The days of the flat, dimensionless villain are over. Readers expect more from their stories than the classic good-vs-evil that characterized fairytales of old – think Disney in the 50s.
A while ago I wrote a post called Love Your Villain. In it, I talked about the need for creating a villain that your readers care about on some level. This is what makes the savvy reader of today care about your novel as a whole, about your characters and what will happen to them.
It’s true, some stories simply require villains. What would Titanic be without Cal Hockley? Or Harry Potter without Vold—whoops, I mean, He Who Must Not Be Named?
But if you’re in the outlining stage of your novel, and you’re struggling with how to fit in a villain that you can add depth and character to, try omitting the villain entirely. You don’t need him. Or her. Believe it or not, your story can get from start to finish without that classic hate-their-guts antagonist.
Creating conflict without a “villain”
If you don’t have a set, identifiable villain, you might ask, then how do you create that conflict that makes a novel—especially a romance novel—a page-turner?
Well, here are three suggestions:
1. Struggle against societal expectations
Think Pride and Prejudice. There is no real villain keeping Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy apart. It’s Mr. Darcy’s societal standing, really, that is the source of conflict here. It is everyone in Mr. Darcy’s upper-crust sphere, and the expectations they’ve put on Mr. Darcy his whole life, that is keeping them apart. Throw in a bit of stubbornness on both sides, and an insipid mother, and you’ve got a great, villainless story.
Try having your hero and heroine come from two different classes. Perhaps he’s a tavern owner and she a debutante. Perhaps she’s a London pickpocket and he’s head of Scotland Yard. With society against your protagonist lovers, you don’t need to introduce a villain to keep them apart.
2. Struggle against external conflict
Ah, external conflict. The bread and butter of historical romances. Who needs a classic villain when you’ve got the Wars of Scottish Independence to keep your lovers apart? Or maybe your hero and heroine are fighting for their love in the upheaval of Revolutionary France.
Many authors try to introduce a classic villain into historical circumstances when one isn’t necessary. Let the history create the conflict. Or if not history, then write your romance around external events that are beyond your protagonists’ control.
3. Struggle against internal conflict
If you don’t have historical or societal pressures to work with, try introducing internal conflict. For example, your hero might not think he’s not good enough for his lady love because of his poor upbringing. If you want a real example, then consider the first book and a half of the Twilight series, where Edward is struggling against his love for Bella because of his … er … nasty little habit of sucking things dry.
A word of caution, though, on internal conflict. You have to be smart about it. There is a fine line between great internal conflict, and stupidity. Your readers won’t thank you for a masochist protagonist, who constantly sabotages his or her own happiness because they’ve got all kinds of ridiculous hold-ups.
We all love a good villain. Keyword here is good villain. Don’t feel you need to introduce one just because. If you can’t write a villain that readers can at least identify with on some level, or at some point in your story, you’d probably be better to downsize your cast by one evil dude or dudette.