The protagonist is one of the most essential characters in a story. They're the driving force, the character we spend the most time with and the character we should be, ideally, rooting for. A bad protagonist can cripple a story, while a good one can drag them from the gutters.
A villain is perhaps the second most essential character. The primary source of conflict, one of, if not the most essential character to the plot. A bad villain can lead to an entire conflict going stale, while a good one can be someone we hate, someone we love and someone we love to hate.
We can see spectacular combinations of the villain and protagonist throughout history in some of the greatest works of fiction. From modern day classics like Breaking Bad's Walter White or the titular Dexter, to old classics like Macbeth of Paradise Lost's Satan himself, to even some classics on the site, where the villain protagonist is quite common, like Eternal, the Path of Death or Mommy, Can I go out and kill tonight?.
So, today, we'll look at a few common ways to write villain protagonists without falling into the common issues people have to deal with, as well as how to perfect your villain protagonist!
What is a villain protagonist?
A villain protagonist is when we give the protagonist, the viewpoint character who we follow throughout the story, villainous traits and tendency. Basically, the protagonist we follow is also a villainous, evil character who would be at home being opposed by the more heroic types common to fiction.
How can we write villain protagonists?
Villain protagonists can tend to go through five major paths in their stories. The first is where we follow Villain Protagonists on their tale, which ultimately become a tale of redemption, such as in the titular Grinch or Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
The second is where the protagonist is a traditionally villainous character, but he's opposing even more villainous characters. If our protagonist wants to rob banks, his enemies want to kill and maim people. We can see examples of this in Dexter and Warhammer 40K, where despite our protagonists villainous traits, we've no choice but to root for him compared to his far more evil foe.
The third is where the villain protagonist is truly the villain of the story, but in a more tragic case. We follow the protagonist, but don't truly support him. Instead, we just follow him throughout his tale, more in fascination and awe with his actions rather than rooting for him to succeed. Examples of this are seen in American Psycho, or Lolita.
Fourth, we have a character starting off as a moral, decent person, and the story details his slow and brutal corruption. We might start with an everyday guy, but due to circumstances, power corrupting and just the slow shift of time, our character becomes more and more of a villain over time. Threatening an innocent person, beating up a morally grey character, and by the end, they can be planting a bomb on a bus to ensure the goals, still thinking they're the same decent guy we started the story with. Examples include Breaking Bad or Death Note.
Fifth and finally, we have where the villain protagonist might be more evil and morally worse than his enemies, he's just cooler, more interesting and more likable. This is actually one of the most common examples in fiction, be it the Usual Suspects, Scarface or really any heist film. Sure, the protagonists might be criminals responsible for endless harm and suffering, but goddamn, they're just so cool! We'll happily shrug off the moral faults of the lovable bank robber, arms runner or meth cook, even though in any other story we'd happily root for his downfall.
Ten ways to do villain protagonists well!:
1. Make them three-dimensional: Most importantly of all, your villain-protagonist needs to be three dimensional. He needs to have flaws, he needs to have virtues, he needs to have goals, he needs to be a real person. Having a paper thin character without any real motivations or anything really isn't going to be entertaining to follow, and isn't something the reader will want to deal with for the entirety of the story. So whatever you do, make sure they're three dimensional, and real!
2. Give them noble goals: An important way to balance a character's evil traits without making them unlikable is to give them noble goals. A villain protagonist doesn't have to have evil goals, only evil methods. The protagonist might've done evil things, but they were for the right reason! He was trying to protect his family, or make the world a better place! If the villain has a noble goal, we'll support him through many evil methods.
3. Give them a moral code: If the villain protagonist has a moral code, he'll still seem moral enough that we can follow him as the protagonist without having any issue. Maybe your villain protagonist doesn't hurt people not involved in "the business" or maybe they'd never hurt a child. Either way, if they've a moral code, they can be villainous without ever going too far for us to support him.
4. Give them a morality chain: A morality chain is a character who is the reason another character is good. Picture the titular Dexter's foster dad, who kept him from being an evil serial killer, while Dexter strove to follow his good example. Picture Lilly to Snape in Harry Potter, who kept Snape good and pure and doing the right thing out of love to her. A morality chain can be any number of things. A beloved partner who tells the villain protagonist to do the right thing, an old mentor the villain protagonist wants to make proud, or a young child the villain protagonist wants to set a good example for. Either way, having the villain protagonist have someone they love and care for humanizes them to us, and makes them far easier to root for.
5. Make them charismatic: If someone's charming, we're going to like them more. History's littered with evil people who were charming enough to get endless supporters, and fiction's no different. If the villain protagonist can charm people, he can charm us as well, and sure, he might blow up a hospital or two, but dammit, he's just so charming!
6. Make them badass: At a certain point, something becomes so badass we can forgive immoralities. Sure, that hero just destroyed that building and cost someone millions of dollars, but it was just so cool! And lucky you, villains are inherently badass. Be it your classic cool, slick Mafioso, your evil overlord dressed in spikes and black with a terrifyingly cool dragon or the evil empire in space with cool outfits and massive starships. Evil just gets to be more badass, and thus, that's to your advantage. If you make your villain protagonist badass and cool enough, I'll happily root for him to destroy those pesky rebels, even if they are objectively evil about it.
7. Make them understandable: Evil doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's reasons for it. If someone's a villain, there should be reasons they are a villain if you made a third-dimensional character (see 1.), and if we get to understand those reasons, the villain makes a lot more sense. No longer is he doing something evil, but he's doing something that we could understandably do in his circumstances, and we can support him then. So, make your villain understandable, and they'll be far easier to root for.
8. Make them an underdog: People have a natural tendency to root for the underdog, and you can use that to your advantage. Even if our protagonist might be quite villainous, if the odds are against him, we still want to see him overcome those odds! No one wants to see the much larger force crush the small one, even if that larger force is the moral moral one. So, if your protagonists an underdog, he'll be all that bit more rootable!
9. Make them fun to play as: This one's especially important for CYOA's. If your villain is fun to play as, then we'll love to play as them no matter how evil they are. The protagonists of GTA V or Payday or Destroy all humans! or half the video games to come out over the past decade were never the good guys. We don't care though, because it's amazingly fun to play as them! Looking at the site itself, look at Necromancer. You play as a genocidal, you guessed it, Necromancer. Sure, he's evil and irredeemable, but he's ultimately really, really fun to play as, so people get over it and have fun! If you can make your villain fun to play as and to read about, we'll do it, no matter the moral qualms.
10. Make them interesting!: Most of all, I want you to make the villain-protagonist interesting! As long as a character is interesting, we'll be willing to follow his story and see where it leads. We might not support him, we might not love him, we might hate him, but if a character and their story is interesting, simply put, we'll read it.
Well, that's all there is to it. With these methods, you can easily perfect your villain-protagonist, and make him a character we root for all the way down his evil road to damnation. Whether it a violent Mafioso, an evil overlord, a down-on-his-luck bounty hunter or anything else you can dream up, best of luck writing your story!