[A continuation of this post.]
First, I look to the world and any potential conflict there. Is there some major clash between groups in your world, based on race or class or gender or species or some other cultural element? The big word of caution here is that you might tread into allegory and metaphor whether you intend to or not, so watch out for what your good guys and bad guys might be saying just in who they “represent.” On the other side of things, if you have a made-up and complicated conflict unique to the circumstances of your world, it can end up being too context-dependent to be interesting to a wider array of readers. If you can, ground it in a familiar-sounding conflict, one with easily understood motives. I think of the way the various personal and political conflicts with complex backstories can be easily described as “competition for the throne/power” in Game of Thrones.
Second, I look at themes. Is there something you want to say about the world (your world, humanity, politics, etc.)? Think of what makes you angry, or what you would say to all of humanity about how to live. There might be some material there to develop a great villain. The trick with this is to avoid being preachy, and the best way to do that is to always complicate the conflict beyond black and white answers. How is your villain good? How is your hero bad? How is the issue you’re exploring more confusing and multifaceted than what you originally thought? Another option is to make the theme just a small or underlying element of your villain rather than their driving force; instead of making them a corporate forest-destroying monster, have their plan be unrelated but give them a speech about mankind’s domination of the world or the “right to resources” or something, showing that they share the values that you hate.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, I look at personal connections for the characters. A great villain often has a connection to the protagonist, which deepens their conflict and heightens the drama. Is there someone in your character’s past who might become a villain? Someone with a connection to your character, even if your character is unaware of it (watch out for the “I am your father” cliché)? If your character’s past is too distant and unrelated to use, maybe you can look at your character’s present for personal connections and motivations. Is anyone they know now a possible villain? Or could someone in their life be threatened by the conflict, thus making it personal (just watch out for lady-fridging)?
Lastly, if the other areas don’t stir any ideas, I look at the hero. This hero has to be uniquely situated to defeat the villain—sometimes it’s a right place/right time (or wrong) situation, but as the story develops and the stakes rise, usually there becomes a more direct reason why this hero can stop this villain. How might your hero be matched to a particular villain? Does your hero have a unique talent or role in society that would make them able to defeat a certain kind of villain?
And as a part of this, look at the story in more generic terms. If it’s about a cop, then you’re probably looking at a criminal whom your cop would have a reason to interact with. If it’s a dystopia, then you’re probably looking for a villain who manifests a specific evil in this society (or maybe runs the society). Or, in another vein, if your story is about moving on after loss, maybe your villain hasn’t. If it’s about a team coming together, maybe your villain comes from a team falling apart.
You are just looking for a trigger or starting point for your villain. After that, they should develop in ways that fit the character and the story.
For my project, the start of the story is the formation of a partnership between my protagonist and a somewhat unique other character. Because of that, I’m going to base the villain on the uniqueness of that other character, thus making it more obvious why this villain would be their problem. But since I want my protagonist to play a vital role all the way to the end, I’m going to have to make the climax about their partnership allowing them to defeat the villain and/or the villain’s plan.
And that will lead to more specific plotting—up next!