On Writing: The Villain

I’ve always been a sucker for a good villain. I’m talking about the kind of villain that has all their boxes checked: they know what they want, they know who is in their way, and they have a long list of reasons to explain why they are the way they are.

As a reader and writer, I know how hard it is to develop a good bad-guy. It takes time, the perfect amount of deception in many cases, and that final moment in which they are vanquished, destroyed, or turned good.

However, I have also read some not-so-good villains. So what are some things that, in my opinion, make a bad villain?

How to Write a Bad Villain

1. Your villain has no backstory. Sure, they can pop out of thin air, but I’ll tell you now, every good villain I’ve read and watched in movies has a backstory. They have emotional baggage for a reason and as we slowly learn their past, we become invested in their badness. Heck, we might even feel bad for them. There is nothing I like more than a villain I hate and understand all at once.

2. Your villain is just pure evil. Unless your villain is the devil incarnate (and even he has his reasons), there should be a bit more to the character. There is nothing interesting about a bad guy who just goes around hating everyone for no reason. It’s boring.

3. Your villain is ugly and horrifying to look at. I get it - visual aid is easy on this one because we can easily imagine them with just a few choice words. But, honestly, I like a villain with just one bad feature, like a scar down his face, or a villain who perhaps is attractive in a dark kind of way. Look at Gaston in Beauty and the Beast - handsome and horrible (not to mention that his narcissistic attitude is part of the reason he goes to kill the beast. Great win-win there.)

4. Your villain kills because he likes killing. Again, unless he is the devil, killing just to kill is boring. Give me motive, give me a messy reason why they are the way they are. Sure, someone bloodthirsty is scary, but they are also one-dimensional.

5. Your villain’s reasons for doing what they are doing is for power - and that’s it. I note this one because it’s been done a thousand times. (Most notably for me in Harry Potter.) Do it for revenge, to settle a score, to win the girl, to save the girl, to justify your twisted end that you are convinced is right… give me anything other than 'just for power.'

Trying to write a good villain? Here are some tips to help you on your way:

1. Develop your bad guys just as thoroughly as you do your good guy. Whenever I begin writing a book, I write at least ten pages of backstory on my villain. I write their history, scenes from their lives, and chapters from their point of view. They will never go in the manuscript, but they help me better understand how my villain would react to certain situations and why, which makes them more realistic and multi-dimensional.

2. Give your villain a variety of emotions. Please, please don’t make them just mad all the time.

3. Give your villain a reason (or many reasons) for why they are doing what they are doing. My favorite villains want revenge against something or someone. They are my favorite because then I know I’m going to get the backstory and probably feel an emotional connection to them. In the end, when they are triumphed over, I like to feel a little torn because I know their idea of justice was skewed, but, man, were they clear on why they wanted it.

4. Go against the gender norms. I find that most villains are males fighting against other males. Switch it up.

5. They need to have it all and then some to make a plot truly interesting. Their reasons have to be just as good as the reasons of the hero in your tale. The stronger and more developed the villain is, the greater a threat they pose to your hero, the more interesting a tale you will tell. And when you create something that is real gold, your audience will know it.

Is there a certain quality you love in a villain? Is there a type of bad guy you love writing (almost more than your hero)? Happy villain writing, and may the odds be ever in your favor.