Everybody loves a good villain, right? So the reverse must also be true: everyone hates a bad villain. Worse, they’ll stop reading if your villain suffers from Stupid Villain Syndrome (SVS).
SVS is when your villain meets one or more of the following criteria:
- They’re not scary enough for the reading level of the book. They’ll come across as comical and mustache-twirling if they’re not sinister enough.
- They’re not strong enough to physically pose a true risk to your protagonist’s goals. Readers won’t be invested if they feel no one is truly opposing your protagonist. Nothing will feel at stake for the protagonist.
- They choose incompetent sidekicks. Ruthless villains want sidekicks who can carry out their orders successfully. While protagonists might be able to get away once or maybe twice, they shouldn’t be continually able to outsmart sidekicks. It makes the villain appear weaker by association.
- The villain over-explains his or her plan in the end, resulting in giving the protagonist time to escape or think of a plan. While a plot should be twisting and keep readers guessing and some explanation might be necessary to clear up certain earlier plot points, don’t use this method to give your protagonist time to come up with a brilliant plan. Your villain can gloat and revel in the moment, but just not too long.
If your hero needs time to untie the ropes that bind their hands or to get off the railroad tracks like in old cartoons, try instead to perhaps have your hero’s sidekick or another character cause the needed distraction to give the protagonist time to escape. Try to have your villain give as little explanation as possible and give your protagonist the smarts she needs to piece the rest together on her own. Or maybe, split the dialogue so that half the reason why the villain committed the murder is given while the protagonist is danger, and the other half comes when the villain lies dying or realizes they’re trapped. At the very least, have your protagonist escape while the villain is giving their speech to show how foolish they were not to kill them right away.
A good thing to keep in mind to avoid SVS is actually a quote from actor Tom Hiddleston:
“Every villain is a hero in his own mind.”
The villain is often the one that took the path the hero could’ve taken but chose not to. Yet, the villain probably had very legitimate reasons for taking that path. Something drove them to it just as something made the hero pick a different way. We spend enough time with the hero to get their reasoning, so make sure we have enough time with the villain to get their reasoning before the final few scenes when they have to over explain. (However, I will point out that SVS doesn’t apply as fully to mystery and twist endings since it’s not always obvious who the villain is. But, there better be enough breadcrumbs that readers believe the credibility of the villain after the big reveal.)
Overall, your villain deserves, nay, needs to be just as complex as your hero in order to avoid the pitfalls that come with SVS, and avoiding SVS will go a long way in strengthening your villain, which by proxy strengthens your protagonist and probably gives you a stronger, more intriguing plot!