How to Write Captivating Villains

This article is by Anne Marie Gazzolo.

Andy Serkis as Smeagol

There would be no Lord of the Rings without the title character and the galaxy far, far away would certainly be less dramatic without Darth Sidious.

But the most interesting villains are those who are more than just plain evil. Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi is more complex than he was in A New Hope. Sméagol-Gollum holds more fascination than Sauron.

For your own villain to have more dimension, there should be something if not lovable at least likable or pitiable that tugs at our heartstrings, keeps us guessing what will happen to him, and even hope for his redemption.

Nothing is evil in the beginning

Unless you write of a child born from a demon or someone like an Orc, your villain was not always the way he becomes later. Anakin Skywalker was not always Darth Vader. Sméagol was not always Gollum. There were steps your villain took, choices he made, events that happened to him that took their toll.

What mistakes did he make? What good decisions did he not make that he should have? Does he think of himself as evil or merely rejected, misunderstood, victimized? Does he regret what he did but does not think he can be forgiven or made right again, so he merely continues down the dark path rather than seek the strength and courage to turn around?

A villain can give the hero a chance to be a greater one

A great villain tests the mettle of the hero, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.

Those who read The Hobbit and hear more from Gandalf, as they listen over Frodo’s shoulder in The Fellowship of the Ring, know Gollum is a murderer and a cannibal. Frodo’s first reaction is to bluntly say it was a pity that Bilbo had not killed the wicked creature. But upon seeing Gollum himself, the pity he firmly rejected before wells up in his heart and restrains his hand, just as it had for Bilbo decades before. Their mercy enables others to give their own, extends the time to find a ‘cure’ for Gollum, and ultimately saves Middle-earth from falling under the Shadow. That they, especially Frodo, work toward the betterment of their enemy gives them greater moral stature as heroes. The same could be said for Luke Skywalker, who suffers terribly because of Vader but later risks his life and soul in order to save his father.

What effect would such love and compassion have on your own villain? What effect would it have on your hero?

It’s not easy being evil

Frodo tells Sam about Sméagol in The Two Towers movie, “You have no idea what it did to him. What it’s still doing to him.” Because he is now a Ring-bearer himself, he knows the hellish torment the wretched creature has suffered for centuries. This insight stirs him to pity his shadow and guide and to try to aid him to overcome the evil that has so enslaved him.

What can your villain teach your hero? What can your hero teach your villain? What link can form between the two because of shared anguish?

Even Sam, who never liked or trusted Gollum from the beginning, has pity for him in the end, because he briefly bore the Ring. What can your hero see in his adversary and realize he looks into a mirror and sees something he once was or could become? Did he once face the same temptation or choice that your villain did but made a different decision and can show his foe how to come back from evil?

Remembering Gandalf’s words about hope for Gollum’s cure, Frodo actively works towards it because he sees beyond and behind Gollum to Sméagol. This is who he wishes to save. His loving care brings the ruined hobbit to the brink of return.

Girls allowed

Your villain may not be a guy at all but a woman.

Just as Frodo places himself in peril to show kindness and compassion to Sméagol, Luke Skywalker does the same for Mara Jade, who has a fascinating story arc in the expanded Star Wars universe. As the Emperor’s Hand, she receives one last command to kill Luke, as the second Death Star is about to explode. After she meets him, she makes her intention quite clear to him and to Leia, yet she purposely blows several opportunities because Luke shows that he cares for her. Her complex journey demonstrates once more what love for one’s enemy can accomplish.

Maybe your villain could even become a hero if that is his or her path in life.

Really evil of heart?

We all love to hate our villains, but I propose you challenge yourself and your readers to love them also. Look into their heart and ask yourself the same things Sam Gamgee did after he saw the body of a Southron soldier in Ithilien:

He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.

How would the answers to this transform your understanding of your villain and increase the power and impact your story has on readers and even on yourself as a writer?

Your villain

Tell us about the villain of your story. Is he evil at heart, or misunderstood? What decisions or experiences led him to villainy?

Who is your favorite villain in literature or film, and what makes him interesting?

About the Author:

Anne Marie Gazzolo is the author of Moments of Grace and Spiritual Warfare in The Lord of the Rings, which includes a chapter on The Hobbit. Sign up for her mailing list at and get a free copy of her ebook about applying to your life the lessons taught by Hobbits, Wizards, Elves, Men, and Dwarves. Her currents projects are a fantasy, in which she has answer the questions posed above herself, and another book on Middle-earth, focusing on the journeys of Bilbo and Frodo. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Pinterest.

Featured Author