Have you ever met a real-life villain in your life? I sure hope you didn’t; I know I haven’t. I’ve seen a few, mainly sprinkled strategically through our political system or in the news, but I haven’t met one in person, and I hope it stays that way. But then, why do I love great villains in stories? I think it’s because their mere existence in real life is not so evident to me. There’s something inherently attractive about evildoers, no matter how much we hate them in our lives. In fiction, as readers, we absolutely love them. The question then becomes, as a writer, how do you craft a perfect villain? One that readers or viewers remember way long after and, perhaps, even identify with some time? Is there a formula?
What Is a Villain?
Usually, the word villain is synonymous with a bad person. However, the problem is that “bad” is relative. For every person out there who thinks someone is terrible, at least one person believes they’re great. Just think of the Mason Family, and you’ll understand what I mean.
Therefore, in the context of a story, a villain is not necessarily someone who is inherently “bad.” Instead, a villain is someone who purposely creates hurdles in the way of the main character. In some instances, the villain him/her-self can be the source of the main character’s motivation. In other words, the villain is the catalyst of the story.
We usually call the main character a protagonist, and we call the villain the antagonist because he or she attempts to antagonize the main character.
However, there are situations in which the villain is, in fact, the protagonist. Think about stories such as those depicted in The Godfather, Catch Me If You Can, or The Grinch. Even in those situations, the villain protagonist is still trying to oppress something—it could be the world or other, seemingly less important characters.
Sometimes a character starts by being a villain but, as the story goes, his arc takes him away from that predicament and morphs him or her into something else. Think about Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge or Darth Vader in Star Wars.
In all situations, the storyteller’s job is to make this villain believable above and beyond everything else. I have never seen stories fall flat faster than when the villain is not believable. There are many facets of this “believability,” which I will discuss over the following few sections.
Before I continue, to maintain my sanity, I will hereby be referring to my villains as “he,” and not only because I believe that men are more villainous than women (although I do), but because I hate the he/she thing. You know what I mean, so let’s move on.
Characteristics of a Good Villain
He’s a hero in his mind
Do you think Marshall Applewhite thought of himself as a villain? I don’t think so. If you don’t know who he was, research Heaven’s Gate. In a nutshell, Applewhite ran a cult that ended with a mass suicide that took the lives of 39 people, including his own. He claimed that through suicide, they would ascend out of this world.
A believable villain thinks of themselves as a hero or at least the hero of his story. That disconnect between reality and his view of reality is what strikes a chord in the reader’s mind. A villain who knows he is the villain and is trying really hard to be as villainous as possible is far less attractive.
It’s almost like we are urging the reader to hope that the villain will soon see the light and understand reality, but as the story goes on, the villain only doubles down and keeps going. This type of mystery gives the villain dimensions.
The good thing is that as the writer, you can go as far as you want with this type of disconnect. Make your villain believe he is God Almighty for all it matters. So long as you don’t turn him into a caricature, that mental disconnect will always bode well for the antagonist.
He has redeeming qualities
Despite his lousy streak and inherent desire to oppose, the villain is first and foremost a “human.” I put human between quotes because the protagonist could be, of course, an animal, an alien, a fantastical creature, and everything else in between.
I mean here that he must have human-like qualities because that is what we, as humans, can understand. Emotions such as love, care, empathy, sympathy, fear are things we can all relate to and understand. They make us all vulnerable and, thus, more human.
Your villain cannot be simply bad to the bone. That makes no sense, and the reader will sniff that from a mile away and think of your character as a cardboard cutout of a bad guy.
By giving your antagonist some hero-like qualities, you humanize him and thus making him more believable.
He is a worthy opponent
A great story has high stakes. That means that your protagonist cannot simply skip his way through the narrative with no obstacles. I mean, he could, but that wouldn’t make for a fascinating story.
As a writer, you need to raise those stakes as high as possible and constantly put your protagonist in peril. Who better to do that than your story’s villain?
But for him to be able to do so, he must be a worthy opponent. The villain must be strong enough to defeat the hero or at least to seem as though he could. In most cases, the villain should be a lot stronger than the main character, at least at the beginning of the story.
That will entice the protagonist to grow throughout the narrative and become strong enough to defeat the villain.
A weak villain is pathetic and will turn off readers very fast, so make sure you pack them with enough “muscles” and “ammo” to be able to whip the protagonist’s behind if needed.
He has charisma
Cannibals are not good people; can we all agree on that? But, when you think about Hannibal Lecter, do you think of a cannibal? That’s not the first thing that comes to my mind. Why? Because he’s a freakishly interesting person. One that you’d never want to meet, but fascinating nonetheless.
Your villain needs to connect with your readers, which means they must sort of like him a little bit. So you must juggle your need to make them horrible and powerful with also making them likable. That’s where charisma comes into play.
Charisma is a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. Charismatic people are expressive, and they display emotional and social control. We all would want to emulate some of the qualities of charismatic people, but only if we could embody those without the baggage that comes with them.
You need to sprinkle these qualities on your villain and give him that flavor and attractiveness that makes people want to embody their power. You must make them think, oh, if I could only command people that effectively, only, of course, without all the murdering and torturing.
If you make your reader want to be just a little bit like your villain, you are way on the way to creating a great one.
He has a believable motivation
This is probably one of the most critical pieces when it comes to the plot of the story. You can craft a perfect villain using the tips above, but the whole process is for nothing if you miss the why.
Villains cannot be evil just because they are. It’s easy to picture a person that is the devil incarnate, but if you don’t explain why he is the epitome of evilness, you’ll lose the readers.
Your great villain needs motivation for his actions, and that purpose must be compelling. It should be just as strong or even more potent than the reasons behind your hero’s actions. The stronger the motivation, the more believable your villain will be.
The motivation will not completely exonerate your villain from his actions, but it will give the reader a reason to believe him.
Common Mistakes When Crafting Villains
Now that you know the main characteristics of a great villain, let’s stop for a second and look at some common mistakes when crafting villains. You could quickly negate the elements above, but in this section, I want to hone how you can create a villain that is not believable. In this way, you’ll also know what not to do.
Villains are bad; we get it. They are crazy and do crazy shit. It’s relatively easy to assume that the more outlandish the stuff they do, the more criminal they are. To some extent, that’s true, but when the writer starts to up the bloodshed level and cruelty for no apparent reason, the effect no longer works.
There are way subtler ways to make your villain seem crazy than having them poke the eyes out of a living human. Unnecessary bloodshed will turn the reader off and won’t allow them to connect or understand the villain.
A villain without an end goal and a story of his own is pointless. Okay, everybody understands that you want to destroy the world. But why? What’s in it for you? Won’t you die with it? You seem not to care. Again, why?
If your story cannot answer these questions, the reader will be utterly confused. Much like we need motivation for our own lives, we also need to understand it in others. When a bad guy is just bad, we don’t buy it. There has to be a story behind that madness.
Your narrative might not describe it all, but it needs to hint at it enough so the readers can guess it. A great villain always comes with a great story as the backbone.
Villain Takes Over
Who’s better: Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? And when I say “better,” I mean who do you like more? Of course, if you watched the entire series, you know that Darth Vader is no longer as evil as he was initially, but still, he’s one of the greatest villains of all time.
In that story, the writers were able to keep Luke Skywalker as the main character and prevented Darth Vader from taking over the story, although he had the potential to do so. That is a symptom that appears when the writer starts to like the villain a little too much.
It’s not uncommon. As you try your hardest to humanize your villain and make them charismatic, all of a sudden, you realize that they’re now your favorite. Soon enough, they are in every scene and talk a lot. They’re taking over the story.
Be aware of that. Unless you want to make your villain the protagonist, don’t let them take over the narrative, or you will lose the reader for different reasons.
Clichés are those things that have been used so many times in a similar way that they’re now old and tired. People have too many expectations about them, and they are, honestly, quite boring.
Here are some clichés:
- the curly mustache
- the monocle
- a scar on the face
- the evil laughter
- the foreign accent (often Russian)
These have been done to death, so stay away from them. Your villain will be a lot more believable if he’s less of a caricature and more of a human.
The hero must win, at least in most stories. But if the hero’s victory is too easy, readers will not be satisfied. Readers want high stakes and struggle. The story cannot be at par with their own lives. It has to transcend that and pull them into a realm of high emotional intensity.
The villain plays an important role here because he is the one that sets himself in front of the protagonist, trying his best to get him off his game. If the readers smell a weak villain or a villain who is not worthy of fighting off the protagonist, they’ll be disappointed.
Not every villain has to come equipped with a completely brand new set of issues. Some tropes are okay to use. A trope is not like a cliché; a trope is a pattern that is reasonable and expected to occur. For example, having a villain whose parents tormented him as a child is a trope that works to create motivation for the character.
But, that trope cannot be too obvious, or the reader will quickly guess the entire game the villain is playing, and the rest of the story will feel flat, or the reader will be bored. Keep a little mystery around your villain and his motives and let them unfold slowly.
I know it’s challenging to strike a balance between developing the villain’s purpose and story and not making it too obvious, but that’s why crafting great villains is tricky.
How To Develop a Great Villain
Now that you know what the attributes of great villains are and the common pitfalls to avoid when designing one, let’s look at the steps you can take to create a great villain.
Create the villain’s backstory
You, the writer, must know your villain’s story in complete detail. The reader will only get a small portion of it, but you must know it all. Not only his story per se but also the implications of that story. You need to understand how the events of his life affected him and in which way.
That is the beginning of you crafting the villain’s purpose, so the more detailed notes you make, the better it will crystalize in your mind and flow into your story naturally.
Design the villain as a person
Once you know the villain’s story, it’s time to start creating that character. Developing characters is one of the most entertaining parts of writing; I enjoy that process greatly. To make things easy, I have created a character development worksheet that you can use for free to design your master villain.
Using this worksheet, you can make sure that you follow the rules above (the do-dos and the not-to-dos).
Name your villain
Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, Sauron, Hans Gruber—these are all fantastic names that seem to match the character so perfectly that you cannot even imagine them having a different name.
When you choose a perfect name for your villain, it’s like you’re infusing them with life and personality. I’ve written an article about choosing fantasy names for characters, but it applies to non-fantasy as well. I’ve also included links to several name generators that you might find helpful.
Finalize the motivation
Now that you have your villain’s image and name and the brief story you worked on before, put them together and finalize the villain’s entire history.
Again, your reader will get a tiny slight hint of it, but you must know it intimately. That will allow you, the writer, to also connect with the villain and give him life. You can think about it this way: if your hero has his hero’s journey, your villain also has a journey of his own.
At this point, you can use a technique where you write a synopsis of your story from the perspective of your villain; in other words, as if the villain were to tell the story. If you remember, all villains think of themselves as the hero of their story, so the story from their perspective will look a lot different from your protagonist’s point of view.
However, that’s precisely the idea. You are creating the root of the conflict by putting those two points of view at odds.
Make your villain slightly likable
At this point, you can start refining your villain. Add some redeeming qualities as explained above. Bump up his charisma and character. Make them pop, increase their power.
One easy way to accomplish this is to find little things that are not necessarily directly affecting the story’s plot but give humanity to your villain.
For instance, if your villain is a serial killer, have them find a stranded dog and shelter them. Or, have them help a stranger that reminded them of their grandfather. Remember how you felt a little bad about Thanos when he had to kill his daughter to achieve the goal of his life? Of course, the goal of his life was to destroy half of all life in the Universe, but for that one moment when he had to push Gamora into the abyss, you felt a little bad for him, right?
Of course, your villain has several ethical and moral faults, which make him a villain. But you can find other redeeming moral strengths that you can imbue them with.
Also, creating a very tragic and dramatic upbringing will up the likeability of your great villain because, to some extent, the readers will sense a possibility of justification for his actions. Although in the end, the readers should come to terms with the true nature of your antagonist, if they get just a hint of possible justification, your villain will be more likable.
Connect your villain to your hero
If your villain is the protagonist, this step doesn’t apply. But if that’s not the case, you need to intertwine the villain’s story with that of the hero and figure out how they interact.
Sometimes this connection can happen later in the story, or it can be immediate, but at some point in the narrative, your villain’s path must meet with the path of the hero. They don’t have to clash right away, but there has to be a connection to help the readers understand the conflict.
Now, Write Your Villain
I suggest you start designing your villain by following the steps in the section above. With each step, go over the list of characteristics for villains and mind the common mistakes. You will develop your villain in layers, and with each one, you’ll keep validating that it doesn’t break the rules.
If you do a good job, you’ll wind up with a likable, evil character who has a clear motivation for his actions and enough charisma to keep your readers engaged.
Of course, that’s only a fragment of the work you have to put in to finish your novel, but it’s a huge step. I wish you good luck crafting your extraordinary villain!
Other Resources on Writing a Great Villain
- What Makes a Great Villain? Your Checklist for Writing a Good Bad Guy
- What Makes A Good Villain?
- WHAT MAKES A GREAT VILLAIN – BUILD YOUR OWN BAD GUY
- How to Craft a Believable Villain
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Who are some of your favorite great villains from literature?
- What do you struggle with the most when crafting your villains?
- Have you ever written a villain that took over the story because they were just too cool?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!