Creating a believable villain


So, this is something I want to learn too: Do you have any resoureces and tips on how to make a realistic, believable character.

I know that the villain must not be someone who is made of pure cartoonish evil, but rather more human and even relatable to some extent.

How do you guys make your villains and what books/resources/tips would you make on how to create one?

No matter what kind of villain you make, someone's going to find that character unbelievable. And someone's going to find that character just right. That's pretty much true of every element of your (or any writer's) writing: somebody will hate it, somebody will find it "whatever," and somebody will like it a lot. Readers bring their entire background and all their prejudices, attitudes, preferences, reactions to what they read (we all do) and they aren't alike. Write what is believable *to you* and see how it's received. If everybody hates it, and nobody likes it...that's a blow. If 80% like it and 20% don't, that's survivable.

That being said, I personally don't enjoy inhabiting the hearts and minds of those I think are bad enough to be called villains. And I don't agree that no bad person ever thinks they're bad, largely because I've done things I new were wrong at the time, and did anyway. I wasn't thinking of myself as the hero of my own story...I was thinking that I didn't *care* if it was wrong, I just wanted to do it. And I find, in observing others and also listening to them, that this is common in both small things ("I don't care..." is the common starting point for dieters, alcoholics, and people ignoring inconvenient realities.) Some villains are sure they're right...others know they're wrong and don't care as long as they can get away with it. They don't care who gets hurt if they're not getting hurt. Some will make up excuses, but others won't...or only if challenged by someone stronger. But that's my personal viewpoint and comes out of my experience. Others want to read psychological dissections of the villain, want to find something sympathetic in him or her. Write what you think it real, what makes sense to you.

T B Carter

I wrote this when my protagonist first met the book's main villains for the first time. He has, of course been taken prisoner (who am I to argue with a standard fantasy trope). The Captain just wants to get the job done but his sidekick, he's a nutter...

The Captain eyed his sidekick up, uneasy in his presence and I didn’t blame him. I could understand and even sympathise with the Captain’s motives, even his methods, but I recognised his companion as one of the evil bastards who materialise in poverty-stricken areas, refugee camps and war zones. Their aim in life appeared to be to cause as much pain, suffering and anguish as they could and the money the screwed out their victims usually seemed to be a secondary concern. The worst thing about these people was that they corrupted others to carry out even more monstrous deeds than they did themselves whilst they disappeared, free to cause mayhem somewhere else.

Two villains, two motives, one just a neutral guy doing an unpleasant job the other, a total chaotic evil nutter who is just in it for the kicks... and punches... and ripping the fingernails out, and... well, you get the idea.

Terry Pratchett said evil was turning people into things.


Here's Jim Butcher's advice - I find it pretty solid - How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher

I think in terms of creating a villain people will believe, its pretty much all about the motivation. We know that nobody is born evil, and we know that there's a general lack of people going "Whoop go team evil burn and killlllll". It happens for reasons and it often includes a fair amount of self-justification. I don't think that goes as far as every villain being the hero of their story. Some people do know that what they do makes them no hero, although they'll generally justify it in terms of it being a crapsack world and them being no different to anyone else.

Reasons and excuses. That's what makes a villain work.
The villain could be born into a position of power and lose it all in a matter of seconds, maybe his fall was even orchestrated by the protagonist. That could be a good driving force behind seemingly evil schemes. Revenge is an age old plot device that created some of the most iconic stories. Don't ever underestimate it's effectiveness.

Another good reason for revenge could be to have the protagonist at some point accidentally harm their future antagonist. You could then have your hero show remorse and empathy, making both characters more relatable. Simple but effective.


Revenge is an age old plot device that created some of the most iconic stories. Don't ever underestimate it's effectiveness.

I think a big part why this works so well (and why it's becoming an increasingly popular trend to have revenge-driven villains) is because a need for revenge is kind of founded on a sense of justice. It can do wonders for a character when they have their own sense of ethics and virtues as well as an overarching worldview. It can be totally evil or ambiguously evil depending on how destructive or self-serving it is.

Retribution/revenge and mercy are just different extremes on the spectrum of justice. The difference being that revenge puts honor and fairness before compassion and forgiveness. Which is preferable basically depends on the person.


I think a big part why this works so well (and why it's becoming an increasingly popular trend to have revenge-driven villains) is because a need for revenge is kind of founded on a sense of justice.

I don't know. For me, justice and revenge have always been two separate things. Revenge is less about making things right and more about inflicting pain. It comes from hatred and a desire to see the another person hurt, sometimes much more than they ever hurt the one taking revenge. Justice is more about making things fair and balanced, at least in my view.
Vengeance in itself is pretty much never a sympathetic motivation in my eyes, which is why I think it works well for villains. I have a hard time stomaching protagonists who have vengeance as their primary motivator, I just don't find it very likeable.


I'm really glad someone posted a thread on how to create a villain as I'm not sure I wrote one that's believable. All your answers have been great and really make me think about my own villain and how to portray them. I definitely want mine to be Demonic-evil but less one dimensional, I guess!

I don't really have an opinion about villains and antagonists - I think mine's going to be both but it's ongoing and I'll see what I can come up with lol

Anyways I enjoyed reading all your answers! Many thanks for the tips :)


I agree with a lot of the other posts here. I think there are two good, common ways to create a believable villain, the first being the zealot. You can create a villain who is the hero of his own story, who believes he is doing good but has taken 'a little evil for the greater good' to an extreme, like Thanos in the Marvel movie. The other common, but well-portrayed and believable, type of villain is the greedy type. Everybody knows somebody who just wants to be rich for the sake of being rich, not because they want to spend the money. There's a bit of that in all of us, I think, so that's relatable. It doesn't have to be money, either; it can be other motivations. I think someone else touched on love, for example, so I won't go into too much detail, but yes - the zealot and the greedy villain are quality archetypes off the top of my head.
I have a question regarding this topic actually.

My main villain at my story's endgame isn't really an evil sociopath but more of a tragic fallen hero when you really think about it.

A little backstory to help you understand the character better:

In the past, he was once a powerful and kind ruler of the Old World, but a war with a mighty of god of destruction nearly brought the entire planet to its knees. Tragically, the only way to stop the chaos was to use an ancient super weapon that obliterated most of the ancient world. Since that fateful day, the survivors of the war blamed the dragon race for the carnage and ruination of the their world. These attitudes in turn would affect the dragons for millennia as even in present times, they were treated as monsters and scorned.

In order to seal the great evil, the emperor's sister sacrificed herself. He vowed upon her dying breath to protect the world at all costs from this ancient evil. Several millennia later in the future, he is brought back by devoted followers (some also survivors) from his imprisonment. His desire to protect the world still burned bright like a flame. In his anguish and grief, he plans to use the super weapon again and create a world for only dragons...

I don't know if that is planning a little too far ahead. I figure if I can see what the end of the tunnel looks likes it would help me craft a better story. How can I make a character like this the kind the reader can deeply sympathize with yet at the same despise him? His goals are truly noble and altruistic, though unfortunately his methods are not.

Edit: In this universe, dragons assume human appearances and can transform into their true state. Not your stereotypical gold hoarding beasts. Admittedly, Smaug is still an awesome character.

Black Dragon

How can I make a character like this the kind the reader can deeply sympathize with yet at the same despise him? His goals are truly noble and altruistic, though unfortunately his methods are not.

I would try taking his "noble and altruistic" goals, and putting flesh on them in the form of a character. Perhaps there is a young family member who is suffering horribly - or whose life is on the line - because of the status quo. The villain wants to make a better world for this character. At the same time, the callousness of the villain is demonstrated by his disregard for other species, whom he is planning to obliterate. It is definitely a balancing act, but I think it is possible to pull it off.
I like this idea actually. Ironically, you could also use that character as a breaking point for the villain. If he was to lose that sibling especially near the end act or final battle despite his best intentions, it would raise the stakes exponentially and create some huge tension. At that point, it would literally become an act of vengeance on the world that wronged him so unjustly.
Ok. Villains are art for itself. I mean, a boring villain doesn't entertain! But villains haven't to be always human. I mean, look at Jurassic Park, there the villains are the raptors or even nature itself. In the Lunar Chronicles there is an evil queen but also a virus, which is kinda plague 2.0.. Or in Will Smith's iRobot the computer intelligent of U.S. Robotic is the villains. However, it's important that your villain has a MOTIVATION. Killmonger from Black Panther wants revenge and more rights for the black peoples. He just took the throne of Wakanda first because he needed an army.


I reject the idea that villains have to be the heroes of their own stories. Villains who are complete monsters are absolutely not unrealistic; look at people like Oskar Dirlewanger, Lavrentiy Beria and Shiro Iishii in real history. Make your villain whatever they need to be to help the development of your heroKillmonger in Black Panther works well because he challenges T'challa's own convictions and Wakanda's role in history; in the end he is the catalyst for the change in Wakanda's policy even if he loses. The Joker works well because his pure, irredeemable evil is the greatest challenge possible to Batman's no kill rule. Whoever type of villain works best for your hero is what type of villain you should use.


Sometimes apathy is the greatest of evils. Would be interesting to explore.

I came across this quote the other day ;
In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And of course it reminded me of this one.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Edmund Burke.

There’s been a buzzing in my head about a new story ever since.

To answer the OP -

I always pop over to this site first when I have questions.

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