that enables them to embrace doing what society perceives as being wrong. The Son of Sam serial killer argued in court that he murdered his victims because a neighbor’s “demon dog” told him to. Not a sane justification, however Berkowitz did have a rationale for his crimes. James Gumb aka Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs was convinced that he should be a woman, not a man. However none of the sex-change hospitals would accept him as a patient. So he did what was presumably a ‘logical’ next best thing: He killed large women, starved them until their skin was pliable enough, killed his victims, and skinned them so he could sew together a female body suit. Again not necessarily sane, but one can assume that Gumb thought it was a rational world view.

At the very least, your P’s world view needs to be something that they believe in; in other words, it has to make sense to them. That is not necessarily true for the reader where what’s most important is that they simply understand the internal logic of the P’s world view.

  • I believe it was Elmore Leonard who said, “Even bad guys have mothers.” That comment highlights another area of focus for a villain P: find something within the character’s psyche, background, and/or behavior that engenders empathy on the reader’s part. Notice I didn’t say sympathy. The problem trying to create reader sympathy is that you may be tempted to steer the P more toward the ‘good,’ thereby making them more likable, but that essentially neuters them as a villain. Empathy on the other hand — “understanding of another’s situation, feelings, motives” — is probably a better goal as you develop your villain Protagonist because you’re only asking the reader to understand the P, not identify with or support their behavior.

For example, Al Pacino’s character (Sonny) in Dog Day Afternoon, a guy whose attempt to rob a bank goes horribly wrong, resulting in a hostage crisis and standoff with police. As I recall, it’s not until about halfway through the movie we learn why Sonny is robbing the bank: to get money to pay for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery. Do we sympathize with Sonny upon learning that? Probably not. But at least we can empathize with him, after all Sonny is trying to do something generous, not self-indulgent.

  • Perhaps the most important thing to work on is making your villain Protagonist fascinating. Sticking with Al Pacino, his Protagonist character in Scarface (Tony Montana) is a violent, misgoynist narcissist, but he’s one hell of an interesting dude. How to make a character fascinating? I’m sure there’s a book waiting to be written on that subject, but you can start by looking to the usual suspects re character development: background, beliefs, behavior. What is there that is unique and compelling about their persona?

Fortunately, villains tend to have large personalities which would — in theory at least — incline them toward being a character who a reader would find interesting. We are drawn to big characters, at least that’s one of my explanations for why contemporary culture is so obsessed with celebrities, the so-called ‘cult of personality.’ So as you develop your villain P, try to find what is it about them that is ‘big’ as that may be a source of what makes them fascinating.

GITS readers, can you add any suggestions for Ryan as he tackles a story with a villain Protagonist?

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