Elements of a Good Villain Prequel


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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.

Strong Motivations

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!
  • Elements of a Good Sub Plot Romance
  • Elements of a Good Mystery Part 2
  • Elements of a Good Mythological Retelling
  • Something Else

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  1. Ooh, I LIKE. I actually really enjoy the origin villainous stories. XD And I love a good tragedy, so I actually write them a lot (omg I write so. many. anti-heroes) but I totally agree with your list! And I think it's a hard balance too?!? Like with Fairest, which I LOVED, because Marissa Meyer somehow made Levana horrible and unforgivable, but I felt sorry for her too? I kind of understood what drove her? And that's like the best villain origin effect one can hope for right?!?

    1. Definitely. You don't want to love a horrible villain too much, because otherwise they lose their power, but at the same time, you gotta understand and connect with them at least a little, otherwise it's no fun reading the book. Oh, and the anti-hero characters are so much fun! Such sad little treasures sometimes.

  2. OOOH YES EXACTLY. Although, like, all of my novels are a little bit tragedies so they're kinda like the origin villain story for a hero story I will never write XD And definitely, grey characters are the best for villain stories! The most difficult point here to nail is probably a sense of uncertainty, although that could probably overlap with the others.

    1. I totally agree with that. To create the sense of uncertainty, I think you also have to dig deep into the details. The readers know the overarching storyline, but there's a lot that can be done with the specifics inside of it. You really do have to be so clever though. I don't know that I would ever write a villain origin story myself. Too difficult to get right!

  3. THIS IS WONDERFUL. I love villain prequels, especially when I hate the villain, but the author makes me feel sorry for the villain. To me, that shows true writing skill. Like what the flawless Marissa Meyer did with Fairest. I've never thought about writing a villain prequel, it seems like a difficult task to tackle. I'll try to look into it, my WIP was going to be a stand alone, but I can add an extra book. A sequel never hurts (okay sometimes it does).


    1. I've never really considered writing a villain prequel either to be honest. I enjoy reading or watching them, but goodness, it is such a balancing act to keep the villain villainous, the readers guessing, and at the same time make the villain relatable enough that you don't get too disgusted while reading and want to close the book. At the same time, a good villain prequel is so worth all the trouble, isn't it?

  4. I'm always wary of these because I feel like my emotions are being manipulated so I'll feel SORRY for the villain, which I don't want to do. But I think Fairest by Marissa Meyer is an excellent example of this done well!

    1. That's one of the difficult things about having a villain as your main character in oppose to having someone like an anti-hero. You can feel sorry or an anti-hero, or even like them. But you're not suppose to like the villain at all. But then, if the villain is too horrible, it's harder to want to spend a whole book in their view point. Fairest did do an excellent job of creating a character that was a villain in their own right, even though it was a prequel.

  5. I'm a little iffy about villain prequels. I'm very much for the hero. I've often quit playing or reading or watching things where the villain is the main character, so I'm a bit unsure about this, but it's good advice to keep in the back of my mind while writing a villain. Also Elements of a Good Mythological Retelling sounds cool. ^ ^


    1. I totally understand this. it's very difficult to spend long periods of time in a villain's head and be expected to sympathise, or at least understand where they're coming from. I know that in games especially, I'm like you. I'll quite playing if I have to play as a villain, because I don't want to identify with their character. Villain prequels are interesting, and when they're written well can be very enjoyable, at least to me. But it's so hard to get right, isn't it?

    2. They are. I don't mind villain origin stories within another story, but usually ones completely focused on the villain aren't my cup of tea. Like I enjoy the flashbacks of Cora and Regina and Rumpel in Once Upon a Time, but games like a Wii Star Wars game where you're Darth Vader killing Wookies wasn't fun. XD

    3. Yes, exactly! I think villains are fascinating characters in a lot of ways, and when balanced with other stories, they're really interesting. I think a villain prequel has to work hard in its presentation because you want readers to understand your villain as well as portraying their fall effectively. Things like that Star Wars Wii game end up glorifying the villain and their actions, and think that's where the issue is. What do you think?

  6. This. Post. *hugs post* I'm actually planning on cheating on my "no writing any new books until November rule* because I've been wanting to write a villain prequel for my trilogy. I haven't been able to delve into one of my villain's heads as much as I need to, and I'm thinking I need to just take a couple days and draft the prequel so I can finally crack open her head enough to proceed with my last round of edits. *nods* *gulps* So this post is seriously very helpful, and I will probably end up referring back to it multiple times.

    Villains in prequels definitely need to have at least one good quality--like caring for children or having a soft spot for their mother or having a fixation on enforcing justice. I've always felt that villain prequels are most powerful when I can recognize my own potential for evil in the villain. If I can relate on some deep level with the bad guy, that's when I feel the author has struck gold. *nods* (And I'm nervous for my villain prequel because I have three major villains and one minor one and I want to know all about them because their storylines are all twisted together and that's important for the rest of my trilogy, and gah, it's a lot for my little brain to handle.)

    I'm actually a little surprised by myself, but Elements of a Good Subplot Romance caught my attention (although I would be excited to read the others as well). :D

    Great post!

    1. I'm SO glad this post found you at the right time Liz. Honestly, that sounds like a great way to get into your villain's head. I've written short stories about my villains before, when I've had trouble working them out, so I can imagine writing a villain prequel would be helpful Also, excellent way to cheat. I don't know how you have so much self control! I'm struggling to make sure I only write two books this year.

      I agree with you very much there Liz. It's definitely very powerful when you can connect with the villain and see how we all have that potential for evil. And I think this is why villain prequels only really work with complicated, grey characters, rather than figures of absolute evil. I also find it really important to be able to connect to the villain at least a little, because I have to spend a whole book with them, and I would rather spend a whole book having my heart twisted as the poor dears become more and more villainous, rather than not caring about them because they are the epitome of evil with no redeeming features.

      Thanks for you vote Liz. I'll be doing all of them eventually, hopefully, so you'll definitely get the chance to read them all!

  7. I like what you say about "The Right Villain" for the story just because it's sort of how I felt about Voldemort. We spent so much time with Harry figuring out what in Voldemort's past made him tic because it was like we were supposed to believe he was a justifiable character of ungodly evil and we should pity him. But he literally had no capability to love and I was like "screw that" and just sort of gave up on that. Because really.

    Also I love tragedies and I love how you talk about tragedies here because it is true and awesome. <3


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