How to Write Captivating Villains

This article is by Anne Marie Gazzolo.

Andy Serkis as Sméagol
Andy Serkis as Sméagol

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 www.annemariegazzolo.com 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.

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Sharon Metro
Sharon Metro
1 year ago

..And, BTW, this is an excellent article exploring villains and their purpose. More, please…

Sharon Metro
Sharon Metro
1 year ago

Have watched the three LotR movies numerous times-almost an obsession now – and realized somewhere in the story (perhaps at point in “Two Towers” where Frodo is quoted here) that the reason Frodo wanted to help Gollum “come back” was so that he knew it was possible-for him to come back from the damage the One Ring had done to him. Some very poignant moments there………….

MT
MT
4 years ago

As the previous poster said, Excellent Article. As far as my own fave villain goes, well, Vader is hard to top. But I feel a special mention also needs to be extended to Professor Snape. Even though he wasn’t truly a villain, he circled the role closely for 5 books/films and then by Half-blood Prince, he most definitely was one, at least in the minds of the readers. His character intricacies and secrets (and later, Alan Rickman’s fantastic performance) made him an ever compelling character, even when we hated him. He was so well designed that J.K.Rowling was ultimately able to do something really incredible: turn the murderer of one of our favorite characters into a hero.

There’s one iconic villain that I think is at odds with your article in some rather interesting ways: the Terminator. Here you have a villain that’s captured thousands of imaginations, spawned numerous sequels and single-handedly built the career and public persona of probably the biggest action star of our age. Yet he never chose to be evil – he was literally made that way. Conversely, when you take the exact same character (i.e. literally an identical machine rolled off the same assembly line), and reprogram him, he becomes an iconic hero, as we saw in Terminator 2. The Terminator is just a computer; a machine with no will, no choice, who can and will only do what it’s been told. It feels no pain, remorse or discouragment for it’s failures. It is fearless to the point of being horrifying in its unyielding pursuit of its objective.

Yet when we realize that the only difference between the nightmare from T1, and his adorkable twin brother from T2 was that the former had a master that ordered him to kill, while the latter had a master that ordered him to protect, you can’t really hate him for simply being what he is.

I only bring this up because my own villain, though flesh and blood, is in many ways similar. She is very much an instrument of a larger evil. She is “the human face” of this enemy for my heroes, as it were; the individual who personally oversees/engineers their oppression and their turmoil. Yet, like the terminator, she is not brainless. She has an impressive intelect that allows her to strategize her path to overcoming her foes, to recognize small problems before they become big and to contain them. She can take full credit for devising ‘how’ she will accomplish her agenda, but the choice of ‘what’ her agenda is comes from elsewhere.

She tows the company line to the point of being one of its finest spokeswomen. She didn’t really ‘choose’ to follow the path she has; her path comes about simply because that was the way things worked in her community. The idea of dissent simply never occurred to her and her culture held that dissent was to be condemned, so she was automatically resistant to any contrary ideas she may have heard.

Much like the terminator, I can’t see her ever being placated by my heroes; the only way to stop her assault upon them would be curtail her ability to do so. This is a woman who can not be made sympathetic, no matter how much sympathy is shown to her. As long as she has the capability to sabotage those who are in contrast to her culture, she will do so.

Yet unlike the terminator, I don’t see her personality as being something her elders “programmed” into her. I believe that she is who she is; that she was born the way she is. I believe that had she been born or adopted into a culture dissimilar to the one she actually resides in, she wouldn’t have just been another sheep going along with the herd. She would’ve been a rebel herself, and the radical ideas she would pursue would be quite similar to those of the culture she actually belongs to in my story.

Choice has very little, if anything, to do with who my character is, as the circumstances to make her question or contemplate her path never arose for her. She just rode the raft wherever the river decided to take her and never contemplated trying to steer her course because, luckily for her, the river never took her anywhere that made her suspicious of its motives.

Pamela Love
Pamela Love
5 years ago

Excellent article. My favorite fictional villain is the Baroness in Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania. She has intricate plans and fascinating reasons for what she does. The villain in my work in progress wasn’t such a bad person to start with, but when he lied about one mistake to avoid hurting someone he loved, he ended up nearly getting a bunch of people killed, including himself and his beloved.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Pamela Love
5 years ago

Thanks, Pamela! Glad you enjoyed. Have fun with your own villain. 🙂

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Lana Edgers
Lana Edgers
5 years ago

Hello Anne,
thank you for this nice article. Personally, I often find villains even more fascinating than their opponents. My favorite is Iago, the traitor in Shakespeare’s Othello. His cunning malignity and deception is so diabolical, but still I somehow happen to like him better than the tragic “hero” Othello. Writing parts of the novel from the villain’s Point of view may often enrichen its plot and the characters’ developement.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Lana Edgers
5 years ago

Thanks, Lana! Glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

avm31982
avm31982
5 years ago

In my work-in-progress ONE of my villains are a body of the native populace that have been taken by a spiritual evil. The evil itself of course is the main villain and plays a focused role in the story, but it functions as a non-intellectual force and is progressed by motivations of villainous hands that culminate into the “evil faction” albeit they are unrelated to each other in the story.

As a tribal group though, this particular villain brings with it the guttural, terrifying, and unmerciless characteristics we expect of some isolated groups, in particular those who chose to remain so as do this group. A challenge they face is chasing after their goals in a world that isn’t isolated and has grown to it’s own standard, one in which they don’t fit into and stick out like a sore thumb.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  avm31982
5 years ago

Thanks for response here and sorry to be so late in acknowledging it. That’s an interesting take on a villain.

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Ryan Robidoux
5 years ago

I love this article! Very helpful! In my work-in-progress, my villain is evil at heart. He is greedy for power, and that has shaped his every decision. I would be interested to develop that relationship between my villain and hero to see what my hero could try to teach him or show him through her actions, like the example you gave of Luke… Hmm… Thank you for this article! It’s making me brainstorm! 😀 My favorite fictional villain is Regina/the Evil Queen from Once Upon a Time. She has gone through so much change over the course of the show; she is a fascinating character! I also really like Gollum and the Snow Queen from Once Upon a Time as villains, as well.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Ryan Robidoux
5 years ago

Thanks, Ryan, and sorry for the belated response here. I am glad you enjoyed the article! I haven’t seen Once Upon a Time so will take your word for it that they have great villains. 🙂

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Annie Marie Peters
5 years ago

GREAT article. I’ve been struggling to develop a well-rounded villain. I seem always to get stuck with something not quite right. I think I’ve got some new techniques to try now!

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Annie Marie Peters
5 years ago

Thanks, Annie Marie and sorry for very late response here. I am glad you enjoyed the article, and it has helped you!

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Nicholas C. Rossis
5 years ago

Great post! I often say that the strength of a book can be measured by its villains; not its heroes. Many thanks for illustrating this point so eloquently. 🙂

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Nicholas C. Rossis
5 years ago

Thanks, Nicholas! Glad you enjoyed it so much. 🙂

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

KC Trae Becker
6 years ago

This is a great article that helped me see why I couldn’t find my way to the end of my book: I didn’t understand my villain. I really like the idea that the hero can connect with the villain’s pain. That’s one of the things I love to read and see, but didn’t realize that I needed it to finish the story I’m writing. Thanks!

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  KC Trae Becker
6 years ago

Thanks, KC! Glad I could help you and that you enjoyed the article! 🙂

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Alesha
6 years ago

I find myself nodding in agreement. Rather than create a villain who’s evil for evil’s sake, giving him (or her) a deeper, more complex character will make the story much more interesting.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Alesha
6 years ago

Thanks, Alesha! Glad you enjoyed!

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Pat Harris
6 years ago

Great article! It was encouraging to read as I thought back over my characters. And you stirred up excitement in me to keep at my story. Thanks!

In my first novel, both my villain and my hero come from abusive pasts – and they’re closely related. Near the end of the story the villain’s past is finally revealed, which is a turning point for the hero and makes him an even greater hero.

In the second novel, one of the main characters starts out very much a “tortured” villain, but becomes a hero. He was challenging to write, but also exciting.

Thanks again for a great article.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Pat Harris
6 years ago

Hi Pat, thanks and I’m glad I could help you! Are your stories available? They sound interesting. 🙂

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Pat Harris
Reply to  Anne Marie Gazzolo
6 years ago

You’re welcome, Anne. Thanks for your reply. Yes, the first novel is available, but we’re in the process of removing a small handful of typos which I and my 2 proofreaders missed. 🙁 We’ll be uploading the “tweaked” version to Amazon.com near the end of the 1st week of November. New Hope Chronicles Book One: Dragon Flame. The second novel is still in the “rewrite” phase – which is a lot of work, but also GREAT fun. If you’re curious my webaddress is: http://www.newhopechronicles.com

I look forward to reading more of your writing. And thanks again for this great article.

P. H. Solomon
6 years ago

Good points. Perhaps it’s also good to have a blend of villainous characters at work – one purely evil, one who’s made choices to become a villain and another who becomes one.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  P. H. Solomon
6 years ago

Thanks! Yes, I agree it would be good to have these different types of villains. Those beyond hope and redemption and the one who may come back. Whether the latter makes any struggle to do so and his ultimate failure or success is what makes him so interesting. I am having both in my own fantasy.

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

P. H. Solomon
Reply to  Anne Marie Gazzolo
5 years ago

Yes my own series will have several villains who are both too.

Antonio del Drago
6 years ago

The villain in my work-in-progress suffered terrible discrimination during his life because he is different. Unfortunately, he made the decision to choose a path of vengeance, and doesn’t care if he hurts innocents while in pursuit of his goals.

Anne Marie
Reply to  Antonio del Drago
6 years ago

Well, while there’s life, there’s hope! Maybe he will turn around.

Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

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