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How to Write Villains for Children’s Books

character development novel writing techniques Apr 18, 2021
How to write villains in children's books

The villains in children’s books are often what make stories come alive. Good baddies (if you will) capture the imagination – especially of a child. They’re who kids most remember (and what they want to dress up as for Halloween…). 

But how can you write a villain for children’s fiction that won’t keep kids up at night? That won’t make parents rue the day they allowed your book to fall into their child’s lap? 

Polly Ho-Yen, the author of hugely popular children’s literature including Boy in the Tower, Where Monsters Lie and The Day No One Woke Up, is here to help!

 

How do children think of villains?

Before you map out a villain for any children’s literature you hope to write, consider how children themselves conceive of baddies in tales they hear, read, and think up.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be frequently reminded of children’s perspectives on the bad guy. In fact, not only do I write for children, I often write with them. 

When I’m running writing workshops in schools, I have the pleasure of hearing hugely inventive story ideas stewing in kids’ heads first-hand. They’ll tell me their premise – a group of chickens takes over the planet, a scientist creates a formula that turns people into robots, a banana goes on a rampage. 

Every time I hear about these villains terrorising children’s stories, I ask why? Why do the chickens take over, why does the professor do this, why does a banana decide one day, enough is enough...? 

The typical response I get, with an ‘isn’t it obvious’ shrug, is: ‘Because they’re evil.’

Every time I hear about these villains terrorising children’s stories, I ask why? Why do the chickens take over, why does the professor do this, why does a banana decide one day, enough is enough...?

 

Good, evil, heroes and villains in children’s books

We feed children tales of good versus evil from an early age, through fairy tales and superhero adventures. 

Thanks to this colourful children’s literature, ‘baddies’ and ‘villains’ have become shorthand for evil. Children are incredibly familiar with the concept, and more than confident to employ it in their own writing. It’s adult writers who hesitate when we turn our attention to the subject of evil and villains in children’s literature.

When we write for children, should we consider whether we’re encouraging the child reader to view characters, and therefore people, as evil? Aren’t there better, more important lessons we could allude to? Is there a limit to the kind of evil that young readers can handle? How can you tell when it is ‘necessary’ for a reader of any age? How will it be managed in a story? What’s the best way to approach a villain in a children’s book meeting their comeuppance? And, if you’re writing for adults, are the same considerations relevant?

I’ll share my answers to each of these puzzling questions and my experiences writing my own story. I hope they help you as you set about creating your own villainous characters!

 

My experience of writing ‘villains’ in books for children

When I wrote my debut middle-grade novel, Boy in the Tower – my premise being The Day of the Triffids for kids – I unwittingly side-stepped a lot of issues around evil as the central driving force of the plot. 

The building-destroying ‘blucher’ plants in my novel have no emotions, and no motivation other than to survive and reproduce. They’re not evil, they’re just plants. It just so happens that their presence is contrary to modern living – London is destroyed by the bluchers growing, spreading and taking hold.

 

The unspoken villain in my children’s book

That being said, there is a part of the plot to which some of my young readers are drawn that touches on a darker example of the human experience. 

Children often want to know more about Ade’s mum. Ade, the child protagonist who narrates the book, describes how his mum is not like others because she can’t go outside. He ends up caring for her more than he should at his tender age, and when the bluchers take over, he decides to stay with his mum in their tower block rather than leave with everyone else. 

It’s always worth cross-questioning yourself about any element of the plot: is this important to the story that I want to tell?

My readers ask me what happened to her: how did Ade’s mum get into the position where leaving her home makes her so fearful? How come it feels impossible for her to do?

In my mind, Ade’s mum had been the victim of a random attack, and this triggered an episode of poor mental health which led to agoraphobia. Although understanding this character’s psychology felt important to me, I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to include the details of the attack. I wondered if it was too dark, too close to elements of evil behaviour, for a middle-grade readership. 

It’s always worth cross-questioning yourself about any element of the plot: is this important to the story that I want to tell?

 

How much evil do you need to include in children’s books?

I like to consider this question in two parts.

First, is it essential to the plot? If the villain’s behaviour or the event feels a shade ‘too evil’ for the readership, are there alternative routes that will still serve the plot? 

Second, is it important to the story that you want to tell?

This is when you, the author, have to dig into what your story means for you. It might be that killing this particular darling doesn’t alter how you feel about your story. Or it might be a sticking point. If it’s the latter, it’s worth asking yourself why it is a sticking point. Sometimes by digging there, you discover what’s foundational and what’s more like a stud wall.

The more I interrogated the storyline, the more I felt sure this was the story that I wanted to tell.

In Boy in the Tower, the storyline of the attack was personal to me. This kind of attack had happened to someone very close to me; a random assault, with no explanation. There was a part of me that wanted to write about it because it was a terrifying experience that had left an impact. 

But I also felt that it did a huge amount of critical work addressing character and why Ade and his mum become trapped in the tower when the bluchers take over. The more I interrogated the storyline, the more I felt sure this was the story that I wanted to tell.

 

Writing around villains in children’s books

In my first draft, I didn’t include any clues about what had happened to Ade’s mum. I imagined the backstory off-page, but was wary about how to deliver it. 

When my editor asked me to consider including a little more, I added a scene with Ade’s mum coming home injured, and allowed Ade to overhear a conversation in which she mentions the attack. 

As I was telling the story entirely from Ade’s perspective, I was able to benefit from the bonus of a limited first-person narrative. He doesn’t understand what’s happening to his mum, so the reader gets the same limited information. I purposely wrote these additional scenes in sparse detail. 

I still wondered about including these new additions, but my editor and I judged that by giving just a hint of what happened, we’d leave the reader to make the decision about what they thought had occurred. 

 

Do children understand the evil in their stories?

When I talk to children about these more opaque scenes that brush against darkness and real villains, I feel that this was the right decision. Some of them hit on it and we can discuss what’s happening. Others read past it, realising that they don’t want to linger there.

By treating the villain in children’s books with subtlety, nuance and allusion, you can often trust children to interpret only what they’re ready to grapple with. If their understanding of the world and its potential for darkness is too limited, they simply won’t pick up on the clues you’re giving them. They’ll read on, unphased by the thread they didn’t tug at and the backstory they didn’t unravel.

By treating the villain in children’s books with subtlety, nuance and allusion, you can often trust children to interpret only what they’re ready to grapple with.  

 

Can we use adult techniques in children’s books?

Though I was writing for children, I was reminded of the same technique when I read Meg Hunter’s cli-fi debut The End We Start From – a story of a first-time mother who gives birth as floodwaters enclose London. Interspersed with lyrical excerpts of early motherhood, the narrator relates disturbing events that unfold as life changes for everyone, and the race for survival pushes people to their darker side. 

Hunter writes about this so sparingly that as the reader, you sense that the protagonist can’t quite face the awfulness of what she’s experiencing: 

Panic. Crush. G. Panicked. Crushed.

I want to write about the checkpoint quickly. Get it over with.

Theyforceusoutofthecarbabieswillmakeussafedoesn’tseemtruetheyareroughwithusandtheysearchustheymakeustakeourclothesoff.
—Meg Hunter, The End We Start From

I found that filling in these blanks made me feel quite unnerved. I too didn’t want to fully imagine the reality of this. 

So, if there’s a darker element in play that you feel is doing important work, you can allow the reader to fill in the blanks by design. Employ a limited first-person narrative or even a close third and keep details measured to handle difficult circumstances with sensitivity. Hand the power over to the reader to take it further – or not.

 

Try an otherworldly villain in children’s stories

There was an additional factor that helped Boy in the Tower feel manageable for a child reader: the blucher plants. I was creating a world like ours, but the blucher plants were the difference. This fantastical, sci-fi element flagged it firmly as fiction, providing a safety shield from the dark events that unfold.

Look at some of the most famous and wicked villains in children’s and YA books: Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter; the White Witch of Narnia; Sauron of The Lord of the Rings. They all appear through the lens of fantasy. 

This creates distance from the reader’s real world. Though these characters are frightening and undoubtedly great villains, you’re not going to meet them on your local high street. They’re otherworldly and the reader is therefore subconsciously protected from them. 

Only in the later Harry Potter books does Voldemort start to cross over into the Muggle realm. When he does, the threat starts to feel terrifying in a way that the earlier books (in which Voldemort was contained to Hogwarts and the wizarding world) never did.

Look at some of the most famous and wicked villains in children’s and YA books: Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter; the White Witch of Narnia; Sauron of The Lord of the Rings. They all appear through the lens of fantasy. 

 

Giving villains in children’s books backstories

A further development in the later Harry Potter books is how much we learn about Voldemort. In the early books, he feels more of a one-dimensional ‘baddie’. But in the final books, we learn his story, we see him as a child, and we come face to face with the events that led to him becoming the Dark Lord. We come to understand why he chose his path. Sure, he wasn’t exactly a good guy by the time he was at Hogwarts, but he didn’t simply enter the world as pure evil. 

Interestingly, the new live-action Disney movie is not The Hundred and One Dalmatians but Cruella. It’s all about how a young, talented grifter named Estelle becomes the villainous Cruella de Vil. Similarly, Joker, the movie, deals with the development of the villain in Batman.

Not all villains need such a fully-formed backstory in your tale. The attackers in Boy in the Tower don’t appear on the page and I don’t give any detail about why they did what they did. Readers don’t need to know who they are or what led them to commit their crimes.

But, as with the real-life attack of my close friend, my mind wanders to fill in the blanks. I imagine what would lead someone to violence of that kind: what pressures were they under, what was their state of mind, their history? 

I’m not sure I’m a fan of creating straight-up antagonists in my middle-grade fiction, but if there are characters who act upon their dark side, I’m interested in exploring what got them there as J.K. Rowling did for Voldemort. 

Asking yourself ‘why?’ is the most useful exercise when you’re testing a story idea and/or a character for holes, and particularly if you’re creating bad guys for children’s books. OK, the chicken/scientist/banana is evil – but why? How did they get there?

Asking yourself ‘why?’ is the most useful exercise when you’re testing a story idea and/or a character for holes, and particularly if you’re creating villains for children’s books. 

 

Omitting a villain’s backstory in children’s books

While I think there needs to be some consideration of why darkness has risen up in a character to make a story stronger and plausible, I think it can stay off the page. It did in my case with Boy in the Tower

As with any character that we create, understanding their motivations fully is what makes them feel truly real and understandable to a reader.

Isn’t this, after all, how we understand ‘evil’ as we mature? Can we lead our readers through the process and help the abhorrent become more manageable? Is that not, essentially and at heart, part of the larger purpose of fiction, to ‘only connect’?

 

Punishing villains in children’s books

One thing that kids and adults alike relish is seeing the baddie meet their comeuppance. And as writers of children’s books, we can really have fun with it. 

Often, the most satisfying punishments for the bad guy is linked to what they were inflicting upon their victims.

Just think of the fantastic antagonists created by Roald Dahl. Dahl created characters that have shades of caricature, but could be real. It’s possible you could meet them on your high street. 

Through a combination of humour and most especially their comeuppance, Dahl masterfully manages evil and the great villains in his stories. Their undoing goes hand in hand with the villainy we encounter from them. 

Call it perfect justice; the author gets to play God.

One thing that children and adults alike relish is seeing the baddie meet their comeuppance. And as writers of children’s books, we can really have fun with it.

The Twits are a vile pair who meet their end because they are fooled into doing a never-ending headstand – the treatment they were forcing upon the monkey family for their upside-down circus. 

Miss. Trunchbull is made to feel the same level of fear that she inflicted upon all the students at her school. 

And note how in the stories that involve children being seriously injured or killed, fantasy looms again: The High Witch is turned into a mouse, the child-guzzling giants are imprisoned with only snozzcumbers to eat.

 

Use villains’ weaknesses against them

A satisfying punishment for a villain in a children’s book often involves exposing their weakness, which they’ve previously been wielding as a weapon. 

For example, in The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Cruella De Vil’s obsession with fur and her utter disregard for life drive her to steal dalmatians to make the ultimate fur coat. But by the end, the dogs escape and destroy every single fur she owns. She flees in search of a warmer climate. She is literally unable to find warmth anymore – anywhere or from anyone.

A satisfying punishment for a villain in a children’s book often involves exposing their weakness, which they’ve previously been wielding as a weapon. 

  

The importance and value of villains in children’s books

I’ll leave you with one more example: a Young Adult book, Kevin Brook’s devastating and deeply affecting The Bunker Diary which breaks the mould on every front. It won the Carnegie Medal in 2014 and caused waves for the shocking nature of its plot. I mention it here thinking about the upper limits of how evil is portrayed and how Brooks approaches this. 

In The Bunker Diary, a group of six people, including a teenager and a nine-year-old, are kidnapped and trapped in a bunker. There are places where Brooks leans towards sparse detail to effect, and it is written in first person. But there’s no element of fantasy here. We never meet the person who’s inflicting the torture upon this group, let alone understand them and they do not meet any kind of reckoning at all. 

Clearly, this was the tale that Brooks wanted to tell. It took him a decade to get published and he says of this journey: ‘I knew I could have got the book published years ago if I’d rewritten it – toned it down, changed the ending, explained a lot of unexplained things – but to me that would have meant writing a different book, a book that I didn’t want to write.’

As I turned the final pages of The Bunker Diary and it became clear that an escape was unlikely, I was struck by how the kindness that the characters display towards each other felt more than poignant; it was powerful. Far more powerful, in fact, than the inherent evil in the actions of the faceless ‘Man Upstairs’ who had engineered the situation.

Fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist. Children already know the dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.
—G.K. Chesterton 

Without the presence of evil within a story, we would also be without the transformative power of goodness. We’d be unable to explore how the qualities of selflessness, kindness and connection act as its antidote. 

As in The Bunker Diary, this doesn’t mean something mawkish. It’s at its most affecting when we are shown it simply, through the actions of characters towards one another in the face of, and in spite of, great evil.

 

How darkness can help the writer

Consider too this last thought about the management of darkness in stories from one of our writers here at The Novelry, Kate Harvey:

We all need to shine a light into our shadow side. It’s the only way to release ourselves from it, and stop acting from it. Bringing it into awareness it can be harnessed, rather than acted from – and put in books. It is often the supposed squeaky cleanest of us that end up the most perturbing: politicians, priests, police, lawyers – they want to maintain the good image to others and to themselves (or god) but sometimes at great cost to others, as the shadow remains out of awareness. They are not whole but split. The unaddressed shadow side will still sneak out. I’m a therapist, and the worst therapists are the ones who have not done work on their shadow side (although that’s why they make us have lots of therapy!). I suspect it’s the same for writers.
—Kate Harvey

Facing our shadow sides through writing is an incredibly valuable tool for life. It might sometimes appear as a convenient plot device to drive story forwards (and it does!), but it also helps us manage and face the darker tendencies within us all.

To summarise, here are my top tips for writing villains in children’s stories:

  • Interrogate your plot by asking yourself: is this important to the story that I want to tell?

  • Allow readers to ‘fill in the blanks’ and handle darkness for themselves (I’d especially recommend limited first person or close third-person narratives and giving sparse detail)

  • Ask yourself how and why a character becomes ‘evil’

  • Fantasy can be used as a safeguard to explore the actions of villains

  • Consider how an evil antagonist might meet their undoing through their own design

  • Address the balance – here’s the evil, so where’s the good?

Happy writing, 

Polly 

 


 
 
Your hero may discover a mysterious portal that lets them escape nasty parents or adults might function as heroes to your protagonist

Polly Ho-Yen

Writing Coach at The Novelry

Polly Ho-Yen is the author of six children’s novels and four children’s picture books. Her children’s books have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. in 2023. Enjoy the online creative writing courses with writer coaching.

 

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