Hello and happy Wednesday!
As you can probably tell, today’s post is all about . . . villains.
Cue the creepy music, dimming lights, maniacal laughter, and crashing thunder.
Villains can be very difficult to write. Readers have high expectations when it comes to antagonists, and it can be overwhelming for writers to know how to meet those expectations.
Though it’s tempting to slap a sneer and a monologue on your opposing character and be done with it, villains are arguably the most important characters beside your protagonist, and they take far more careful thought and energy to create.
Your villain has to be feared, dreaded, and even respected, or else readers are going to lose interest in your story. If your villain isn’t powerful or clever enough, your hero’s struggle against him won’t be interesting or meaningful. And if he’s too evil or clever, readers won’t be able to relate to them and won’t be as invested in his character.
Well-written villains are characters readers love to hate, and they’re a huge part of creating a compelling and memorable story.
There are a lot of do’s and don’ts floating around on the subject of writing villains. Over the years, I’ve done my best to sort through them, soaking up all the good advice I can find. I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing what I feel are the best villains from various stories, and attempting to figure out what makes them that way.
So today, I thought I’d share my best tips for writing villains! I’m not an expert by any means, but whether you’re fond of crafting those conniving characters or not, I hope these are helpful – or at least inspire you to get writing!
Make Them Relatable
This one is first for a reason. Readers need to be able to relate to your villain. Before you close this tab in horror, hear me out. We’re not perfect, are we? In fact, we all know we have days where we feel far from heroic. Even on our best days, our weaknesses and selfish desires are always waiting to come out just when we don’t want them to. Maybe it’s a lie. A temper. A tendency to ignore people when we feel we need time to ourselves.
Those are the things we should draw from for our villains. If we see part of ourselves in a character, we want to keep reading and find out what happens next. It makes them realistic, and realistic villains are good villains (well – bad, but you get the gist). But even more compelling than tying together negative traits is tying together the positives.
Another way of saying this is, don’t make your villains 100% evil and especially not for no reason. They can’t be puppy-kickers just because they’re the villain in your story. They can’t be pure blackness, immorality, and twisted conscience just because it gives the hero someone to fight. There has to be a reason for it – which I’ll cover in the next point – and there should also be nuances in their personality.
The most fascinating villains are the ones that seem to contradict themselves. They’re just fine with blowing up a bus of adults, but they won’t even scratch a child. They may be fine with kidnapping and abusing humans, but they adore their pets and dedicate time and money into saving endangered species of animals. They have no problem lying to get what they want, unless it means lying to a church. These unexpected twists are captivating because they aren’t things we usually associate with villains. They’re things that make the villains alarmingly…human. And it’s off-putting to suddenly have something in common with them, like respect for children, animals, or religion.
Show Their Why
To continue from the previous point, your villain needs to have a clear why for his actions. He can’t just be out to take over the world because he thinks it sounds fun, or decide to plant a bomb in a school because he’s bored. His motivations must be solid, shown, and believable.
This is where their backstory comes in. What’s happened before the reader meets them that’s brought them to this point? Why are they so bent on capturing the kingdom, ridding the city of scientists, or getting revenge on the woman who owns the farm? Though readers may never find out the entire backstory, the author should know it well. And we should reveal enough of it, both through the villain’s actions and his words, that readers can understand why he’s doing what he is.
Every choice the villain makes must align with his why. He can’t be out to take over the world and then knowingly make a choice that throws that all away. If he wants to take over the world, he shouldn’t be deterred by anything – and that’s part of what can make a villain so terrifying. When we know they won’t be swayed from their goal. When they want it deeply and will do anything to get it.
Think of the most iconic villains ever created. They all have a clear why, and readers know they won’t be stopped from achieving their purpose. It’s crucial to know why a villain is acting the way they are, and even better if it stems from an event, feeling, or belief that readers can identify with. The backstory will and should vary from villain to villain, but whether it’s horrifying and dramatic or slow and subtle, the important thing is that villains have strong motives.
Give Them Power
A villain has to be powerful – there’s just no way around it. Your reader has to know that the villain is truly a force to be reckoned with, and that the hero has a legitimate struggle ahead of him. A villain has to be respected. Feared. At the very least, it needs to be believable how he or she has gotten as far as they have.
However, power can come in many different forms. Your villain doesn’t have to be buff and hulking to be powerful – though physical strength is certainly a valid option. My personal favorite is when villains are ridiculously clever. They always seem to be one step ahead of the hero, no matter what they try or how well they think their plans are thought out. The villain always comes out ahead.
Maybe they’re powerful because of their political position, wealth, or because they were born into high society. Maybe they have an extensive network of well-to-do or loyal allies. Maybe they’re extremely educated. Whatever it is, they need to be far better in that area than a lot of people – and definitely more than the hero.
At all costs, avoid making your villain a bumbling, incompetent fool. The only time this could be permissible is if you’re writing a complete comedy – in which case your villain’s comic relief ability is a sort of power in itself. Otherwise, an incompetent villain is a poor villain, and they’ll at least lose your readers’ respect, and likely readers themselves.
Connect Them to the Hero
What’s even better than a powerful villain is a powerful villain who excels in all the areas that the hero is weakest. The imbalanced connection between the two characters will be very compelling and will make readers wonder how in the world the hero can ever manage to overpower the villain.
That’s not the only way to connect the villain to the hero though. Another strong way to connect them is through the theme; through their ideals. If the hero is brave, the villain could be cowardly (hiding behind his power). If the hero is compassionate, the villain could be apathetic. And if the hero is humbling himself to help others, the villain could have a habit of shoving others down to elevate himself.
This is a fascinating way to demonstrate why the hero should succeed, and keep readers interested in the journey. When both sides of a moral issue are presented – fairly! – it creates a compelling conflict, and we naturally want to see who’ll come out on top and why. An ideal that’s been challenged, tested, stretched, and put through the grinder in every possible way is an ideal that will be far more respected than one that isn’t.
It doesn’t always have to be opposites though. Maybe both characters are clever, but we’re shown the difference in how they each use their wit. Maybe both grew up in powerful families, but one abuses the power and one cherishes it as a force for good. Maybe both believe in protecting and remaining loyal to family, but have differing views on the best way to do that. I’ve found that stories where the villain and protagonists are connected somehow are the most gripping ones.
Avoid Ambiguous Evil
It’s important that readers know who the villain is. Sometimes the force of evil is supposed to be a certain group. The government, a council, a family, a tribe, etc. That’s just fine, but even in those instances, there should be one specific representation of that antagonism; the villain. Maybe it’s the mastermind, maybe it’s just one of the members that the hero comes face to face with, but no matter who it is, there should be a specific figure readers can dread. Just saying that the government is your villain and moving on doesn’t make the opposition feel close enough.
In certain types of stories, such as man vs nature, there doesn’t always have to be a human villain. In the man vs nature example, nature is the villain and it’s also specific enough that we can dread the effects of the difficult weather and unforgiving temperatures as the hero struggles to survive. In most kinds of stories however, a group can do horrible things, and cause plenty of fear, but it will always feel more distant than an individual.
It’s one thing to hear reports that the corrupt government is executing people that don’t agree with them – and another to watch as the mayor commits the deed in front of the hero. A corporation is made up of individuals, after all. Even indirect communications are the result of an individual. Every letter, phone call, or threatening message scrawled across your hero’s doorway was done by a person and not the group itself.
So be specific. Show those individuals and bring one to the forefront, directly opposing your protagonist. Don’t shy away from large-scale conflicts and organizations for your hero to oppose, but be sure to bring the antagonist close enough to the hero that readers can properly dread him and respect his power. It’s not possible for your protagonist to defeat an entire organization in a sword fight, but it is possible to defeat a key member of it, and set off a chain of events that leads to that group’s downfall.
Opinions on how best to write villains are numerous, and this is not an exhaustive list – just five of my best tips to writing intriguing and respected villains. Did you find any of them helpful? Are there any you don’t like using? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
What are YOUR best tips for writing villains? I’d welcome the chance to learn from you – so let me know your favorite strategies in the comments!
1.Last month I shared five of my best tips for writing dialogue. You can find that post here.