7 Tips For Writing Better Villains

Write The Villain Your Story Deserves

As I’ve discussed before, there’s a difference between an antagonist and a villain. Your story doesn’t need a villain, but if you’re going to have one, you should have a memorable one.

  • Prince Humperdink/Count Rugen
  • The Joker
  • Voldemort
  • Emperor Palpatine

These are the names and the stories that stick with us. And sometimes? We love them anyway.

But how does one create a memorable villain, worthy of one’s story? Here are some tips.

#1 – Avoid under-developed villains

Remember, villains have their own lives, outside of thwarting your protagonist. They need to be 3-dimensional characters with motivations that make sense — even if you disagree with their decisions.

#2 – If you must use a cliche, add a twist

The childhood trauma, the revenge on the government/mob/whatever, the delusion that they’re doing good…make sure you’re not following the formula too closely.

#3 – Make Sure Your Villain Isn’t Underpowered

The protagonist has to work for their win, you don’t want to just hand it to them. There has to be credible belief that the villain might win. Readers appreciate (while they’re cursing you) the anticipation and anxiety they experience during a narrow win, much better than the easily thwarted villain.

#4 – Flawed Villains

Villains are only human. (Most of them) Typically, it’s their own personal flaw that leads to the protagonist’s ability to win the day–or at least a stalemate. Pride is traditional, but something has to get them to lose control of themselves and/or the situation.

NOTE: The flip side to this is that the protagonist should win by CONQUERING their own personal flaw. Maybe not permanently, but facing it and accepting it during the story’s climax.

#5 – Villain Doesn’t Need To Mean Evil

Bad guys don’t have to be evil to oppose the protagonist. Was Mr. Smith evil (at least at first)? They just need to have conflicting goals. The teacher who’s trying to get the class to behave, the parents who just want what’s best for their children, the dedicated priestess of Cthulu who just wants the ancient ones to devour humanity… Oh, wait. Ignore that last one.

In one recent movie that I won’t name for fear of spoilers, the protagonist ends up agreeing with the villain’s argument–albeit, not their methods. Just because you’re the bad guy, doesn’t mean you aren’t right.

#6 – The Villain doesn’t have to be there in person

Often, your protagonist doesn’t even know who they’re up against when they start out on their journey. They just keep running into impediments and/or conflicts without finding the source.

And if they do figure out who’s to blame? Often, it starts with just a little whisper. A rumor.

Voldemort. Fisk. The Serpent Queen.

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#7 – The Villain can be representational

Sometimes, the villain isn’t a distant bad guy. Sometimes, the true bad guy is an organization. And, be it the government, the mob, or some other sort of societal aim, you can use an agent of said organization to embody the villain for your protagonists.

The Operative in Firefly, Ms. Coulter in The Golden Compass, they’re both stand-ins for the true enemy.

 

And there you have it. 7 tips for writing better villains!


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Good protagonists deserve great villains.

Who’s your favorite villain?