We’re about to focus on writing dialogue specifically for villains, but the following advice can easily be applied elsewhere.
Protagonists, non-standard antagonists, secondary characters and even little-loved tertiary characters can benefit from our upcoming Rocky and Bullwinkle example. It’s just that villains tend to fit into this unflattering mold most often and most noticeably.
For the record, if you’ve never watched The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, you’ve missed out. It’s an animated TV series that was first aired from 1959 to 1964, and revitalized later on.
The whole show is purposely designed to be over-the-top, with groan-inducing puns, impossible heroic feats, and mustache-twirling villains who literally stand over the females they’ve tied to railroad tracks, chortling with glee as the train barrels down with seconds to spare before the hero swoops in to save the day.
At its most delightful basic, Rocky and Bullwinkle pokes fun of the unrealistic nature of so much of its fellow fiction out there… which, it must be stated, hasn’t changed all that much since the 20th century.
Put bluntly, we writers nowadays aren’t as sophisticated as we’d like to think we are.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
That lack of sophistication shows far too often when writing dialogue for villains. See if this next bit rings a bell about your manuscript or someone else’s you know of.
Real-life bad guys don’t kidnap real-life good guys, only to sit them down and explain in great detail about why they kidnapped them. That type of information dump works on Rocky and Bullwinkle because Rocky and Bullwinkle is meant to be silly.
It doesn’t work in most other cases. And by “most other cases,” I mean the extreme vast majority of them.
Villainous tell-alls are almost always lame and lazy.
You know when you’re reading the part of a thriller where the hero and villain are finally facing off, and the villain pours out his whole entire evil plan or explains every background detail about why he’s doing all the horrible things he’s doing?
That’s usually a sign of bad writing, no matter how famous the author may be. Those kinds of details can be revealed much more expertly through other means, if they need to be revealed at all.
Oftentimes, they don't. I know that “every villain is the hero of his own story.” But that’s the point. He's the hero of his own story. Not your hero’s.
Keep that in mind while writing out his dialogue lines.
Think about it from this angle: Do you know everything there is to know about why your bad boss is picking on you, why that girl in high school snubbed you every chance she got, or why your girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend is such an absolute jerk?
Have these people sat you down to explain their childhoods, their present motivations and the deep-seated future aspirations they hope to actualize by putting you down?
So the same thing should probably be true of your story, at least to some degree.
As for those times when you really, really need to or really, really want to give away extra details about your bad guy – or any other character – don’t do it through dialogue only. There are other alternatives.
Use exposition or explanation within the narrative to establish that information. Or have some other figure stumble onto the information instead of the bad guy giving it up in such an unnaturally willing manner.
You could even have two completely separate characters speculate about it or just one character muse about it in his head.
Whatever you do, unless you’re writing the equivalent of Rocky and Bullwinkle, seriously… Just say no to cheesy tell-alls. When writing dialogue for villains, maintain some dignity.
For both you and the villain you’ve got going on there.