If you start writing a story and have a great protagonist, it may be tricky to figure out what steps are needed to create a good bad guy. Great villains are memorable villains. They mimic specific thought processes, beliefs, and behaviors of our own lives. The villain’s backstory is one in which the readers relate to or feel empathy on some level. Both the villain and the main character need to be complex for the bad guy to be a great villain in your own story.
This article will discuss how to make a good villain in your story that is more complex than the pure cliche evil bad guy. We will layout how to decide and define the villain’s motivation and how to create genuinely realistic villains.
How to Write a Good Villain
The Harry Potter series gave us one of the most evil villains in modern fiction. Voldemort is a memorable villain because he is not just a monster who is pure evil—he was a child who had a complicated life for following the people who believed in him that he could make a change that would improve their lives. Then, Harry Potter came into the picture and enraged Voldemort simply by existing because it was the one major defeat Voldemort had had in his rise to power.
Your protagonist and antagonist need to have a backstory. It is a huge mistake to explain the backstory and past of the protagonist, but not the bad guy. Failing to include this means you are missing out on building a sympathetic villain, which is much more unsettling than an evil one.
In Harry Potter, Voldemort was not always a death-obsessed, murdering, noseless killer. He had sad and humble beginnings as the misunderstood orphan, Tom Riddle. Because Rowling wrote about Riddle and his trials, triumphs, feelings, and fears, we were able to understand the complexity and the beginning or cause of the evil depravity displayed by an adult Lord Voldemort. He was no criminal mastermind. He was simply an angry and sad grown man who had lived a life of sadness growing up and decided to use his newfound powers of magic to his advantage and to harm others.
Writing villains means giving them an origination story. Work it out in your head before you write any of the conflicts for the story’s villain: What sort of life did the villain live before they turned into an antagonist? What moment in their life stopped their potential for being one of the good guys and led them down a path to evil?
A Good Introduction
The first time the reader meets the villain, it should be memorable. Create a villain that immediately makes a reader uneasy, disturbed, or upset. Or, go the other direction, and make the antagonist charming and sophisticated. However you do it, make it memorable. A good first impression is important.
The Description—Who is the Villain?
Something important to understand is that although you can have abstract villains in your novel or story, they are difficult for the readers to understand, relate to, or care about. If you are writing a novel in which the antagonist is Mother Nature in hurricane form, and the coastline of your setting is being ravaged, people are displaced and dying, and the hero just cannot keep up—take that intensity, and turn it into a character.
For example, create a villain who works for a lobbyist group and is trying to downplay the natural disaster that has occurred so that less money will be given to rescue efforts, and more money will be given to his own special interest.
One example of an abstract villain coming to life is in the movie Twister, starring Helen Hunt. She and her team of storm chasers have valiant motives for tracking and chasing tornadoes. They want to be able to send sensors into the funnel of a tornado to collect data and readings in the hopes that they will develop a better and more sophisticated warning system for people in the path of a twister.
You have a memorable protagonist in Helen Hunt and her crew of do-gooders. They have a selfless motive that regularly puts them in danger, but they do it anyway for the sake of innocent people. The best villains have nearly equal power, but simply making the villain a one-dimensional character, such as a tornado, makes a movie about a group of people driving back roads in Kansas during thunderstorms.
What the creators did, instead, was to create a villain in place of the storm. Jonas is a competitor who has developed similar technology. He and his group of bad guys travel around in nice black SUVs, backed by grants and people with deeper pockets, and are only in this race with the good guys because they want the money and fame that will come with developing a better warning system first.
A three-dimensional villain is absolutely crucial to developing and creating the perfect villain. This villain has talents and wit that match the protagonist (Think Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty) but is also capable of change and growth.
This was executed almost perfectly in Star Wars, where Darth Vader joined the Dark Side out of fear that his wife would die. He switched sides, a promising and powerful youth who could bring and maintain peace suddenly became a villain. Just when we were sure that he would never do anything to compromise the power and allure of the Dark Side, he sacrifices himself to save his son, Luke Skywalker.
In real life, people are not all good or all bad. There are things or people that even the most depraved serial killer cares about. Charles Manson was passionate about animals, but he was still an evil person. Good villains are not good people, but they are usually not bad at all, either.
One shining example of a well-rounded arc for a villain is in Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy. Like many mass murderers and serial killers, Brady Hartsfield has very little regard for human life and believes he is above the “common” man. The only things that Brady seems to care about are his computers, his mother, and himself.
Brady is hailed as the best villain King has written in a crime novel with no science fiction elements or monsters of horror novels. Brady murders over a dozen people by running them down as they wait in line for a job fair. His weapon of choice is a stolen Mercedes. He then launches an emotional attack on the owner of that Mercedes and makes her feel responsible for the crime to the point that she takes her own life.
While it seems like this sort of character does not and could not exist in real life, there is another side to Brady. He works in an electronic store and has friends there. He takes care of his alcoholic mother and feels remorse and anguish when she dies. Other characters can interact with him without suspecting that he was the person responsible for the deaths of several people, including an infant.
Good villains are characters that have a believable character arc but do not let it deter them from trying to execute their evil plans. However, these villains make the reader wonder if they are capable of redemption, and they give the reader pause to wonder if it might happen by the end of the book.
For example, Long John Silver in Treasure Island seems like a good guy for much of the book until he betrays the protagonist. Due to his ability to behave normally, the reader may think that there is a normal and real person inside the old pirate, and they may hold out hope that Silver will redeem himself in the end.
Knock Your Antagonist Down
To write a story that includes a good villain, you cannot make the villain a lot weaker than the hero. In fact, it is necessary to make it look like there is a chance that your hero will not win at all. Count Dracula nearly wins the fight and seems unstoppable through much of the movie and book. Thanos takes down the Avengers, even turning half of them to dust. The unbeatable Hulk is taken down easily in combat. Especially in action stories, it is important to make it look like the hero may not win.
A common trope in superhero stories is to make the bad guy so easy to overpower and beat that the fight is just another day at the office for the superhero. What makes for a truly remarkable story is when you, as the writer, do horrible things to your hero or heroes and can make the vast majority of your readers or viewers feel as though things may be hopeless for the protagonist.
The Avengers is quite the best example of this tactic. Thanos is a nearly perfect villain. Studying him as a writer provides you with the ultimate guide on writing a perfectly complex villain.
Thanos is evil, but he is not a good character without his good qualities. He truly loves his adopted daughter, who he took when he destroyed her home planet. He has no issue sacrificing her later, though, when he has to give up something he loves to acquire one of the Infinity Stones.
However, what is truly complex about Thanos is his motives and his belief system. His master plan is relatively simple. He thinks that a coin toss should determine the existence of life. He wants to acquire all of the Infinity Stones so he can snap his fingers and undo half of all living beings. He does not care which half.
The Avengers tried to stop Thanos. While trying to defeat him, half of Avengers and the world disappeared into the universe. The remaining Avengers search for him, and Thor cuts his head off, but it does not affect the outcome that the Avengers have lost. Thanos is truly a great example of a villain who will stop at nothing to accomplish his ultimate goal.
Anti Hero vs Villain
An antihero is a character who often does the right thing, but the wrong way, or does the right thing, but for selfish reasons. This character may do bad things, but not because they have an evil plan. They are often simply trying to satisfy a selfish need or want.
Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean is a classic antihero. He steals ships to further his interests. He only helps Will so that he can get his ship back and reverse a curse laid upon him, and he pretends to be a best friend to him, yet lies about everything from his motives to his identity to manipulate situations into his favor. He is not a villain, though. The villain is Barbosa or one of the many other evil foes that Jack and his “friends” must defeat.
In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum is an antihero. Under the ring’s spell, at least two stories are being told in this epic series. Gollum is painted negatively, but he only acts in his self-interest because he feels incomplete without the ring he had owned for years. He did not intend to sabotage the mission of Frodo and Samwise. He simply operates impulsively to get back what he wants. He does not care if Frodo lives or dies—he only cares about achieving his goal.
The story of Maleficent in the re-make edition starring Angelina Jolie is that of an antiheroine. She is not evil, but she is not good. She hurts people because she is angry, hurt, and is determined to come out on top, mainly in a move for revenge. Even though she is not the good guy, the viewers cheered for her when they realized she was not a villain.
Hannibal Lecter is a true villain. He is evil, and he knows it. He does not deny it. In fact, he revels in it. His story is one of cruelty, true evil, and depravity. He is not trying to accomplish any goal outside of inflicting pain and causing death.
If there is no Joker, there would be no Batman. The Joker is a near-perfect villain, and his story elevates the importance and needs of a protagonist. Sure, Batman takes on Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Catwoman, and The Riddler, but the only real antagonist the masked crusader bothers to focus on is The Joker.
The Joker is evil, and he knows it. He is twisted, and he knows it. He hurts, robs, kills, and destroys things for fun. He enjoys using people as pawns to torment Batman. The Joker comes up with many ideas, but he only has one master plan: to destroy Batman by any means necessary.
More Tips on How to Make a Good Villain
There are many ways to create a memorable villain in your novel. The following tips will help add depth and character to these antagonists so that the reader does not soon forget about them, and the protagonist has a worthy adversary.
Give your villain a motivation that they are so dedicated that they are willing to lose anything, give up anything, kill anyone, or die for. Thanos is one example of this. He is so dedicated to his mission of getting the Infinity Stones and snapping half of all life on Earth out of existence that he will stop at nothing. He will kill anyone, sacrifice his daughter, have his other daughter dismantled, and is willing to die for his cause.
Motivation at this level of dedication creates a terrifying villain. The reader or viewer feels uneasy because they know that the villain will stop at nothing. There is no level this character will not stoop to. This creates a massive problem for the good guy because there is no talking the villain down. There is no chance at redemption—only dedication to complete a mission at any cost.
A Sense of Humanity
A villain who has some sense of humanity is another way to create villains who grab the reader or viewer’s attention. John Wick is not a good person. He is a paid assassin. He is a mercenary. He lives up to a code with some sort of honor, though. If this character, played by Keanu Reeves in the hit movies, had no sense of humanity and could not feel human emotion, the viewer would not care much about him.
He is simply a man who gets out of the business, loses his wife, and then, to rope him back into the business, more people like him come and murder his dog. An entire movie series is based on a man who is emotionally wrecked and seeks revenge on the people who killed his dog. While that may sound silly, many viewers watched that first John Wick movie and understood the companionship and the feeling of normalcy that the dog gave Wick. The viewer understood there was a need for immediate and brutal revenge. The viewer could relate to him.
Confuse the Reader
Fans of Dexter understand that he is a murderer, but he only really kills people who are “bad.” But is not murder bad no matter who you are killing? This character, and characters like him, exist in a gray area that cannot really be defined as good or bad. They are often very complex. They want to be good people, but they have this ugly or evil streak in them, and they sometimes act on it. They often justify it, but when is murder justifiable?
Another example of this is the character played by David Boreanaz in the spin-off show Angel. In this show, Angel is a vampire cursed with a soul. Because he has a soul, he feels guilty feeding on the blood of humans, so he dedicated himself to trying to make up for the lives he has taken in the past by saving people from supernatural and paranormal evils.
All of this sounds very nice until he sometimes snaps and tries to eat one of his friends, namely, his girlfriend. Any experience of true happiness reverts him to the soulless savage that he used to be, and then, all bets are off. And if he enjoyed being a soulless vampire who ate people for fun before he was cursed, and is only making up for it now to try to satisfy the effects of that curse, then is he really a good person?
Again, this character exists in a gray area that makes the viewer wonder if they should be a fan of him, all while many cannot resist the urge to cheer him on in his endeavors. These characters are villains masquerading as heroes, and it captivates readers and viewers alike.
Make Your Villain Likable
Hannibal Lecter is intelligent and sort of cool in how he speaks and uses a quiet grace to instill fear. He is a little bit likable to the audience, so he is not soon forgotten.
Randall Flagg in The Stand offers fun and loves a good time and outcasts. He invites everyone who wants to have fun to Las Vegas, while his adversary, Mother Abagail, is putting everyone on her side to work rebuilding society and waiting on messages she claims God is giving her. He wears cool cowboy boots and jean jackets, gets neat trinkets, has women and booze. He is suave and sexy. He is literally an agent of Satan, but he is a really cool guy.
Stay Away from Cliches
It is really easy to dress your villain in all black. Give him a slick mustache and a secret lair that he spends all of his time in. It is effortless to have your villain orate his entire plan and motives for several minutes before killing someone. It is easy to turn the stunted mama’s boy into a taste for murder. But these tropes have been written into the ground, and everyone suspects these villains at this point.
What if your villain was an attractive third-grade teacher dressed in bright colors and went home each night to her loving husband and two perfect children. Then, when her husband goes away once a month on business, she follows a stripper to her car and brutally murders her?
What if your villain is an ordinary guy who works at a newspaper stand and is social, friendly, and well known in the community? What if he uses this to his advantage and stalks customers so that he can later kidnap and torture them?
There are many ways to steer away from the basic hero and villain in your story. Characters are meant to be rich and as life-like and relatable as you can manage to make them. Following some or all of these tips can help you write the villain and hero that takes you from a typical and cliche story to a great story that holds your readers captive from the first page to the last.