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Writing Good Villains

Writing Good Villains

Villains (or as intellectuals say, antagonists), are a huge part of every story, and many believe that it’s a simple job to create one. You simply throw some universal no-no’s into a pan, bake at 375 for 30 minutes, decorate with a face, name them something like Chernobog or Lilith, and then write a scene or two where they kill someone or blow something up and you’re done. That is, simply, not the case. Here’s a guide to help you avoid a sad waste of an opportunity.

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Make Your Villains People

They are individuals, with a past and family and demons of their own. They’ve fought their own battles, suffered their own losses, and been through their own share of pain. They have good traits and bad traits, just like the heroes of your story. Unfortunately, the bad traits have taken over in their case and resulted in harm to others. Your villains need to be well-rounded characters. I’ve said this before, but villains are just like anybody else in the following three ways:

  • They are facing something we don’t know about and cannot understand
  • They are feeling things we aren’t aware of and, again, cannot understand
  • They are riddled with contradictory personality traits that they struggle to find balance between every single day

Show these things to your reader, because the best villains of all time have been the ones that we feel torn up about, simply because we relate to them in a way that reveals something about ourselves, or we understand them in a way that makes us feel conflicted.

They Got There Somehow

People are not born evil. People are not born with values and morals and personal beliefs. Villains are people, and they got to the point they’re at somehow. You need to make that somehow clear to the reader.  Maybe they grew up in a country where those beliefs are common, but the villain took them and applied action. Maybe your villain was hurt by someone or something and is now out to get revenge for all the pain they went to because of it. Show your reader the humanity behind the actions and they will hold so much more power.

Good Villains Have A Point

Maybe not a moral one, or even a reasonable one, but a point that we could see, nonetheless. The best villains are the ones that have beliefs that come from a place we can fathom. Yes, there are classic tropes of “daddy issues” or abusive childhoods or things like that, but the true test of a good villain is the way they make your readers question their own values and beliefs. You have to present a good argument on both sides of a conflict, or the conflict comes off as pointless, and for the sake of conflict instead of resolution.

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Make Your Villain Strong

Your villain needs to at least match the hero’s strength, in one way or multiple. For instance, if you’re writing a superhero story and your hero has powers but your villain doesn’t, give that villain some power that the hero doesn’t have and never could. Make it difficult. Easy conflict resolutions are boring, especially in the case of a villain-hero dynamic. Watching a strong, good-hearted hero beat a weak, 2-dimensional evil villain is like watching an ant get squashed by a boot, except way more drawn out.

Make a Strong Link Between The Hero and The Villain

This could be done in multiple ways. Maybe the hero and the villain are family members, or used to be very close, or love someone in common. Or, maybe your villain and hero share many characteristics, morals, and personality traits, but have very opposite approaches to accomplishing the same goal. Watching two complete strangers have a conflict is boring because there’s no opportunity for plot twists or internal struggle.

Please Avoid Monologuing

Your reader will facepalm immediately at any hint of monologuing. You know you have an amateur villain when they a.) drag out their plans for stupid reasons instead of just meeting their goal(s) and b.) lay out their entire plan for the hero when they think there’s no possible way their enemy could ever escape, even though their security measures are rickety at best. Just.. don’t do this. Please. There are better ways of revealing information to your readers.

Make The Villain’s Scenes Enjoyable

Your reader doesn’t have to like your villain to enjoy the scenes they read involving them. Classic villains, like Loki, The Joker, Captain Hook, The Queen of Hearts, Gaston, even Cruella de Vil, all had traits that made them either relatable or entertaining, and that’s what made them so great. It’s easy to create a character that readers will hate. It’s not easy to also make that character entertaining. Bottom line is, a large part of your readers will be reading for the sake of just that: entertainment. Don’t skimp out on the villain. Those guys are a huge part of what makes a story a classic.

Show The Villain Being A Villain

This seems like it would be obvious, but it’s not. Too many times has there been a movie or a book where you see other characters talking about what the antagonist has done or said or believes, but you never actually see that individual doing things that make them so evil. I’m not saying you should include a scene where your villain just, like, mercilessly kills a puppy, but show your reader an instance where your villain is being the villain.

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