Creating villains is much like creating protagonists. They are people with depth and a history. A villain follows discernible motives just like the hero does. Only at some point in their life, villains take an ethical shortcut to get ahead. They sell out and they use their skills selfishly despite the harm that it causes to others. Rather than repent of this, as a hero would do, the villain justifies cruel actions. However, many novels have characters in between heroes and villains. They range anywhere from annoying to obnoxious, from irritating to infuriating, from reckless to dangerous. These characters are challenges that the main character has to face, but they are not villains.
Jane Eyre is such a novel in which I could not pinpoint who the villain was. The unfortunate orphan Jane is treated poorly by her aunt and cousins as a child. But, rather than defeating the family that behaves so badly. She goes away to a boarding school, which is a worse situation. The director doesn’t provide adequately for students, so they get sick and start dying, including Jane’s best friend. However, this tragedy is not followed by any seeking of vengeance. The director stays in charge of the boarding school, but now he is under scrutiny and conditions improve.
Then, there is Mr. Rochester, who deceives everyone. This womanizer keeps his insane wife stashed away in his attic. In fact Jean Rhys wrote a celebrated prequel novel chronicling the marriage and the painful spousal relationship that caused Bertha Antoinetta Rochester to breakdown called The Wide Sargasso Sea. However, in the novel entitled Jane Eyre, this unprincipled Mr. Rochester is the leading man.
It seems like everyone that had hurt Jane gets a second chance—her cruel aunt and her cousins, the unprincipled director of Lowood School and especially Mr. Rochester (but not his unfortunate first wife). However, this man that loves Jane, but he does end up suffering a lot and acknowledging his crimes before the happy ending.
Jane Eyre doesn’t have to face villains as much as characters that cause her problems. However, they are not static characters either. There is a balancing act between showing their annoying actions and their actual intentions. I have examined how to create this kind of ambiguous character, basing some of them on real people that have thrown roadblocks in my life. That makes it seem authentic when my protagonist is hurt by their behavior. These are the kind of people that I study and wonder if they are causing so many problems because of lack of intelligence or viciousness. Actually, what they lack is being held accountable for their actions. When their behavior comes back to bite them, they learn not to be controlling, greedy or deceitful.
The key to this trouble-making character’s arc is how much they have to suffer.