Hi everyone! This is part one of a two part series I’m doing here. Next week I’ll be discussing how to write antiheroes, but today we’re going to be talking about the (in my opinion) best part of the story—villains!!
What is a Villain?
The villain is often the antagonist in your plot, the obstacle that your main character must overcome in order to achieve their goal.
While villains and antagonists are not always the same character, for the purposes of these articles, I will be using villain as synonymous with antagonist. There are many wonderful books which have ‘villain main characters’, that is, stories starring characters who would traditionally be considered villains. I will be discussing how to write characters like that in my installment next week on antiheroes. But in this article, we’ll be discussing how to craft your villain when they are the antagonist of the plot.
Most books have multiple villains, to reflect different aspects of the main character’s arc. For example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone, villains include The Dursleys, Draco Malfoy, Snape, Professor Quirrel, and Voldemort. Voldemort is the Big Bad external villain that will be the series obstacle, and Professor Quirrel is the sub-villain on their multi-book quest to defeat Voldemort. But what about the Dursleys, Malfoy, and Snape? Each of them is a villain who pushes Harry in a different way, a villain who reflects a different aspect of Harry’s character growth throughout the series.
There are a lot of different types of villains. There’s no one rule for a good villain, just like there’s no one rule for a good protagonist. Your story, your main character, and your world will inform what kind of villain you’ll need. But there are some things you always want to keep in mind when crafting a villain for your story.
How to write a compelling villain
- Each villain in your story should reflect an arc your main character will have
A villain should reflect something about your main character, so that defeating—or joining—them plays into their own personal growth arc. Basically, a villain should be a good foil.This can mean they’re the opposite of your protagonist—for example, the extroverted villain who cons everyone must be defeated by the mousy, plain protagonist. The villain is everything the protagonist struggles with in herself. He embodies a certain personal struggle the protagonist has.
A villain could also have a personality similar to your protagonist— for example, when a parent is the villain, it’s often accompanied by an arc of not wanting to become your parents, not wanting to follow in their footsteps.
Basically, when you’re looking at the character arc of your main character, you should also be looking at what kind of villain would push them into the character development you want. Ideally, your villain should force your main character to face their worst fears in some way. Your external villain should complement the internal demons that your main character is struggling with.
- A villain should be the hero of their own story
A good villain has their own goals and ambitions in life. They’re fully formed characters with their own lives and purpose, and each action they take in the book is meant to bring them closer to whatever their ultimate goal is. You should in theory be able to re-outline the book from the villain’s point of view and have a clear inciting incident, decision, and goal for them.
- Their Goals should be Relatable
Jealousy, Vengeance, Freedom, whatever the goal of your villain is, it should be something that we, the audience, can understand and relate to.One of the biggest issues I see is that authors make their villains goals important to the PLOT but not to the CHARACTER. So, for example, in Lord of the Rings, Sauron wants to take the One Ring of power and he sends all his orcs to get it. He’s a great villain in the sense of the plot—he’s always got minions coming after the characters, he’s corrupting wizards to do his bidding, conquering cities—he moves the plot forward with his actions. But while those actions move the plot forward, they don’t really tell us much about his character. I know almost nothing about Sauron. He’s a glowy eye. He wants world domination for… some reason???? It’s not really clear. It doesn’t stop Lord of the Rings from being a great series, but as a villain, Sauron’s characterization is somewhat lacking.
Build your villain so even if they’re doing terrible things, we understand why. Do they want power? What for? World domination is great and all, but readers want to see the personal reasons compelling them to take over the world. Are they trying to prove themselves to someone? Trying to make up for the powerlessness they felt in their childhood? Trying to gain immortality by making their mark on history so their life isn’t meaningless? Every action your villain takes should have a personal motive behind it. Even if they’re just a solider following the dark lord’s orders, I need to know why.
The reader doesn’t need to like your villain, but villains are far more compelling, and far more frightening, the more we understand them.
In villains, empathy breeds fear in the reader. Because when you empathize with something monstrous, even a little, it makes the villain far more real and believable, like they could step out of the page and into the real world. There’s an element of impossibility to vague villains, far off distant men who want power, but when you get personal with your villains and their motives, the book seems far more real, and becomes much more compelling and immersive for the reader.
I wanted to quickly touch on a few myths about writing villains that I’ve heard going around!
- Myth: villains need a redemption arc
Some villains, redemption arcs fit. Some, it doesn’t. Don’t feel like you need to redeem anyone. Be true to the character and the story. Some of the best villains out there are complex and multifaceted and truly evil, and that won’t change.
Many readers love a good redemption arc, but not at the expense of making your villain act in ways that don’t feel in character. Making the villain act in ways that are out of character is the biggest risk in redeeming a villain, and you risk losing readers who loved the villain as they were originally, and don’t understand this new, redeemed person or how they got there.
- Myth: Your Villain and Hero can’t both win
I’ve heard people say that a villain’s goal should be in direct opposition of your main character’s goal, that both villain and hero shouldn’t be able to win. And for many villains, that’s true. In the Hunger Games, Katniss wants to stay alive. So does everyone else in the games. But there can only be one winner, thereby making everyone enemies. In a story like that, the villain and hero can never both win.But remember how we talked about every story having multiple villains? This rule doesn’t have to hold true for all of your villains.
For example, lets say you have a story about a revolution. There’s an evil society, and the main character is working undercover in the government to overthrow it. The primary Big Bad is your evil society. But the main villain of the story might not be the society—it might be the revolutionary on the outside who is using violence to try and overthrow the society, putting the main character at risk of blowing her cover. In this case the villain and hero have the same goals—the conflict is the method. And at the end, whoever succeeds, they both have achieved their goal of revolution—the question is, did they pay the price they wanted to?
There are as many types of villains as there are types of people. How they come into conflict with your character will differ depending on their role in the story and your character’s arc. Fundamentally, you want each of your villains to come into conflict with the main character, but how and why is very individual.
All of this is meant to say that there are absolutely ways that both hero and villain can win, or stories where the hero straight up loses. It will change the tone of your ending—if the hero loses, it’s probably a sad or bittersweet ending. Or perhaps the hero joins the villain, which is always a great plot twist. But don’t limit yourself to stories where only one person can win.
Pitfalls to avoid
There are a lot of great villains out there, but there are also a lot of poor ones. Here’s a few tips on things to avoid when crafting your villain.
- Accidentally sending a terrible message
Have you ever started reading a book, and then had to put it down part way because you were horrified by who the ‘villain’ and ‘heroes’ were? There’s a big difference between intentionally writing a villain main character, and unintentionally writing a villain main character.
When you intentionally write a villain main character, you’re self-aware. You know this is a bad person, and you write them accordingly. When you don’t realize your main character is a terrible person, and play it straight, the result is often that you end up with a book that sends a terrible message, and you’ll alienate a lot of readers.But how could you accidentally write a villain main character? It’s easier than you’d think! It’s all about who the antagonist is for the book. For example, if you write a book starring a rich colonizer, and the villains are the people fighting for basic human rights, that’s a bit of a problem. Or if your hero is the CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation, and the villain is a regular person trying to stop the corporation from crushing their small mom and pop restaurant.
You can absolutely write books with those plots, but they need to be self aware, and it needs to be addressed in text. The inversion needs to serve a purpose.
So before you start writing, take a step back, and critically examine the dynamics of who your hero and villain are. What message are you sending? And is it the one you want to be sending?
- One dimensional tropes
This one is probably pretty obvious, but try to avoid tropes. There are a lot of villains we’ve all seen a million times before, one-dimensional caricatures that lack depth and complexity. Some examples of overused villain tropes: Muslim terrorist, evil popular cheerleader, large fat bully, etc.Unless you’re an extremely talented writer, even if you do add depth and complexity to characters like these, people will subconsciously mold them into the trope they know anyway.
Re-outline the story from your villain’s point of view. What is their goal? What are they doing to achieve it? In their eyes, how is the hero the obstacle or villain that they need to overcome? All books should have a villain with as strong a goal and arc as the hero, even if the arc is death/becoming more evil/etc, so make a short outline of your story where the villain is the main character. What are they doing and why? Explore their motivations. Does the story still stand if you swap the point of veiw?
That’s it! Tune in next week and I’ll talk about how to write compelling antiheroes and make readers root for terrible people!
Here are some books with examples of well-developed villains perfect for their specific story:
- Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
- Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
- Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray
- Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
- The TV series, Baccanno!
Rebecca Schaeffer was born and raised in the Canadian prairies. Her itchy feet took her far from home when she turned eighteen, and she hasn’t returned for more than a few months here or there since. You can find her sitting in a cafe on the other side of the world, writing about villains, antiheroes and morally ambiguous characters.
Her debut, Not Even Bones, is about a girl who dissects and sells monsters on the internet. The sequel, Only Ashes Remain, comes out in September.