Posted on 07/10/2019 at 09:48 AM by Guest Author

Discover what makes a great villain so you can create a well-developed antagonist for your story.

Table of Contents

Why Villains Should Be Compelling

“I don’t try to write anyone who’s, ‘Ooh, I’m a villain. Let me get up today and just go out and do villainy and pull the world in darkness...' They all have grievances. They all have wounds, and they have things that drive them to do the things that they do.”

— George R.R. Martin, The Great American Read

Whether you’re writing a complicated romance, a stomach-churning horror, or an out-of-this-world sci-fi, chances are there’s going to be a villain among your cast of characters.

And if that’s the case, you need to put in the same amount of effort to create that antagonist as you would any other character.

Why?

Because the best villains in literary fiction — the ones we love to hate and hate to love — are those with layers. 

Think of Annie Wilkes from Misery, Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series, or Erik from The Phantom of the Opera.

To understand what makes a great villain, it’s important to look at more than just the bad things they do. You also need to consider their backstory, motivation, and (most importantly) relatability. 

As with all of your characters, you must show that your antagonist has multiple facets to their personality.

Otherwise, you wind up developing a one-dimensional villain who’s only there to stir up trouble, which can bore your readers and make it difficult for them to really dive into the story.

There’s nothing worse than a shallow villain who is only “the bad guy” because the text says so… 

But by creating a compelling villain others can identify with, you can make your story that much stronger, further driving the plot and connecting with your readers. 

What Makes a Great Villain?

As mentioned, what makes a great villain isn’t just the actions they take. It’s their personality and reasoning too.

If you look back at some of the most famous villains in literary history, you’ll find that…

  • They stand out for something other than their evil deeds.

  • They have desires and goals, along with a way of attaining them. 

  • They’re complex and multifaceted.

  • They’re driven by the belief that what they’re doing is right.

  • They’ve had bad things happen to them in the past.

  • They have many of the same traits as the protagonist.

  • They prove to be a worthy adversary.

  • They’re relentless in their pursuits.

Further, the best villains have something (e.g., a personality trait, a belief, or a goal) that readers can see in themselves — even if they don’t want to.

This makes the villain more relatable and the story more intriguing.

As a result, readers become more invested in the antagonist, openly rooting for their demise while secretly wishing to see more of the “big bad.”

Ultimately, all of what makes a great villain lies in the details. And as with developing any character, the details are key. 

How to Write a Great Villain for Your Story

If you’re in the process of drafting your next book, you may be struggling with how to write a great villain, despite now knowing what makes a great villain.

Fortunately, the tips below should help.

1) Decide what type of villain would serve your story best. 

More specifically, is the villain an actual person or an abstract concept? 

For example… 

Does your thriller need a criminal mastermind to play against your law-abiding protagonist? 

Does your piece of historical fiction require the hero (or heroine) to fight against social conventions? 

It’s worth noting that if you opt for the latter, you may not get the same response from readers as you would by using a personified villain.

In that case, you may still want to introduce a character to act as the “face” of the concept your protagonist is battling. 

2) Take the time to develop your villain.

Your story needs well-developed characters, and the villain is no exception. So, as you start to create your antagonist, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where are they from?

  • Do they have family?

  • What are their goals/desires?

  • What is the motivation driving them?

  • How do they plan to get what they want?

  • Have they experienced some sort of trauma?

  • What is their relationship to the protagonist?

  • What do they look like?

  • What do they sound like?

  • How do they act in public versus in private?

If you really want to dive into the villain’s psychology — bringing all of their fears, hopes, secrets, and yearnings to the surface — play therapist for a moment and imagine what insights you could get from a session with them. 

By explaining the reasoning behind the villain’s behavior and actions, you can elicit sympathy from readers (albeit briefly), making the conflict between them and the protagonist that much richer.  

3) Make your villain a real threat.

As pointed out earlier, the villain needs to be a worthy adversary, capable of causing the hero pain.

You need to strike a balance so that the antagonist and protagonist are nearly equal in strength and/or intelligence.

Otherwise, your readers won’t be convinced that the villain is a real threat.

To demonstrate the danger posed by the antagonist, you can give them small victories throughout the story, culminating in the final confrontation between hero and villain. 

4) Give your villain some time on the page.

Of course, understanding what makes a great villain and how to write one doesn’t matter if they’re not given sufficient time on the page.

It’s unlikely that you’ll want to give the same amount of attention to the villain as you do the hero, but you still need to dedicate sections throughout the book to the antagonist — showing their actions, exploring their thoughts, and driving their part in the plot.  

You can do this by flashing to the antagonist every so often or even telling the story through their point of view in a few chapters.  

Takeaway

Nearly every great work of fiction has a villain of some sort — be it a person or a concept.

And if you want to create real conflict in your story, you need to understand what makes a great villain so you can develop them accordingly. 

By using the tips and information provided above, you’ll be well on your way to introducing an intriguing, complex villain your readers can identify with. 

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Categories: Behind the scenes

Comments
Thanks for sharing, John — love the chart and the example of "Star Wars" to illustrate it!
Sadye at Fussy | 07/18/2019 at 12:47 PM
It can help to analyze the Positive-Sum games of alliance the villain is playing, along with the Zero-Sum games of conflict with the hero. And then the Positive-Sum Endgame for both sides. There's a graphic of the structure here: https://www.spysguide.com/single-post/2017/08/17/The-Heros-Journey-Is-A-Strategy
John Braddock | 07/18/2019 at 11:11 AM
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