Writing a Great Villain

Loki
Loki

When it comes to villains, we’ve seen the clichés.  Dark lords.  Psychopaths.  Petty super villains who kill their own henchmen.

We’ve also heard the advice.  Villains need personal goals.  Villains need depth.  Villains need to be the heroes of their own stories.

In my experience, conversations about villains get overshadowed by the question of whether a story is about good and evil, or the morally grey.  But as authors, we need to understand what that thematic choice means for developing our characters.

Do your villains embrace their villainy or attempt to justify it?

Knowing the answer to that question will help you create the character’s arc.

Villains might not change during the course of your novel, but at some point they crossed the threshold from acceptable citizens to villainy.  Some crossed that line fighting it, denying it, rationalizing it, or pointing to someone they believe to be worse.

Others claimed full agency and jumped across the threshold gleefully.  However they crossed that line, a villain’s descent into evil holds the potential to be one of the most compelling parts of a story.

Agents in Their Own Arcs

Becoming a villain isn’t something that just happens to you.  Even if you were raised by psychotic warlords or deranged magicians, you can make choices which undo some of that baggage.

At some point a villain, wrongheadedly or willfully, chooses his or her villainy.

Everyone has opportunities to grow in their lives, and usually, will face the difficult choice of choosing their future direction.  As with a typical character arc, the villain has a passion, goal, weakness or flaw which drives the character to change.  But in the case of a villain, the character chooses to turn towards villainy as a solution.

Perhaps they had evil mentors who destroyed their families, abused their puppies, and taught them that evil gets things done.  Or perhaps they didn’t fit in, and decided to adopt a maniacal laugh and obsess about killing our heroes.

In any case, a villain’s character arc provides an opportunity to explore what it is that causes someone to turn towards evil.

Drivers of the Plot

In many stories, villains are the driving force behind the plot.  Villains take actions which impact the heroes and force them to react.  Villains pull the strings which drive everyone else into action, until somebody stops them.

To serve in this role, a villain needs the power and influence to be a real threat to the hero.  He also needs motivation.

A personal conflict between the villain and the hero is one way to keep your plotline active and the threats imminent.  Henchmen, magic, secondary villains and influential arguments can also help to stoke the conflict.

But as the story progresses, and the hero becomes more assertive, the villain’s power should escalate.  Few things are as terrifying as seeing a killer gain more power, especially when that killer seeks to destroy beloved characters.  When your evil genius acquires his death ray, or your dark sorceress her medallion, make it powerful.

Foils to the Hero

In order to develop a villain, we need to understand the villain’s role as the foil of the hero.

Many new authors recoil from the idea of a foil because it seems simple and formulaic.  They think that it implies that the hero and villain are somehow opposites.  But that’s a cliché.

As a foil, the villain presents a series of threats which exploit the hero’s weaknesses, forcing the hero to grow and overcome them.  For this reason a villain is crucial to your hero’s character arc.

The Villain Problem

Because of their driving role in stories, villains can become more interesting than the heroes.  Sometimes authors refer to this as “the villain problem.”  We want our heroes, not our villains, to define our stories.

We can circumvent “the villain problem” by making our heroes more proactive, especially towards the end of the story.  Heroes need to have agency, and shouldn’t be defined only by how they react to plot developments.

Rather than having the hero simply react to the villain, we must also give the hero opportunities to become the villain’s foil.  The hero must learn to exploit the villain’s weaknesses, until he is forced to surrender, escalate, or change.

In other words, give your hero a few moments of awesome to get back at the villain.  These moments show that the villain has served his function in the story by forcing the hero to grow.

Great Villains

Who is your favorite fictional villain?  What makes him or her compelling?

Share your pick(s) in the comments below.

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Alex Mercer
Alex Mercer
3 years ago

First of all this was all Great. It was so expertly put together and everything was dead on. Second My favorite villain is Handsome Jack From Borderlands 2. Even though he tries to do good things like save Pandora he still gets betrayed and treated like shit.

Cathleen Townsend
5 years ago

Awesome post! Well articulated and concise. Villains deserve careful thought.

Lana Edgers
Lana Edgers
5 years ago

Hi Brian,
thank you very much for this nice article, it helped me a lot writing my term paper. I’d like to mention this article as a source for it. Please, where can I find its Publishing date?
sincerely, Lana

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  Lana Edgers
5 years ago

It was published on May 26, 2013.

Andrew
Andrew
6 years ago

Thanks for the great post, really gave me stuff to think about for my villain.

eds_garage
eds_garage
7 years ago

I think it’s true that villains do need to be heroes of their own stories. Otherwise, we would all be wondering where they came form and why they are what they are.

livin4mydream
livin4mydream
7 years ago

I do not often read books with villains in them, but I do watch movies with bad guys 🙂 Like the one I am watching now, ONE TREE HILL. Dan Scott (Paul Johansen) plays a nasty man, really evil, even going so far as to kill his own brother in cold blood. So far, I’m a bit over halfway watching  the series, and although Dan seems to be trying to do better, I’m not sure if he is going to turn out to be a good guy by the end or not 🙂 His character got depth by showing parts of his childhood, etc.

Mike Cairns
7 years ago

Hi Brian
Great post, thanks
I entirely agree that it is the sympathetic side to the villain, coupled with real character development, that makes them compelling and powerful within the story. 
Vincent mentions Raistlin in the comments, and I’d echo that, a really strong villain, who was never clear-cut evil, and had much more to him than simple villainy 
The physical side to Raistlin also went a long way to making him great to read. Being so weak, and dependent upon his brother, highlighted the difference between him and so many other villains. It also highlighted the love that he had, which is a hugely powerful tool for bringing complexity to the bad guy. 
cheers
Mike

spinneystudios
spinneystudios
7 years ago

interesting, the villains often are my favorite characters in the sense of their complexity and central importance to the plot.

KuokMinghui
KuokMinghui
7 years ago

The greatest challenge is indeed writing a great villain. Loki of the Marvel universe is an exceptional example, Kotomine Kirei of the Fate series is also another. At the end of the day, I believe the biggest pitfall any author can end up in is creating an unsympathetic villain. Technically, the correct term should be antagonist since you can’t equate heroes with protagonists. *cough* Tyrion *cough*
I believe at the end of the day, the best villains are basically the most humane villains. How do you want the readers to connect with them? Do you want them to see your villains through hate filled lens? I’ve seen a lot of that and trust me when I say there can be only this many Saurons and Morgoths.
I don’t really mind creating a humane aspect because if someone is humane, it means he’s not a monster. In fact, humane villains are always my greatest goal in writing a decent story.
I still remember the question posed within the Warcraft 3 art book where the Orcs are concerned. When a monster sees itself in the mirror, does it see a monster? A lot of authors failed to ask themselves this question seriously because they only see villains as villains, NOT villains as humans (unless it’s non-humane literally like Sauron/Morgoth).
I believe one of the biggest challenge awaiting the writer is this: how are you going to make the readers feel interested in your villain instead of like “Rawr, Palpatine!”
To me, I tried gunning for a mysterious approach, that the villain’s goal lies in the main hero, yet nobody actually knows what he/she is playing. I might have done a 50-50 job here, but it’s quite fun doing stuff others might balk at otherwise. Even if I’ll hit a crash and burn lol!

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  KuokMinghui
7 years ago

KuokMinghui Excellent analysis!  I especially agree on the power of a sympathetic villain.  
The mysterious approach may also be promising, although it can “crash and burn” if the villain’s motives aren’t convincing when finally revealed.

KuokMinghui
KuokMinghui
Reply to  Antonio del Drago
7 years ago

Antonio del Drago KuokMinghui Well, when I say crash and burn, I mean it in terms of impact. I do have a decent frame for that, but again it’s the impact factor. However, I’m a firm believer in learning through experience rather than the classroom. That’s why I’m far more of an experimenter than most. 🙂

bookwitch9
bookwitch9
7 years ago

Villains are so fun to write! They do things that we dare not do. The hero needs a well drawn villain to play off of.

Midhun Raj
Midhun Raj
7 years ago

Joker is my favorite villain. Reason – Why So Serious?

Henry Sanders
Henry Sanders
7 years ago

Professor Moriarty!!

Vincent DiPaula
Vincent DiPaula
7 years ago

Raistlin he evil but human

Tom Falwasser
Tom Falwasser
7 years ago

`DASH 😉

Kate Summers
Kate Summers
7 years ago

I’m so happy right now, and it’s only because Loki is the image for this article. Mostly because I love him, but also because my villain is based on him. Original legend him, not Marvel comic book him.

James J. Snedeger
James J. Snedeger
7 years ago

Benjamin Linus from LOST was a pretty compelling villain for me. Seeing his story unfold made him more understandable. He was an ass but he was also human. Finding redemption in the end finally sold him over to me. I really like stories of redemption.

Lorinda J Taylor
Lorinda J Taylor
7 years ago

I can’t help liking my own villain best!  Mo’gri’ta’tu in The Termite Queen is one of the Drivers of the Plot mentioned above – there wouldn’t be a story without him.  He is also a rare instance in my writings of the unredeemed villain – an embodiment of evil without redeeming qualities.  I like to compare him to Iago (after all, my termites ARE Shakespearean) – a manipulator eager to destroy and to promote his own interests without any clearly defined motivation.  He is evil because he represents forces that, if they were to be extended, would destroy the Shshi way of life, which is governed by an inescapable genetic code of Castes – of willingly filling the role one was born to. – Warrior, Worker, or Alate.  Mo’gri’ta’tu wants to step outside that code and run everything as a dictator would.  His villainy probably comes from a genetic abberation and that is why in later books he is referred to as the Unnatural Alate (winged termite).

A Backwards Story
7 years ago

Thank you for this post! I’m absolutely saving it. I recently bought “Bullies, B**stards And B**ches: How To Write The Bad Guys Of Fiction” by Jessica Morrell for this topic!

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