Every story needs an antagonist. Sometimes, the thing the protagonist must overcome isn’t a character – it might be a system or a situation or even a quality within themselves. But more often, the opposing force that powers the plot will be another character. And whether you’re writing a crime novel, a literary thriller, a fantasy epic or domestic noir, it’s crucial to give your hero’s adversary some thought. From Mrs Danvers to Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort to Annie Wilkes, the most memorable villains stay with us because they are as complex and as carefully drawn as our main character – and without them, there is no story.
What makes a great villain?
Whether you’re setting out to create a sadistic serial killer for your detective to catch or someone with more shades of grey to them – a rival for something the protagonist wants, perhaps, who isn’t necessarily in the wrong but a force of opposition nonetheless – there are four main things to consider if you want to create the perfect villain for your novel.
Perhaps the single most important thing to figure out about your antagonist is: why are they doing the things they’re doing? Motivation is something that can make or break a novel for your reader – if it doesn’t feel believable, the story doesn’t stand up. Find the right motivation, though, and you can craft something deeply satisfying for the audience. Be warned: as tempting an answer as it might be, ‘because they’re just bad’ is rarely the sole reason people commit crimes in real life, and it’s not an answer a reader spends 300 pages to discover either. It’s important to dig a little deeper.
Their motive might be your starting point. Perhaps you already know that your antagonist is someone who is committing a crime because x happened in the past, or because y did this other thing, and now you need to build the rest of their personality around that driving desire. Or maybe you only have the image of the crime, and now you need to think about who would do such a thing, and what might drive them to it.
It’s important to also think about how you’re going to feed information about this motive to your reader. Whether you’re planning to let them in on the villain’s POV, or have them piece together the villain’s story with the protagonist, or have it revealed at the climax of the story, think carefully about how to most effectively and satisfactorily convey this information. Try and avoid the Scooby Doo style monologue at the end, where a villain expands at length about how and why they choose to commit their crimes – it’s cheating!
A good, believable motive for your villain ties in closely with their:
As many writers, including, famously, John Barth, have noted, we are all the protagonist in our own life story. Your villain does not believe themselves to be an antagonist (this does not mean they think themselves to be good, however), and will have a complex inner world just as your hero does, shaped by their history and beliefs. This history and those shaping beliefs will form their goals, and lead them to view other people and forces as antagonists in the way of their achieving them.
Backstory is related to, but not the same as motive. The same event – say, the murder of their lover – might lead two characters on entirely different journeys, depending on who they are as a person and the way in which their life experiences up to that point have led them to view the world.
Understanding where a character is coming from will help you make sure the path you’re sending them down feels right. There are lots of ways to do this work – there are plenty of character quizzes available online (ours is here), and you could also try writing a pretend Wikipedia article about them (a good way to set out the cold, hard facts about their history and personal life for yourself, without worrying about turning them into prose within the novel itself). An enneagram test (there are free versions online) can also be a good way of building up your understanding of this character’s personality and the way it makes them behave in various situations.
As well as possessing a history and inner life that makes them feel three-dimensional and interesting, your villain also needs to have:
A relationship with the protagonist
The opposing forces – the conflicting desires and goals – of your protagonist and antagonist are a crucial engine for your story. This is very rarely as simple as good vs bad or right vs wrong, and often the most interesting characters in both categories have shades of both. Think carefully about the relationship between these two characters. This is not necessarily an actual relationship – they may never have met before (and may even never meet at all) – but instead the way in which they contrast with one another. In what ways are they different – and in what ways are they not? What does the villain illuminate about our hero for us? What quality do they bring out in each other, what must our hero confront within themselves in order to defeat them?
Lastly, and crucially, the very best of villains must also have:
A relationship with the reader
As with your protagonist, consider what your villain will bring out in us, your audience. Are we afraid of them? If so, then consider how to do that most effectively – is this a murderer with an inner world that is frighteningly similar to our own, or one we fear because we don’t recognise it? Or do we simply love to hate them – can you create someone so detestable that there will be a real catharsis in finally seeing them defeated? Or (and perhaps trickiest of all), has our understanding of their backstory and motive created a space for us to not only understand them, but perhaps even secretly sympathise with them?
Writing the perfect villain: writing exercises to try
It’s a simple but effective technique, and it might be something you’re already doing (or planning to do) in your story: write from your villain’s perspective. This could be:
– A letter to a family member
– A chapter you’ve already written that features them, told instead from their perspective
– A diary entry they wrote as a child
– Write about a day in their life, in their voice
Alternatively, try interviewing them: write a transcript of the conversation between the two of you.
This isn’t about writing material that will go in the novel; likely very little of it will. It’s about you trying to capture this character’s voice and put yourself in their head, to clarify and expand on the four areas above. Good luck and enjoy – sometimes it’s fun to be bad . . .
How to create a villain.
When it comes to writing fiction, we each have our own unique challenges. For some of us, it’s a struggle to come up with names for characters. For others, it’s hard to write realistic dialogue.
Maybe you’re like me and find it difficult to write a really good villain — I mean — a really bad villain.
The funny thing about our writing weaknesses is that sometimes all we have to do is identify them and suddenly we start coming up with tons of solutions.
That’s what happened to me a few years ago when I realized I was having trouble writing a nemesis for my main character. Time and time again, it was one of the key elements that was missing from the stories I wrote. I was struggling to create a villain that would give my story the conflict it needed.
Once I noticed this pattern, I started seeing villains all around me — as if merely noticing their absence from my writing made them suddenly appear everywhere in my everyday life.
Villains Are Everywhere
Customer service would forget to return my phone call, and I’d imagine a self-absorbed boss who overworked employees and neglected customers. I’d see a story on the news about road rage, and I’d imagine a crazed, angry egomaniac. Dirty politicians, people who committed heinous crimes, and generally creepy individuals all became infinitely more interesting once I stopped viewing them as a consumer of the news and started looking at them through the lens of story.
I would notice people’s flaws, mistakes, and bad moods, and think about what people would be like if those flaws were embellished and magnified to outweigh the person’s good qualities and positive traits. Suddenly, my villains were born, one after another, like a little herd of evil trolls.
Film, television, and books also became sources of villainous inspiration. Instead of cringing at them, I started examining them closer. I found some villains were bland and shallow. A villain driven to power for power’s sake lacked depth. A villain driven to power out of revenge for something terrible that happened to his or her family was compelling. Villains whose motivations were understandable, even if they weren’t acceptable, were the most interesting and the most believable.
Tips and Ideas for Creating Villains
I make up characters in my head all the time. Sometimes I write down my ideas, drafting character sketches. Most of them never make it to a story, but the really compelling ones do. Now that I’ve found a surefire way to harvest villains from the world around me, the character sketches have really started to pile up.
If you want to write good fiction, you need a character who creates tension and who is at odds with the forces of good. Here are some tips and ideas for creating complex villains for your stories:
- Choose a model for your villain: an ordinary person, a celebrity, or a notorious criminal from the news; examine that person’s flaws and weaknesses. How have they wronged others? Diminish their positive traits, magnify their negative traits, and write a brief character sketch. What’s the character’s name? What do they look like? What is going on in the character’s head that allows them to treat others with disregard?
- Give your villain a shady past: what terrible things has your villain done throughout their life? What terrible things were done to them? Some villains are just troublemakers; others are deranged psychopaths. Some are acting out the wrongdoings that were done to them in the past. How extreme is your villain?
- Identify the source: what happened to your villain to turn them so evil? Was your villain born that way?
- The most interesting villains are not completely evil. They have a soft spot for puppies or they write cheesy love poems. Contrary personality traits add depth and realism to all characters. Describe your villain’s positive traits.
- Put your villain in a scene: make sure you include dialogue so you can work out how the character speaks. Give your villain a distinct voice. Is your villain disguised as a benevolent character? Does the villain spend every waking minute committing evil deeds?
Most importantly, have fun! That’s what fiction writing is all about. Villains are the characters we love to hate because they are the harbingers of obstacles and challenges through which the heroes of our stories prove themselves. Whether you write absolute villains like Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter fame or more subtle, complex nemeses like Catwoman from the Batman comics, give your villains plenty of color, character, and complexity.
There is nothing as appealing as a villain. Sometimes, these characters are even more beloved than heroes themselves. Their complex personalities, conflicts, and charisma attract the audience’s attention.
Villains are not plain evil. They are the result of conflicted feelings, needs, and desires. A well-created antagonist can boost the storyline and attract readers.
That’s why we decided to draft an article on how to create the perfect villain. These five tips can be useful when writing your next story.
The complexity of character
In creative writing, all characters are important. If well created, characters alone can boost the plot. In his book ‘The art of dramatic writing’, Lajos Egri sets out the parameters to build strong, realistic characters.
He writes that there are three basic aspects to consider:
- Physiological aspect
- Social aspect
- Psychological aspect
The physiological aspect involves the person’s physical aptitudes or defects. He argues that people’s personality and behavior varies according to their physiological conditions. The height, weight, limitations, chronic diseases, and other aspects can change a person’s attitude towards life. The social aspect reflects the environment where the person was born and raised, his or her values, religion, nationality, cultural surroundings, etc.
The psyche of a person also plays a vital role. This aspect delves deeper into the person’s history. Were his parents separated? Did he have brothers or sisters? Who was his first teacher? What are his tastes and hobbies? What’s his passion?
These parameters are also helpful when building a villain that everyone will fall in love with.
The five essential tips for creating the perfect villain
1. Give your villain a distinctive name
The name is the foundation of all things. The villain must have a name that stands out from the crowd. It must have sinister connotations and imply the dark side of his personality. A perfect example of this is Mr. Ripley, from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. The word ‘rip’, included in the last name, reflects the character’s disturbing nature.
2. Give your villain a dark past
People will relate more to your character if you tell his or her story. A villain is not born evil. He is the victim of a series of events that made him or her this way. Tell your readers about your villain’s troubled past and how he became who he is now.
Maybe he was bullied by his peers in high school or suffered from child abuse at home. Maybe he lived with an older sibling that was his father‘s favorite. Perhaps he felt neglected and grew into a revengeful and mean person.
A perfect example of this approach is Batman’s Joker.
3. Pinpoint the moment where your villain becomes evil
All the factors mentioned above contributed to your villain’s bad character. But it helps to show the exact moment where he surrendered to his dark side.
For example, he could be mistreated in front of someone he loves or witnesses a violent crime. There has to be a pivotal point in his story where he changes. This should be a traumatic event that justifies his later actions throughout the plot.
It’s important to remember that the event alone didn’t make him evil. It’s the sequence of previous incidents that lead to this event.
4. What are your villain’s beliefs and core values
Give your villain a moral code and his own view of life. These codes may be wrong or distorted, but they are vital for creating a realistic character. With this, readers will relate more easily.
Everyone acts a certain way for a reason. People act wrongfully not because they want to, but because it’s what they believe is right. Give your villain a clear purpose and desire.
5. Analyze different villains
Choose the villains that most attract you and analyze them. Examine each of them according to the above-mentioned points. Ask yourself why you like this character, why he acts this way, his motive, and his dreams, goals, and frustrations. Pay special attention to how the author describes him and his surroundings.
The 10 most interesting villains of all time
- The Joker (Dark Knight)
- Annie Wilkes (Misery)
- Mr. Hyde (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
- Professor Moriarty (The Final Problem)
- Uriah Heep (David Copperfield)
- Darth Vader (Star Wars)
- Dr. Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
- Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
- Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick)
- Lady Macbeth (Macbeth)
Conclusion on how to write the perfect villain
All in all, the perfect villain is the one people can relate to. Focus on creating a realistic character that acts according to its moral standards. These don’t necessarily need to be “correct”, but they will help people relate to the story.
The perfect villain is to a plot what an engine is to a car. He will challenge the hero, make him question his beliefs, and ultimately change him. This is the perfect recipe for a fascinating story.
Written by Nathaniel Postell
The unrelenting insanity of the Joker’s laugh comes to mind when contemplating a truly memorable villain. An individual starkly contrasted to the heroic attempts of his caped counterpart, yet… oddly similar in their resolve to accomplish their vision against all odds.
What secret ingredients make a perfect villain perfect?
Read on and find out.
Compelling characters possess an inherent relatability. Heroes are often written so that the reader may identify qualities they can relate to. The same can be said for villains. Identify their motivation, what makes them tick, are they driven by passion or perhaps lured by chaos’ siren song. The importance of motivation is to justify decisions. When you are writing a multidimensional villain don’t get drawn toward evil actions for the sake of him being the “bad guy”.
Justify the decisions through the character’s motivation.
In the case of the Joker, we have seen multiple interpretations of his motivations. From the beloved Dark Knight, where he is driven by a lust for anarchy or the equally valid White Knight series, in which he longs for the Caped Crusaders approval and acceptance. His actions directly impact reader response – a clear indicator that they are engaging with the character.
An important detail to remember!! A villain causes negative effects, often operating as the story’s antagonist + giving the protagonist a conflict to overcome. A strongly written villain should create conflict through their own motivation rather than act as the conflict. Presenting a villain as a direct counterpoint can lead to cliché encounters and tired tropes. Concentrating on the “why” informs the writing and allows your villain to progress and evolve.
The history of the villain is often used to humanize his otherwise horrific acts. Showing a traumatic event or a turning point can shed new light on a character. Painting the villain through a different lens allows the reader to establish that connection through relatability. When drafting a new villain it is important to be clear and concise with their backstory.
How have their life events altered their view of the world?
How have those events informed their motivation?
!! The Joker once again offers interesting insight 👻😉 Many have made the point that his nonexistent backstory is a crucial part of his character. Emerging as a response to Batman’s heroics as a chaotic catalyst. His elusive history speaks to his affinity for chaos.
Predispositions and predilections craft the mannerisms associated with memorable villains. Creating a personality that fits with a character’s motivations and history elevates the entire story. The best villains are those the readers love to hate. A smug wipe of a monocle, a tooth grin in response to another’s harm, the hissing breath of he-who-must-not-be-named = each quality builds a believable character with their own unique mannerisms.
The Joker’s laugh cements him as a universally recognizable villain.
What lengths is your villain willing to take?
When identifying their ultimate goal, you should consider why and to what extent is your villain invested in that result. Are they willing to sacrifice their own existence or that of another’s to achieve the desired result? If so, why are they so invested? Identifying their investment allows you to ascertain scope, which is why most villains are written as narcissist. Self-indulgent individuals content on pleasing themselves with little regard for those around them. Only invested if the benefits directly impact them.
The level of investment should reflect their motivation. The Joker from the White Knight story arc was willing to give his life to gain the admiration of Batman showing the true depth of his commitment to his goal. Having a character invested to that extent forces the hero to be more invested to overcome the odds. This makes for a compelling conflict testing both character’s resolve.
#5 Consider the Hero
Heroes are the touchstone for the reader. As a result, the reader’s view of the villain often occurs through the eyes of the hero. This must be considered when crafting the villain’s narrative. The villain’s actions should be evaluated by the standard by which the hero operates. For instance, many heroic people use firearms to protect their values and are seen as good. Yet the use of firearms through Batman’s eyes is unlawful and carries an evil connotation within that universe. The reader identifies this rule set and adopts it as their while consuming the story.
This is equally applicable to creating a hero and villain that inhabit the same world. They should operate within the same ruleset, adhering to the standards established by the narrator. The villain must align with the rules of the world.
A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development. Agnes Repplier
Writing baddies takes practice but with these five secret ingredients, you will be well on your way to concocting a villain worth hating.
Next post – “The Pearl Territory”, ch. 26 – #dialogue 10/11
Evil laugh… funny hairdo… yeah, that’s another boring villain. Yawn.
Why is it that most villains are run-of-the-mill, seem to pose no real threat even though they’ve got the remote for the bomb in their hand, or — to put it bluntly —are just dumb?
For your efforts to really take off, you need to create a villain your readers will love, loathe and secretly root for at times — and, more importantly, will stay lodged in memory long after the final word of your novel has passed.
One of the best types of villain is the true antagonist: a person you’re not quite sure is truly evil or who is honestly misunderstood. This type of villain works well when they’re acting as a parallel to a single hero. As both arcs begin in the same place, or at the same level, the hero’s curves up while the villain’s curves down. For every stroke of luck the hero has, the villain has a crushing tragedy. For every obstacle overcome, a plan is thwarted.
These villains work so well because, if even the tiniest circumstances had been different, THEY could have been the hero. You find a disquieting little piece of yourself rooting for them because you just feel they just need to catch a break. Villains like Frankenstein’s Monster, Mr. Glass from the movie Unbreakable, and even Gaston from Beauty and the Beast all qualify as villains we hate to love and love to hate. Because, like the hero, they have a flaw in their character — but while the hero finds the strength to overcome their shortcomings, the villain is dragged down by them.
Amp up the delicious horribleness of their character by making them in some ways better than your hero — more charming, a kinder person, smarter or just well-informed. When you encounter villains like this, you can’t help but throw your hands up at the do-gooders and yell, “Why can’t you be more like the bad guy?!”
Villains like this include Loki, who, in Marvel’s Thor franchise, is smarter, more humble, and (many would argue) better looking than his brother.
Another compelling type of villain is the one who’s just plain insane. Their motives are overblown, they exhibit obsessive, narcissistic and delusional tendencies, but most of all — they’re unpredictable. They blow into town like a hurricane, destroying everything in their path, and no amount of logic or reason will tame them. They want what they want. They might not necessarily be evil people, but most will stop at nothing to fulfil their mission.
Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s novel Misery is one such villain: she’s totally nuts. After her favorite novelist Paul Sheldon crashes in a snowstorm, she finds and ‘rescues’ him… only to demand that he finish off her favorite series in a way she likes — i.e., without killing the main character. A fairly reasonable request, from a certain perspective, except when Sheldon wishes to leave, she refuses to let him. And when she finds out that he’s been traversing the house while she is away… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Norman Bates from Psycho is another ‘crazy’ villain. Acting normal for police and the loved ones of the missing Mary Crane (whom he killed), Bates is all smiles and pleasantries when investigators arrive at his motel — but things are very different when his mother gets involved.
Hannibal Lecter is a famous example of the insane villain, but interestingly he isn’t actually the antagonist in Silence of the Lambs. He isn’t committing the awful crimes Clarice Starling has been assigned to investigate, yet his particular brand of malice and insanity hangs like a cloud over the investigation, suggesting that he poses a much more significant danger than the serial killer she’s pursuing.
Why do all of these villains make such a grand mark on audiences? Because they’re thoroughly fleshed out, thoughtful, devious, and – even when at their worst – undeniably human.
All in all, to make a villain believable and enjoyable, they have to be real – and it helps if they mirror some positive or negative traits of the hero. If you begin to think that some may argue your villain would make for a better main character than your hero, chances are you have a compelling battle on your hands!
How do you conjure the best villains you can? Who are some of your favorite standout nemeses in the world of fiction, and what do you think it is about them that makes them so magnetic? Share your thoughts in the comments below!