In fairy tales, the villain is easy to spot. Usually, the bad guy has sharp teeth and wants to eat grandma. But in other stories, the villain isn’t as obvious and you’re not sure whether to love or hate him. Either way, you want to write memorable and believable villains that readers love to hate.
So, how do you create a remarkable villain with depth and believability?
It’s important to remember that the villain is the opposite of the hero or heroine in the story, but equally as important and has motivations similar to the main character. And truth be told, I sometimes find myself rooting for the villainess in some stories.
Before we dive into how to write villains, let’s first explore some common villain/villainess archetypes.
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Both characters make others do their bidding through fear and torture. From the beginning, it’s clear that these two scary guys will eat your firstborn to further their mission of death and destruction. With these kinds of villains, there’s always the hope of redemption. At some point, they could realize their evil ways and turn good.
Traitors sometimes come in complicated packages. They can start off innocent and then take a nasty turn by betraying the hero to serve their own needs. Think of Theon Greyjoy in the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. He was the best friend of Robb Stark before betraying him to secure his own kingly dreams.
I like to think of this kind of villain as misunderstood. Most of the time he's a sensitive child that wants to fit in and through being bullied truly becomes evil. He’s a lonely outsider who desperately wants confidants but will never find the peace of being accepted. Something terrible has happened to him and the pain will never be overcome.
The beguiling siren lures people into her web and seduces them to her bidding. Victims usually don’t know they’ve been tricked until she crushes them with her venom. Milady De Winter from The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas is a seductress with superb skills of manipulation.
The motherly figure rules her subjects through insight and coldness. She’s a motherly oppressor who believes her actions are to protect her children or subjects but solely benefit her twisted desires. Cersei Lannister in the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin encompasses the qualities of this archetype.
The sadist tortures people for the pure sake of enjoyment. This kind of antagonist is the hardest to understand but the easiest one to hate. Their actions bring up revulsion in the reader, yet you can’t stop turning the page. Randall Flag from The Stand by Stephen King represents this archetype.
In the last few years, bullying in school is a much talked about subject, but bullies in literature have been around since quills were the rage. The bully is stereotypically the big but stupid kid who steals lunches and comes with a rat pack of willing followers.
But the bully isn’t necessarily a hammerhead ten-year-old with nothing better to do than torture the weak. A bully pushes people around with his strength and dogged determination at any age. Although the bully that comes to mind is Veruca Salt from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Everyone loves to watch her blow up and explode.
One of my favorite villains is Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. In the opening scene, we aren’t sure if we should for root him because he brings out a sense of unease. By the end, we can’t remember why we liked him at all.
Another equally confusing villain is Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. First, he’s an unreliable narrator and the subject matter of pedophilia wrapped in the guise of being an erotic novel makes the despicable nature of the protagonist seem almost forgivable. Also, the language of Vladimir Nabokov is stunning and the plot filled with unpredictable twists, so you can almost believe Humbert Humbert isn’t a villain.
One of my favorite villains is Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by William Shakespeare. She’s the mastermind behind the plot to kill the king, yet her intensity makes her compelling and almost relatable as she makes excuses for murder.
As a teenager, I was fascinated with Scarlett O’Hara in the romance novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. She’s selfish, proud, and passionate. She’ll do anything to get what she wants and in the end, she loses everything to achieve her heart’s desire. You’re swept up in the character's life and beauty and read to find out if she'll redeem herself. Yet, this satisfaction never comes.
Amy Dunn from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a villainess you can’t help but sort of root for from page one. She’s a femme fatale whose brain power and manipulativeness make her almost admirable. In addition, like most women villains she’s cold as a corpse.
The White Witch from the Lion, Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis embodies the word “chilling” in the white setting of this classic children’s series. After all she kills Aslan and tricks children with Turkish delights.
The most important aspect to explore when crafting your villain is to decide what motivates him. Motivations can run the gamut of wanting to inflict pure pain on others to more admirable ones stemming from a rough childhood or protecting their family. Your character desires need to be clear and simple, yet not cliched.
When there’s a villain, there’s a hero. Usually, their motivations are similar but for two different outcomes. In the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe The White Witch embodies pure evil while Aslan the Lion is a picture of strength, wisdom, and warmth.
The reason good villains are memorable is that they’re likable in some way. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchel, despite being selfish and moody is likable because she’s also passionate and persistent. She’s doesn’t give up, even in the darkest times. The villainess has a compelling story, and the writer helps us to empathize with her actions.
Depending on your villain archetype, you’ll use your physical description to bring the bad guy to life. In my novel, Reaching Prague, the villain is Mikul who has a deep scar on his cheek from a bar fight. The scar represents all the pain he’s endured in his life, and also that he’s a man to fear.
Most villains have storylines or tropes that make some of their actions relatable and excusable to some degree. There’s this idea that villains are created rather than born evil. Gollum in J.R.R. Tolkien’s series The Lord of the Rings will commit atrocious acts for the ring but before he turned into an untrustworthy evil-doer he was a simple hobbit who loved to fish.
Another villain with redeeming qualities is Michael in The Godfather Series by Mario Puzo. He does everything in the name of his family and only joins the family business out of love for his father.
When you write a villain, you need to be willing to go to the dark side. Nothing's worse than a villain without any bite and when you embrace their despicable yet understandable nature, you’re going to craft villains readers love to hate.
Hannibal Lector in the Red Dragon by Thomas Harris murders his victims and then sautes them in butter yet we enjoy every bite as readers.
Not all villains are sexy, but the ones who with true sex appeal make their evil deeds even more fun and disturbing to read. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is as creepy as he is charming. The vampire Lestat in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles makes blood sucking seem like foreplay.
Now that we’ve explored different archetypes and important areas to consider when writing one, join our community and download your FREE Villain Writing Prompts.
We also have a writing challenge, Write 3K in 3 Days.
What does he/she do for a living?
Describe his/her childhood like?
What motivates him/her?
Describe him/her in detail.
How is he/she different from the hero or heroine?
Is he/she relatable? Why or why not?
Would you date him/her?
What happens to him/her in the end?
Describe his/her weakness?
What’s the worst act of evil him/her as committed?
Is there any chance the villain will redeem him or herself? Why or why not?
Why do you like/dislike this villain?
Would you bring him/her home to meet your mother?
Write his/her manifesto.
Whatever villain you craft, remember that archetypes are similar to stereotypes in the sense that you don't want to create a villain just like the next one, but rather a villain that draws people in and surprises us with their evilness. We want to be horrified and beguiled by them.
Another tip is to keep in mind that villains represent aspects of reality and are alive in our imaginations but truly don’t reflect who we are as a person. Many people assumed that Vladimir Nabokov was Humbert Humbert in Lolita. The character was so real for readers that he had to be Nabokov himself.
When you write villains readers love to hate, your readers will want them to be real. In the end, that’s when you know you’ve succeeded.
I would love to know what’s your favorite villain/villainess? Tell me in the comments below.
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