Elements of a Good Villain Prequel20:36
There’s a growing trend for movies, books, or series to have a prequel written about their villains. Think of Maleficent, or Fairest here. But, despite their increasing popularity, these are difficult stories. What writers have to deliver is a book that is the exact opposite of what readers are used to, a story about a person who, rather than striving to better themselves, falls deeper and deeper into evil, while still providing a story they can connect with and enjoy. It’s hard to create a riveting book with a satisfying ending when you’re taking your readers on a tragedy ride. That being said, when written correctly, these stories can be amazing. And there are things you can do to take your book to the next level. Here are just some of the elements of a great villainous prequel.
The Right Villain
Not every villain suits a prequel. While some villains are deliciously complex and conflicted and would benefit from having their character explored in more detail in a prequel, others are highly unsuited to having their backstory laid out in this way. This is especially true of the ‘dark lord’ type of villain. Their whole appeal lies in their utter inhumanity, their personality that rarely, if ever, has a moment of compassion. Their whole strength is in their one sided character. And that makes them unsuited to have their own book, because you have to give them other traits than evil. You have to give them somewhat of a human side. And that undermines their awesomeness in the other books, detracting from their main strengths. A great villainous prequel requires the right villain for the job.
A Relatable Characteristic
One of the big issues writers face when writing a prequel like this is the fact that the main character isn’t really someone that readers can automatically empathise with. These people are on the road to dark lord status. It’s a bit hard to empathise with that. But the fact is, if your readers can’t connect with the main character in some way, then they’re not going to finish the book. This doesn’t mean that your villain has to be innocent, or even necessarily good at heart. But they do have to have at least one element that readers can connect with. They can have a human element, such as an internal conflict about their actions, showing mercy towards certain people, like children, a misguided sense of justice, or difficult life circumstances, that will allow readers to sympathise with the villain in some capacity, or they need another intriguing element, such as humour, to make them interesting. If you can’t get the readers on board with your main character at the beginning, then they won’t be there at the end.
In the main book, villains, like the hero and all the other characters, should have a strong motivation for doing what they’re doing. In a villainous prequel, this is even more important, because this is the birthplace of those all-important motivations from the other books. Even when showing their path to the dark side, readers need to have a strong sense of why this is happening, and why the villains are making the decisions they are. This is particularly important, because you have a downwards character arc going on, and understanding the villain’s motivation is key to accepting their decisions throughout the book.
Provide New Understanding
Author Chuck Wendig once said “An origin story is all prologue”, and in many ways he is very right. Much of the key information presented in a prequel should already have been covered in the original books as the hero discovers more about the villain on their quest to stop him. So, in order to avoid merely rehashing what we already know about the villain, the prequel has to work harder, dig deeper, and show readers something new, whether it’s a crucial part of the villain’s backstory that shaped them into the person they became but was never told because no one knew it, or show something that brings new understanding of who the character is, where they’re coming from in their life, or what is driving them. Whatever you choose to focus on, a good prequel should strive to show readers more about the character and world than what is contained in the other books.
A Sense of Uncertainty
The problem with prequels is that readers already know the ending. They know where the villain, will end up and they probably have quite a good idea of how they got there. Basically, they know most of your plot. So you have to be extremely clever about the rest of the book. Much of the story will be constricted by whatever was revealed about the villain in the other books, but the rest of it should give readers a sense of uncertainty. Your job is to keep them guessing about exactly what will happen next. Otherwise the book ends up boring and predictable and your readers are unlikely to enjoy it nearly as much as the other books.
A Gradual Descent
If you’re writing a prequel about your villain, chances are they started out as a fairly decent person. Which means that throughout the book, we’ll be following their journey from good to evil. Now, while there may be a defining moment that clearly shows their move from light to dark, this is generally the culmination of a lot of smaller decisions that the villain made. The change from being a good person to wanting to rule the world needs to happen slowly and over multiple events for it to be realistic. Rarely, if ever, do good people suddenly snap and switch sides in an instant. Give them lots of opportunities to show their development into a villain so that readers can understand why they turned out how they did, even if they can’t agree with it.
A Sense of Tragedy
Ultimately, stories about villains are tragedies. They tell terrible stories of good people descending further and further into the unreachable depths. If the writer manages to get readers to connect with the main character, we are held captive, watching spellbound as a person we like self-destructs in front of us. And, when they reach their ultimate goal at the end of the book, it is a bitter victory, because achieving their goal means that the light in them has finally died and redemption is beyond them. Colouring the end of the book at least with a touch of tragedy leaves readers with a strong emotional impact they won’t quickly forget.
These are just some of the elements of a great villain prequel. What would you add to this list? Are any of these points new to you? What villain prequels or origin stories have you read? Have you ever thought of writing one?
For the next Elements Of post, what would you like to see? Let me know in the comments!
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