Creating a good villain can be a key element in telling a compelling story. While it’s always important to have strong characters, bad guys also often play a major role in moving your book forward. So if your character is cardboard or cookie-cutter, it can be challenging to get your reader to buy into the story you’re trying to tell. Taking the time to create a good and interesting villain won’t just benefit your reader, it’ll also make your job as a writer much easier.
But what exactly makes for a high-quality villain? Here are seven tips to help you go beyond the mustache-twirling cardboard cut out.
1) First, make sure you’re creating a villain, not just an antagonist
An antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain. Here’s how I like to separate them. Villains typically have bad/evil intentions and tend to work against your main character. Antagonists are more like your character’s competition; your antagonist and protagonist may either both want the same thing, or have conflicting/differing views, but neither is really bad, evil, or actively trying to harm the other.
Here’s an example of each. In Harry Potter, Voldemort is a villain. He is out to do harm to others and the main character in the name of creating a dangerous and prejudice world. Meanwhile, in Hamilton, Aaron Burr is an antagonist. He isn’t necessarily looking to do harm to Alexander Hamilton or anyone else. However, he and Hamilton are often in competition with each other and have a different set of beliefs and standards, which leads to the conflict and tension that we see throughout the story. The difference being that Burr very rarely targets Hamilton or any character with an intent to do harm; the characters’ wants simply conflict with each other. While Voldemort is out to kill Harry and rid the world of muggle-borns from the start.
2) Create a human motivation
Now that you’re sure you’re creating a villain, take the time to figure out what made them the way they are. As much fun as it is to hate someone who is evil just because they’re evil, it’s not very believable. Something had to have happened to make your villain this way. Perhaps someone close to them was killed by a group or family member of your protagonist? Or perhaps your villain was taught to believe a lie? Whatever their motivations, make them human and relatable. It will help your readers buy into your story and help you discover what drives the character. This can also help you move your plot along.
3) Make sure they’re the hero of their own story
No villain should think they’re the bad guy. Even if they are aware they are doing bad things, they should believe they are doing it for a reason they believe in. Whether it be for their family, or for an all-around better future, your villain should conduct themselves as if they are the hero and your protagonist is the villain. Going back to Voldemort, he truly believes the world will be a better place if there aren’t any muggle-borns. He believes it’s the right thing to do and that Harry and the Order of the Phoenix are the bad guys for trying to stop him. Approaching your character this way will add depth to both your story and your character.
4) Zero in on what they want, why, and how the main character is a problem
As the writer of the story, you need to understand what your characters want and why. This is true for all of your characters, but particularly true for you villain. Your villain will often play an active role in moving your plot along. Because of that, you need to have a very solid understanding of what this character is after. Then you’ll be able to better understand their next steps and how those steps will impact your story. Once you have that figured out, make sure you have a thorough understanding of why your main character is a direct and active threat to what your villain wants. This is where a lot of the tension between the two will come into play.
5) Consider making them self-interested
Villians are often villains because of significant character flaws. Being self-interested is always a good flaw for a villain to have. It’s also a classic element to separate heroes from villains. Heroes typically act for the greater good even if it’s at their own expense. That’s what makes us applaud them. Whereas villains who act for themselves at the expense of others are very easy to hate.
6) Consider giving them a strong code or belief system
If your character is going to fight for something, it has to be a cause they believe in strongly. Your villain’s belief system may be skewed, but they need to believe in it strongly. That’s largely what’s going to keep them moving forward and fighting against your hero.
7) Consider their loyalties
Typically villains are either loyal to themselves, their cause, or no one. Each one is interesting for its own reasons. Whichever one you pick, it will help to shape and strengthen your villain in a believable way.
I hope this helps you create awesome villains!
Now it’s your turn: How do you create a strong villain? Who are some of your favorite villains and why? Tell me about it in the comments!
Pin it up!