How do you write a compelling villain?
How do you create an antagonist that is so gripping, your readers can’t stop thinking about them?
There are 7 steps that are crucial to crafting compelling, flesh-and-blood villains. Each of these ingredients will allow you to write villains who will...
- Drive your story forward
- Threaten your hero, making your hero more interesting
- ...and hook your readers deep into the dangers of your story.
Along the way, I will also show you how to fix the #1 mortal sin new writers make when creating villains.
What is a Villain?
A villain is a character who directly opposes the hero — either by actively trying to stop the hero or by presenting a threat so great that the hero can’t ignore them.
Do All Stories Need a Villain?
No, not all stories need a villain.
However, all stories need conflict, and one of the most compelling ways to generate conflict … is to set two characters against each other.
Villains and antagonists allow writers to give conflict a personality, and lend a face to the choice at the heart of your story.
Generally speaking, the longer your story, the more likely you are going to need a villain.
How Good Villains Make Great Stories
A good hero will hook us into a story.
A good villain will make us crave the story’s resolution, and keep us turning page after page.
Good villains will hook your readers immediately. They can highlight your hero's greatest virtues... and bring out their worst vices. Good villains will force your hero into action, and drive the story relentlessly forward.
But most of all: a villain will immerse you into a story.
Have you ever felt real hatred for a fictional character? It makes you feel like the story is happening to you.
The Villain Spectrum of Sympathy
Some characters never get a chance.
Others are fanatics; they believe they are doing the right thing... and to them, failure is worse than death.
...and some characters are born with a mouthful of flaming coal, laughing as they burn everything in spitting distance.
There is a vast spectrum of villainy at your fingertips. Where does your villain fall?
To the left, you have the hateful. To the right, you have the sympathetic (and often tragic).
And in the center… lies a special kind of madness.
Throughout the course of their lives and your story, your villains may move across the spectrum, pendulously swinging between redemption and utter darkness.
Remember: movement along this spectrum is a powerful tool to make your villains feel dangerous and alive.
- What is an Unsympathetic Villain?
An unsympathetic villain is a character whose motivations are pure evil.
The audience is meant to hate (or fear) this character. But that hatred is useful; something about the power this character wields will glue your readers to the page...
- Emperor Palpatine, Star Wars
- Joffrey Baratheon, Game of Thrones
- Dolores Umbridge, The Harry Potter Series
- What is a Sympathetic Villain?
A sympathetic villain is a character who believes they are doing the right thing. Often, they believe they are the hero of the story.
They earn sympathy from the audience by having a tragic past, or a “moral” motivation. Sympathetic villains become villainous by taking their motivation too far... or by simply entering the main conflict on the opposite side of the Hero.
- Loki, Thor
- Zuko, Avatar: The Last Airbender
- Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker), Star Wars
- What is a Volatile Villain?
A volatile villain is a character whose disposition flips back and forth and doesn’t show their true colors until the very end.
You may not even realize this character is evil until - at the very moment of redemption - they choose “the wrong way.” While all villains should be unpredictable, this character thrives on uncertainty.
Because of the inherent tension of “will they, won’t they,” this villain can also make an excellent protagonist.
- Jack, The Shining
- Walter White, Breaking Bad
- Saruman, The Fellowship of the Rings
Step 1: Motivate Your Villain
A villain with a motivation is a ticking time bomb.
When you give your villains powerful motivations, they take over the story. They raise the stakes, they hold the tension, and they force the hero to take drastic action.
But motivation can also be a tool to make your villains more complex... more mysteriously interesting….
Your villain may have multiple goals, some of which may conflict with their central motivation.
For example, say we have a villain who wants to dominate the whole world. What happens when his beloved daughter rebels, and joins forces with the hero to stop her own father?
How your villain reacts will show us far more about than any description ever could. This is a fantastic way to show, and not tell, what makes your villain tick.
Step 2: Plant the Seeds of “Why” in Their Backstory
Once you know what your villain wants…
You need to understand WHY they want it.
What happened in your villain's past to make them this way?
Explore your villain's defining moment, the moment that changed your villain forever.
- Did they have to watch a loved one die?
- Was it that time they got beat up in school or humiliated by their boss?
- Were they spurned, laughed at, by someone they had fallen in love with?
When first crafting your villain, I strongly recommend you write a scene about their defining moment. You don't have to include this scene in your story, but it helps to know what happened to them... and how badly it messed them up.
Step 3: Give Your Villain a Magnetic Personality
- The Joker
- Jafar from Aladdin
- The Wicked Witch of the West
You are not meant to like these characters, but when they show up, we are glued to the screen.
To write a great villain, you must give them a magnetic aura, a set of personality traits that we find irresistible.
Some villains wield a sinister charisma, using their words and their body language to control the scene.
Others are unhinged, wilder than a rabid wolf, which forces us to watch their every move.
And some villains exude a quiet presence that is so striking you can almost feel the heat of their gaze. They don’t even have to speak, and we can tell they’re in complete control. Remember the first time you saw Darth Vader?
How do you write a magnetic personality?
I know of only one way to carve out a character’s personality. I have to feel it.
Here’s where the phrase “write what you know” is exceptionally helpful. Start by finding a feeling:
- Recall a moment where someone made you afraid. Even the smallest spark will do.
- Alternatively, was there a villain you could not stop thinking about, even after you finished their story?
Focus on that feeling. Brood on it.
Breathe it in until the emotion of fear becomes so raw, you can feel it’s grip. Cold. Icey. Let that sense of dread bury into the pit of your stomach.
A great villain lurks inside that dread, in that feeling of wrongness. And their magnetism comes from the emotional power they have over you. Explore that feeling, and use it.
Remember: emotion in the writer (you) equals emotion in the reader (us).
Step 4: Make Your Villain So Powerful, They Almost Can't Lose
A good villain will make it almost impossible for your hero to win. In fact, at the beginning of the story, it should be obvious that your hero doesn't have a hope's chance in hell.
This is one of my favorite videos on the subject:
A powerful villain will keep the stakes as high as possible. They will be so powerful that there is only the slightest, most infinitesimal crack in their armor that a hero might exploit… if the hero can grow strong enough.
The 8 Forms of Power
And remember, power does not have to mean physical strength. Here are some areas your villain can stack up:
- What is their physical might (including bodyguards or armies)?
- What power is associated with their social rank?
- How intelligent is your villain? Does this change over the story?
- Is your villain oozing with charisma, or is he a silver-tongued manipulator?
- Does your villain throw around her wealth to get her way?
- Is your villain an unmitigated master of fear?
- Does your villain have an iron-clad authority?
- Do they have access to limited knowledge?
One strategy here is to give your Hero a new villain at each stage of their life. This works best if you want your hero to drive the story, and you need to give them time to grow. Here's an example:
Power in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
In each act of the book, Harry gains expertise and allies. As he grows, so do the villains:
Act 1: At home, Harry suffers under the reign of his tyrannical-but-lazy Uncle Vernon. Vernon is by far the least intelligent villain Harry faces. He uses his brute strength and authority to abuse Harry.
Act 2: At Hogwarts, Harry attracts the ire of Professor Snape. Snape is similar to Vernon in that he dramatically outranks Harry, but Snape is also an insidiously clever opponent - and uses his sharp tongue to cut Harry down.
Act 3: At the end of the 3rd act, Harry uncovers the true villain - the supremely powerful Lord Voldemort. Even in his weakened state, Voldemort is power and fear incarnate.
In each act, the villain's power is proportional to Harry’s - each time, it's unfathomable how Harry might win.
This allows us to watch Harry grow, and gives him ample time to realistically gain the wisdom he needs to defeat his foes.
Step 5: Find Out How Far Your Villain Will Go
How does your villain see themself?
Before becoming Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker saw himself as the hero...
...even when he murdered a temple full of innocent, Jedi children. Anakin tried to rationalize this as an act of good, but knowing deep down that he had crossed an uncrossable line, this broken limit caused him to sink deeper into his unhinged misery.
In another example, Hannibal Lecter had a strict moral code centered around a perceived notion of "civility." When one of his fellow inmates performs an act Hannibal deems as unacceptably uncivil, Hannibal talks that inmate ... into killing himself.
Boundaries (or the lack thereof) can serve so many purposes:
- Villains who refuse to cross boundaries become sympathetic
- Villains who will cross the lines look that much worse
- Most importantly, the limits of these moral codes will test your villain's mettle
Situations ripe with conflict will happen at the razor-thin boundary of your villain's moral code. One of my favorite examples is this scene from No Country for Old Men:
...by the way, if you want an excellent book stuffed with broken moral codes, I highly suggest you read this fantastic novel: Guards! Guards!
It's hilarious, and Terry Pratchett was an absolute master of character motivation and morality.
Step 6: Intertwine the Villain’s Fate with the Hero’s
Picture two long threads hanging over a great expanse. One is blue, one is gold.
Both threads are wrapped around each other, end to end so that one can’t move without pulling the other.
These two threads represent your hero and your villain. You can decide which is which, it almost doesn't matter, because both characters share the same fate... on opposite ends.
When one pulls on their thread, the other must pull back, or lose. How do you create this thread in the first place?
Two men enter. One man leaves.
Create your Hero’s central motivation and your Villain’s at the same time. At some point, the two characters will have to cross paths - and when that happens, only one will emerge, victorious.
Example: Hannibal Lecter vs. Clarice Starling
Hannibal wants to escape prison, so he can ... keep eating people, I guess.
Clarice needs Hannibal's help to capture a different serial killer. Her motivation is clear: bring Buffalo Bill to justice.
At first, it appears they can help each other: Clarice can give Hannibal increasing amounts of freedom (without letting him free), and Hannibal can help Clarice find the killer...
...but when Clarice gets her initial goal, she fails her central duty. Hannibal uses Clarice's blindspots to escape, which means that even though Buffalo Bill is dead, a far more dangerous villain is on the loose.
Questions to ask yourself when intertwining your Hero and Villain:
- How close is the villain to his goal at the start of the story?
- If the hero wins, what will the villain lose?
- If the villain wins, what changes in the hero’s life?
- What is different in your villain's backstory that leads them to want this?
- If the characters have the same goal, what is different about their approach to the goal?
Step 7: Plan a Character Arc that Raises the Stakes
The #1 sin your villain can commit is being predictable.
That's why your villain needs an unpredictable character arc.
Every villain must have a journey - brimming with narrow victories and devastating defeats. Their status should change throughout this journey, and when this does, your audience will expect them to move in specific directions.
Use this golden opportunity to keep them guessing. It's all about agency - a character's ability to act. As long as your villain is actively making choices, they get to make dangerously unpredictable choices. And they should.
A few questions to get you started:
- How do your villain’s victories grow in magnitude as the story goes on?
- When your villain loses a conflict, what are they "supposed" to do? What will they do instead?
- When your villain has the upper hand, what are they doing in the background to improve their advantage?
In some cases, the story starts when your villain has already begun the final phase of their "grand plan." That means most of their arc happened before page 1.
For example, the first time we meet Lord Voldemort, he is literally moments away from retrieving the Philosopher’s Stone. And from Star Wars, Emperor Palpatine has already taken over the galaxy and is so close to crushing the Rebel Alliance.
When you are dealing with this kind of character arc - where it will feel relatively flat throughout the story (a simple win/lose ending), it's still important to explore that arc.
Your goal, when brainstorming your villain’s arc, is to make us feel like your villain has changed over the course of their life to be molded into the awful, evil, magnetic train wreck they are.
Both Voldemort and Palpatine bear literal scars from their journey. It's the reason why, from the moment they step onto the scene, we fear them - and want them to lose.
For more on this subject, I want to strongly suggest K. M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs. Character arcs are complicated and difficult to master, so I would consider this "required reading" for any fiction writer.
Ending Your Villain's Arc
When your villain loses...
...or when they win...
...the only thing that matters is this: was it satisfying?
The best advice I ever received on this subject was this:
When killing a character, start with their beginning. Will they come full circle? Do they get what they deserved?
There's a certain amount of artistry at play when killing your villain. I do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all piece of advice for this question.
Instead, I want to recommend you map out your favorite villain's character arcs. Take the last three books you read or the last three films you watched, and draw a graph that represents your villain's highs and lows.
Focus especially on their first and last scenes. See how the master's before you have done it, and you'll start to generate your own fantastic endings.
Then, all you'll have to do is choose the right one.
Best of luck, my writing friend.
There are many more ways to flesh out your villains…
...but these seven steps represent the core ideas that will turn your villain into flesh and bone. Follow these steps closely, and you are guaranteed to have a devastatingly interesting villain.
Let me know which techniques you use. Did I miss anything major in your writing process?