How To Write Better Villains – a #Balticon panel

The panelists were Stephanie Wideman, Christiana Ellis, Ian Randall Strock, Joy Ward, and the panel was moderated by Dave Robison.

As an excellent henchman, I attended this panel to learn what sort of villain to look for.

What Is a Villain

  • Your villain doesn’t have to actively be antagonistic to the protagonist, but the villain has to be working against what the reader (and the Main Character) want.- Christiana Ellis
  • Your villain needs to have a personality. – Christiana Ellis
  • No one is a villain in their own mind. – Ian Strock
  • Well- some are, but they still think they’re JUSTIFIED. – audience
  • Your villain has to be than JUST the antagonistic force. In order to be a true villain, they have to be more than simply ‘the mean girl’, they need to be ‘the girl trying to blow up the building.’  – Stephanie Wideman
  • The villain believes “I’m a good person”. – Joy Ward

Biggest Challenge of Writing “Good” Villains

  • The reader needs to identify with the villain. You have to make the reader understand the villain’s motivation. – Joy Ward
  • The villain’s power level. It has to be equal to- or slightly greater than the hero’s. Otherwise, the reader doesn’t believe the struggle or the challenge. – Stephanie Wideman
  • If you make death impossible. – Ian Strock
  • In short fiction – you cannot have a very offstage villain. There’s not enough space for the setup. – Ian Strock

Are There Differences In Villains Based on the Genre?

  • Possibly. There are trends in each genre for the villain’s motivation. – Stephanie Wideman
  • The villain has to be related to the genre. – Christiana Ellis
  • It depends. If the villain is a spirit/ghost/malevolent force, it needs less motivation than an actual character. – Ian Strock
  • Avoid emotionally flat villains. Sometimes  fantasy has villains where the motivation doesn’t ring emotionally true– it needs to. – Joy Ward

Hero versus Villain – Which Comes First?

  • For Joy Ward, they come hand-in-glove. She creates the hero first and then determines the villain. She likes to create a villain that is the mirror image or the thematic/emotional “brother” of the villain.
  • For Stephanie Wideman, her hero comes first. The villain is created as having an opposing goal.
  • For Ian Strock, his villain (or villainous force) usually comes first. Then reasons out what makes sense as the opposed hero/villain.
  • For Christiana Ellis, her hero comes first. Her heros are usually proactive and seeking something. So, her ‘villain’ is more ‘the world’ than a specific character.

Do the Hero and Villain Help Create Each Other?

  • Yes. – Christiana Ellis
  • That’s a little cliche. The hero needs more purpose post-villain. (Or vice versa) – Ian Strock
  • To flip the trope, the hero can learn the villains true aim, be convinced of the “villain’s” motivations, and then the hero can change their goals. – Joy Ward.
  • Wait, is that actually a villain, then? – Christiana Ellis

Who’s Your Favorite Villain?*

  • Prince Umbra from Spirit of Chaos – Stephanie Wideman
  • The Mule from The Foundation and The Authority from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Ian Strock
  • Zorg from 5th Element and The Operative from Firefly. – Christiana Ellis
  • Loki. He feels cheated, unloved, justified, wants love, but can’t resist that last response that ruins it.

Which Villains Lost Their Magic, Being Converted To A New Media Form?

  • Willy Wonka – The newest remake is a completely different movie. – Ian Strock
  • Any portrayal of Hades as a Villain. – Stephanie Ellis

Tips To Create A Memorable Villain

  • Make them sympathetic. – Joy Ward
  • Have the villain have other goals. Make thwarting the hero a sidenote, not their life’s work. – Ian Strock
  • Leave the reader wondering, “what IF the villain had won?” – Christiana Ellis
  • Make the hero/villain balanced. – Ian Strock
  • Make the reader identify with the villain. – Joy Ward

Remember, Drax started as a antagonist, then decided–if you can’t beat them, join them.


For me, The first villain that comes to mind that I love is Count Rugen from The Princess Bride. The death of Inigo’s father was barely a footnote–until his son shows up for revenge.

What villains do you love?

What tips do you have?

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