Writing Compelling Villains

Stories always have antagonists, someone (or something) who opposes the main character. However, they don’t always have a villain. But what’s the difference? And, if you’re writing a story with a villain, how do you write them to the best of your ability?

What is a Villain?

First, what is an antagonist? Defined, an antagonist is “someone who directly opposes someone or something; an adversary.” In a story, this could be something as simple as someone else vying for a job opening that the protagonist wants, to as serious as Voldemort facing down Harry Potter. Antagonist doesn’t mean evil, but against, so from the villain’s perspective, the hero is their antagonist. Antagonist just usually gets lumped together with villain because the hero is usually also the main character.

Similarly, (in a film, novel, or play) a villain is defined as “a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.” They act with evil intention, and if this directly opposes the main character, they are an antagonist. If not, they are simply a villain.

But what is “evil”?

Evil coincides with immorality and wickedness. This is not just a character acting in their own self interest which affects others negatively, but acting with the intention of harming innocents. They often see other people as beneath them, do not play well with others, and act in their own interest or the interests of an evil master. Examples of evil characters include Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Count Dracula from Dracula, Iago from Othello, Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, and Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians. These are all characters who, in acting in their own self interest, purposefully and knowingly caused harm to others.

What you must understand is that none of these people, character though they may be, came from nothing. They didn’t just wake up one morning and choose to be evil. There is no excuse for evil actions, but there is always an explanation. So, what made your villain the way they are?


Making Your Villain Understandable

Even if you don’t include the full background of your villain in your narrative doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable to know it. It is even recommended that an author knows far more about their own story than they ever share with readers. Most of the time, professional authors only include 10% of their accumulated research into their books; otherwise, there would be far too much information for the reader to comfortably handle.

The Importance of Backstory

You may feel the need to create an entire timeline for your villain, all the way back to the moment they were born. The quote “No one is born evil” comes to mind, and while that may be true, often villains are born with a certain disposition for evil. These genetic markers may lay dormant for years, and through environmental factors, can be “activated” which is known as a trigger. Other times, the genetic markers are already active; this mostly refers to born sociopaths or psychopaths – they have a higher chance of acting immorally because they cannot connect with others emotionally, or they have a penchant for violence and destruction.

All this comes down to personality. Everyone is born with a personality; it is a genetic thing. As studies show, identical twins, separated at birth and raised in different environments, will often still act similarly to one another, whereas two unrelated people raised in exactly the same environment will act differently (Live Science: Twins Separated at Birth Reveal Staggering Influence of Genetics). Sometimes they’re just born that way.

It is both nature and nurture that shapes heroes, and the same applies to villains.

Make points along your timeline or villain biography about things that may have caused them to act out. What events spurred them to do the things they’ve done? Did they suffer as a young child, or were they spoiled beyond belief, raised to believe they were better than everyone else? Did they have noble intentions that just went too far?

After watching much of Criminal Minds and taking a psychology class, I’ve come to the conclusion that when people are hurt in childhood, they come to one of two beliefs. Either they don’t want anyone to suffer the way they did, and become a force for good, or they want everyone to suffer the way they did, becoming a force for ill.

Outside Forces and Compulsions

Sometimes, regardless of how they were raised, people are overcome by evil. In fantasy, they may succumb to demonic possession; in reality, they may suffer a brain injury that lowers inhibitions or removes their impulse control. Other times, they may just have natural compulsions – for fire, blood, pain, etc. This is not something they can control, and often not something that the general population can come to understand.

If this is the type of villain you’re writing, the goal isn’t to make your other characters or your reader understand them; it is a near impossible task. In this case, your goal is to let your reader be able to follow along with the villain’s actions; if the villain is compelled by something, it must make logical sense what they would do, as they cannot fight against it.

Making Them Compelling

  • A Strong Connection to the Hero
  • Clear and Established Morality
  • Are a Worthy Opponent
  • A Backstory with Layers
  • The Reader Can Enjoy Them

Whether or not your reader will be able to understand why your villain is the way they are, they must always understand the reasoning behind your villain’s actions. The Joker wants to cause chaos, Voldemort is afraid of dying and therefore wants immortality and to be the most powerful, President Snow wanted to be worthy of his family name and was corrupted by the power he gained.

To make them compelling, you must give your character a clear goal. What do they want, and what steps are they taking to get that? These goals don’t have to be immediately obvious to the reader, of course, but over time, as you lay out the puzzle pieces, it should become evident. Wanton destruction is fine, but often boring. A specific goal – the revival of a loved one, the “purification” or “betterment” of a race, to make someone pay for their “crimes” against them, etc. – no matter the level of morality, is common practice, and can be done well or poorly. This all depends on how much your reader can relate to that goal. Sometimes the villain originally had pure intentions that went sour along the way. Sometimes they are fuelled by such hatred against a single person that they do everything in their power to make them suffer, regardless of who else gets in their way.

Not every villain sees themselves as evil. Most of the time, a villain thinks that they’re the hero of the story, that they are taking necessary steps to rid the world of evil. Valentine in The Mortal Instruments was raised to rid the world of demons, and he was once idealistic, believing he could save the world. However, along the way he gained the twisted belief that because Downworlders shared demon blood that they were also corrupt. He forgot that they were also part human (or, in the case of the Seelies, part angel), that they have souls, and saw them only as creatures of evil and destruction.

For villains who want to hold onto power, they don’t often start out there. They may have taken control in order to do good, then realized that they enjoy power, and as they say, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” They will do everything they can to maintain that power, either because they don’t want to no longer be important, or because they fear that without them being in control, another may ruin what they’ve built. Some individuals, like Umbridge, enjoy control because they can express it over others. She uses rules as a way of saying “I’m right, and you’re wrong; therefore you must be punished.” She turned out this way mainly because of her upbringing. She was born to a wizard father and Muggle mother, and later had a Squib brother. She grew up to despise non-magicals with all the pomp and snootiness of pureblood wizards, but when she arrived at Hogwarts, she hated her time there. She was sorted into Slytherin House, but never received any positions of power, which can be assumed because of her half-blood status. Without the power she craved in childhood, she overcompensated in later life, and combined with her ingrained hatred of others of “impure blood,” she became a villain.

Umbridge was compelling because of how much we could hate her. She represented every horrible authority figure in our lives dialled up to eleven, and her goal was simple: absolute power and control. Valentine was compelling because he began with “good” intentions and lost his way; he lost everything he cared about because of his devotion to his evil ambition. The Joker is compelling because though he has no clear goal in mind, he acts with a freedom of character that many people can envy; he does what he wants when he wants and is often successful.

Villains as the Main Character

The most common cliché that writers commit when making a villain their protagonist is that they just make a bigger villain for them to fight against. In Maleficent, it’s King Stefan; in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, it’s Dr. Gaul; in Dexter, it’s other killers. There is nothing wrong with using a cliché, as long as it’s done well. (Don’t just throw a whole bunch of clichés together. And try to subvert expectations.) You must have a protagonist, and with that, there must always be an antagonist.

The thing to remember, though, is to make your reader want to read the story. If they’re not rooting for the main character, you’ve missed something along the way. Adjustments must be made. What makes your villain likable? Do you identify with their struggle? Are you rooting for them to make the right choice as they teeter on the edge of good and evil? Is it as simple as them being the lesser of two evils?

Whatever you choose to do and however you choose to write your villains (whether protagonist or antagonist) keep in mind that creating a person out of nothing is an immense accomplishment.

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