Every once in a while, I read a review on a villain origin story (think Heartless by Marissa Meyer or The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins) where the reviewer complains that the protagonist is “unlikable,” a fatal flaw for many readers of YA who wish to admire and, even better, relate to their protagonists. The point that some of these reviews seem to be missing, however, is that villain origin stories are about….villains. And while the point of an origin story is that the character is not fully a villain yet, the key to writing a convincing explanation of how a villain comes to be is showing the character as human: someone who has good characteristics but also the flaws that will lead them to turn to evil.
Most villain origin stories seem to depict the villain in their youth, which means the character needs to have some of the innocence and optimism and whimsy of a child or teen, regardless of whether they are growing up in privilege or in difficult circumstances that one would imagine would squash a rosy view of the world. Young people are resilient, so it makes sense that even a young villain might be kind or cheerful or humorous or have dreams of making a better world. These are the qualities that show the reader that the villain is human; they are not all bad, they were not born evil, and perhaps things could have been different for them.
However, the potential villain also needs flaws– and specifically they need the flaws that are going to turn them into a villain. When readers complain a pre-villain character is unlikable, perhaps they are imagining that the only thing needed to turn the character into a villain is a catalyzing event: their father is murdered and they want to take revenge, some mean girl at school ruined their reputation so they never graduated and got the degree they needed to get the job they wanted and their life was ruined, someone “stole” their lover, they were abused as a child, they witnessed some horrific event, etc. But the event isn’t enough. The character’s flaws are what help determine how they respond to the catalyzing event, what determine whether they choose to become a villain or a hero (or, you know, just an average person history would have forgotten about).
Was the character always proud? Did they learn from their parents not to show any love or affection? Were they so privileged they never had any compassion for the suffering of others? Were they always competitive and needed to be the best at everything? Or were they insecure and desired to hide that? These are the reasons the character might be “unlikable,” but they’re necessary to show how the character ultimately becomes a villain, when their flaws overcome the better aspects of their personalities.
The trick, of course, is balancing the good and the bad. An origin story is just that: a story before the character is truly a villain. they have the potential to become a villain, but at this moment in time, they also have the potential to become someone else.