Writing Good… Err… BAD Villains

2 Sep

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
~~~

There are some characters we just love to hate. The question is: are you hating those characters for the right reasons?

Nobody wants to write a villain who isn’t… well, bad. And no one wants to write a villain who doesn’t do a good job at being a villain. Some people want to write villians who are more than just “evil” – they want to explore what makes a person truly bad – what makes them tick. Maybe your villains aren’t wholly evil – maybe they’re sympathetic. But if there’s one thing everyone will agree on, it’s that your villain needs to be capable of doing some bad things; and they need to be convincing. Otherwise, your villain will be bad for all the wrong reasons.

And villains who are evil just because they’re evil are not only rare: they’re boring.

So, how do you make sure the antagonist in your MS is a bad villain, as opposed to a bad-ly written villain?

Motivation

First, your bad guy needs some motivation. Not all villains want to take over the world. Some want to regain something that has been lost. And others just like to steal princesses from castles. And others still are trying to play God. So the question is: What is driving Dr. Horrible* to be so, well… horrible?

Is it greed? It could be greed for more money, more power, more anything really. Catwoman is a good example (although she redeems herself later on – cause who says all villains stay villains?). And tying into that is a greed of the thirst for knowledge –  Think Faust/Dr. Faustus or Rappaccini.

Perhaps it’s power – some people are power hungry. They want to be at the top of the pyramid. Or it could be hatred or revenge, which can sometimes be tied together. Hatred is pretty straightforward – is there a culture, a person/people they hate? Have they been victims in the past to hate crimes, which has in turn made them into the villain they are today? As for revenge, well… vengeance can include hatred for the one that has wronged them. Some villains want to avenge loved ones, other feel betrayed – the list goes on.

Your villain’s motivations could also be due to insanity. Crazy people can do crazy things – think the Joker, a villain who has become the perfect example of madness. Or it could be fear. Are they afraid of something? Another person, another race, another country, or another gender? Has this fear so completely devoured your villain that they have driven themselves insane? The motivation could even be something instinctual – something deeply encoded into their DNA. Werewolves are often blood-thirty, meat-eating creatures and can’t help their predatory instinct.

Anyways, you get the gist. Your villain needs to be motivated; there needs to be a driving force behind his/her actions. Was there a turning point, or a traumatic experience that has caused them to be the antagonist? Are they incredibly ambitious? Or perhaps they think they’re doing the right thing (but are really misguided) – not all villains are aware that they are evil. Some think that they are doing things for the greater good. And others might want to get rich, or increase their own personal power.

Magneto

Take Magneto, for example. He is a great example of a complex villain. Having been in the Nazi concentration camps when he was young, he knows how inhumane and cruel a majority could be to a minority. This is something he remembers when he finds himself yet again a minority; this time, as a mutant. Which is why he believes the only reason for mutants to live peacefully is for mutants to be in control and take over the world. THAT is some good motivation to make one do bad things.

Evil Factor

Not all evils are the same. Some stories require a bully – or perhaps the bullied kid who snaps and becomes the real bad guy. Some require serial killers, others corrupt kings, cops, or politicians. Some stories require demons or zombies or other supernatural creatures. Rival gang leaders, a killer cyborg, ghosts, an abusive husband, the popular but bitchy girl – the list is endless. Just make sure that your story has the right type of evil for it. A story about highschool, where your antagonist is the popular girl, probably won’t include serial killers – unless that’s what you’re going for, of course. If you’re writing humour, your villain might be over-the-top, like Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Just remember; it needs to be plausible and make sense.

Do a Little Digging

Sometimes you just need to get to know your villain just a little bit more. Even if you don’t include everything into your story, knowing the back-story for your character can help. A few things that can help you build a great villain include:

  • Figuring out how they got to where they are now. What was the turning point that made them evil? Was there a traumatic event that occurred that has forever changed them? Or were they raised a certain way? Was something vital missing from their life?
  • Give your villain at least one thing they enjoy/love without greed or malice. Some love their significant others so much they’d do anything to get them back. Maybe your villain loves the feel of rocks in one’s hand, the smell of the ocean, or a treasured pet.  Maybe they’re attached to a family heirloom or photo. Play around a bit.
  • How are these two related? Bounce the two opposing ideas back and forth in your mind – how is your villain capable of loving something so much even though they’re filled with hate and malice?
  • Take a look at people you know – what are their flaws? Exaggerate those flaws to a fault.

This isn’t necessary, of course – but I think it can add another dimension to your bad guy. Figure out what makes them vulnerable. Look at Voldemort (aka Tom Riddle) – Rowling shows us bits and pieces of Voldemort’s past that help us understand, to an extent, how he came to be. It makes him not only a much more believable character, but more frightening as well. And perhaps a bit sympathetic – the kid you meet in the orphanage, though creepy, is also a bit sad. You think to yourself, “What a cute kid. If only things had been different, he might not have turned into this.”

Just make sure other people who read your story think he’s as badass as you do (because sometimes we, as the writer, assume that the reader understands our characters just as much as we do). Being the creators, we’ve got a whole array of information stored away – information that your readers aren’t aware of.

Hero?

Where does your hero fit in? Do your protagonist and antagonist know each other? Have they known one another for a long time? Are are they meeting for the first time? Don’t forget to factor in your protagonist.

Lesser Evils

There is no one singular evil. Bad guys tend to have a posse of other bad guys. Voldermort had the Death Eaters – some of the most memorable being Wormtail and Bellatrix. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings had his Nazgul, and Saruman as his right hand man. Don’t forget about all the other bad guys in your MS! They deserve to be more than two-dimensional.

Believability

In the end, it all comes down to how believable your villain is. Some of the most compelling villains are not completely evil. And they serve a purpose in your story. They bring conflict, they create tension and suspense, and they can sometimes make us sympathize with them.

Who Do You Love to Hate?

So, with that said, I’ve still got one more suggestion to help you improve your villains: Read. I know, I say that a lot; but it really does work. Look at some of your favourite villains; what makes them such strong antagonists? Why are they so memorable? What makes you love to hate them? Do you empathize with them at all? Look at what makes them great, and apply that to your own villains.

And so I now have a question for you all. Who are some of your favourite literary villains, and why?

~~~

*yes, I threw in that link because I think everyone should watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog – and because he’s a great bad-at-being-bad villain, but in all the right ways.

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

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47 Responses to “Writing Good… Err… BAD Villains”

  1. makemeteasarah September 2, 2010 at 12:07 AM #

    I love love Dr. Horrible, he’s perfect for an imperfect villain.

    Mrs. Coulter is so unassumingly badass that she makes me shudder!

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 9:23 AM #

      Dr. Horrible is amazing. I’ve heard that they’re going to work on a sequel!

      And I gotta say, Mrs. Coulter is one the best villains!!

  2. Nicole September 2, 2010 at 1:30 AM #

    Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights come to mind. He is the ‘bad guy’, and honestly I hate him, but his story is so sad you cant help but be empathetic towards him.

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:47 PM #

      Oooh, that’s a good one!

  3. Hayleigh September 2, 2010 at 9:37 AM #

    I love that you included the list of potential reasons a bad guy could be bad. I think it’s really important for a writer to understand the reasoning behind the villain’s evil. And you know how much I love lists!

    My favourite type of villain is the one you can hate, but also secretly root for. You want them to redeem themselves by the end and you’re desire for them to do something “good” is one of the driving forces keeping you hooked in the story. Like Snape!

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:45 PM #

      Thanks Hayleigh!!! (And yes… gotta love those lists!)

      Snape is SUCH a great villain! I was going to mention him, but I figured SOMEONE was going to claim he to be their fave villain, so I left him out. But he was one hell of a compelling character. I would be constantly switching from hating him to liking him, and then back to hating (and on and on).

  4. Savannah J. Foley September 2, 2010 at 9:38 AM #

    I think Snape was a better villian than Voldemort. Snape had a truly sympathetic past, and even though he was a complete ass he still had a good side. Voldemort always felt one-dimensional to me.

    • Sammy September 2, 2010 at 5:18 PM #

      Seconded!

      • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:46 PM #

        I definitely agree!

    • Gabriela Da Silva September 3, 2010 at 1:07 AM #

      Totally!

      (it’s also how I troll my Harry-fan friends. “What did Voldemort wanted to do anyway? Take over the world? Kill people? Raise snakes? OH YAH he never could decide could he??”)

  5. Launo September 2, 2010 at 10:04 AM #

    I love Snape too. I thought he was the most fascinating character in the HP.

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:46 PM #

      Oh, for sure!

  6. Mac_V September 2, 2010 at 11:05 AM #

    I completely agree that the link to Dr. Horrible should be on this page. Everyone should watch it. And then sing the songs all the time. You make friends really fast when you sing it in public places ;p

    As for a villain, Mrs. Coulter is definitely a terrifying one. I also think that The Sphinx in the Fablehaven series is pretty well set up himself. He honestly thinks he’s doing something good by opening Zyzx, the demon prison. It made me a lot more sympathetic towards his cause hearing his side of things.

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:49 PM #

      Hearing about the sequel made me all excited about Dr. Horrible. Plus, how could I write a post about villains and NOT include him? It’d be blasphemy! :p

      And I can’t say I’ve ever heard of the Fablehaven series! But I’ll definitely check it out!

  7. Aurora Blackguard September 2, 2010 at 11:14 AM #

    The Joker – hands down. There was so much complexity in his character back when he first came out in the DC comics. There you could actually see that there was more to his unique brand of insanity. There was depth and thought put to his character and I must say, he gave Batman a run for his money. He is, I have to declare, one of the most fantastic villain in the comic book world.

    Christopher Nolan just added more depth to him in THE DARK KNIGHT, probably cementing the Joker as my favourite baddie 🙂

    P.S. Can you really count it as literary???

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:53 PM #

      I totally consider characters from comic books and graphic novels to be literary. I might be biased, though, being a huge fan. I think of them as not a genre, but rather a different format of literary works that also happen to include art!

      The Joker is definitely one psychotic villain; and I find them to be the most terrifying! (Like Carnage from Spiderman – absolutely insane!)

      • Aurora Blackguard September 3, 2010 at 2:26 AM #

        Hey, literature + art = comic books. Does it get any better??

        Oh, CARNAGE is FREAKY. Since we’re on the warpath with Comic Book characters, X-Men’s PHOENIX is crazy scary. And the fact that it’s Jean gone nutso just makes it all the more crunchy 🙂

        • Vanessa September 16, 2010 at 10:16 AM #

          Okay, Phoenix was one of my all-time fave baddies when I was young. There was just something so incredible about Jean Grey (who is so caring and sweet) becoming a completely different character as the Phoenix. Brilliant character, IMO! 😀

  8. Ella September 2, 2010 at 11:38 AM #

    Great post, Vanessa! Then again I may be a bit biased; I’ve always found villains much more fun to work with than heroes. XD;

    Favorites… Hannibal Lecter creeped the hell out of me the first time I watched/read Silence of the Lambs, but at the same time I had to admire his intelligence. His entire escape scene was a combination of Nightmare Fuel and Crowning Moment of Awesome.

    I have this thing for fictional sociopaths in general, actually. >>

    • Savannah J. Foley September 2, 2010 at 11:50 AM #

      Hannibal is my favorite villian as well. I like how he had a weakness for Clarice.

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:55 PM #

      Thanks Ella!

      Hannibal – such an incredibly well-written villain! Fictional sociopaths are always incredibly intriguing; there’s just something about them that draws you in, and makes you both incredibly curious and undeniably terrified.

  9. ti_may_y@hotmail.com September 2, 2010 at 2:55 PM #

    I think this is th ebest qoute i’ve heard about villians: Every villian thinks they’re a hero.
    And you don’t have to have two villians on the same side. Sauron in Lord of the rings was a very non physichal, i’m goign to destroy the world villian, while gollum was a more physichal and close villian.
    Hmmmmmmmm I’m trying to think of my favourite villian. I like Lord Omnichrome from the Black Prism.

    • Savannah J. Foley September 2, 2010 at 3:31 PM #

      That is a really great quote. I’m going to remember that!

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:57 PM #

      SUCH a good quote!

      And I was waiting for someone to mention Gollum! I even had a picture of him for this post, but decided not to but him in.

  10. Carradee September 2, 2010 at 4:44 PM #

    That has a lot of good thoughts. I have one novel-in-progress that felt wrong for quite a while. I realized a few months ago that it didn’t have a concrete villain, and when it did have one, it focused on the wrong antagonist. I’ve been revising to fix that, and it’s worked wonders. 🙂

    I like the thoughts on settings and all, too. I always find it odd when high school paranormals get all worked up about the class bullies. Dude, do you not have more important things to worry about?

    And then what about “enemies” who wanna be your enemy but really aren’t? You know, the kinda people who actually try to get on your bad side and flunk?

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 10:59 PM #

      Those are the comedic antagonists; the ones who aspire to be bad, but really aren’t. I always enjoy those characters!

  11. Sammy September 2, 2010 at 5:18 PM #

    Vanessa, this is a REALLY great post. Especially all of the examples. And I loved the pictures 😉 I will definitely be taking use of this post while working on my new project!

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 11:00 PM #

      Thanks Sammy! 😀 Glad you enjoyed it! I LOVE adding pictures to blog posts. In fact, I had a hard time leaving a lot of pictures of villains OUT of the post!

  12. Susan September 2, 2010 at 9:44 PM #

    Iago from Othello. Hands down. He fascinates me like no other villain has.

    • Vanessa September 2, 2010 at 11:01 PM #

      He’s a GREAT villain! So conniving and manipulative!

  13. Gabriela Da Silva September 3, 2010 at 1:04 AM #

    My problems with villians lately is that they want you to empathize TOO MUCH with ’em.

    Now, I completely agree with you – the Evil Guy who wants to Conquer the World or uh, leave the Damsel in Distress on some railroad tracks (why did they do that anyway??) is just bad, passé, cliché.

    But… think back to Spiderman 3. Was it really necessary to go through the entire “Little girl is sick! He’s not a bad man, he’s just getting medicine for Little Girl!”? Sometimes, bad guys can be more… mundane.

    Well, it’s as you said – some stories need a petty thief, others need a “benevolent” dictator a la Magneto. But lately, I feel that there are too many pious, charitative villians.

    But whichever you pick, it’s important to give it as much character development as you give your hero/heroine. If you don’t… well, by the time you get to the Final Confrontation… your character will be up against a cardboard cut-out. There goes the depht you were hoping for!

    • Vanessa September 4, 2010 at 11:12 AM #

      The thing is, it can’t be forced. You can’t add really bad scenes that are supposed to make you feel sympathetic for a villain just because you think it will make your villain more three-dimensional. You have to stay true to your character as well. Readers shouldn’t be thinking, “ah, this scene has been added so that I can feel empathetic towards the villain”. It should be more subtle than that.

      And yes, character development is a must! I find that villains can sometimes be more of a vague idea than an actual character.

  14. Renee September 3, 2010 at 11:25 AM #

    One of my favorite villains is King Leck from Graceling/Fire. Because honestly…he just took pleasure in hurting people. You couldn’t relate to him, he wasn’t abused or unloved. He never had a mother but he never cared. He was just creepy and weird and I LOVED that. He wanted to bring pain simply because it was in his power. And the author made it believable.

    • Vanessa September 4, 2010 at 11:14 AM #

      Have you read Fire? Kristin Cashore explores Leck’s character further in that book, and it’s actually quite interesting!

  15. Derek September 16, 2010 at 6:49 AM #

    Great article. I considered myself a writer until recently when I haven’t thought of anything to write for 2 years (haha) and this inspired me. thanks

    • Vanessa September 16, 2010 at 10:19 AM #

      Hi Derek! I’m so glad you found this post helpful!!! 😀

      I had a span of 5 years where I didn’t write at all. I had a couple of ideas swimming around in my head, but they were never concrete enough to be stories. So I feel you! I don’t think you need to write constantly to be a writer; so long as you love to do it, it shouldn’t matter if you take a 2 (or 5) year break. Writers block can hit hard sometimes!

      Anyways, I have a tendency to ramble :p Happy writing!!

  16. Reno June 3, 2011 at 9:09 AM #

    Hi vanessa, great article. I’m researching how to portray my antagonist and reading your tips has reassured me that I’m on the right track – yes, I’ve had many, many moments of doubt!

    My antagonist has a clear motivation to do what he does. He has a job to do and that is his only purpose. This conflicts with the motivations of the other characters. All sides have good intentions and self belief, but want very different things.

    I’ve deliberately not planned his entire journey. I plan to start writing the book within clear parameters and enjoy the journey and see for myself what actually happens in the story! 🙂

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio June 3, 2011 at 9:55 PM #

      Hi Reno!

      Thanks so much – I’m glad it’s been useful for you.

      And YES, exactly – heroes and villains alike both believe they’re in the right!

      I think one of the greatest pleasures of writing is being surprised AS you write, and not being 100% sure of where the story is going. It makes writing so much more exciting when some things are left in the dark. It’s great that you plan on letting your villain grow as you write by not having it all figured out.

      Happy writing, and thanks again for the comment! I’m sure he’ll be one badass villain 😀

  17. Reno Fanucci July 3, 2011 at 6:51 PM #

    Hi Vanessa,

    My planning and development is progressing, but can I trouble you (and other readers) for your thoughts on using chapter titles?

    I have read pros and cons of giving titles to chapters and although they will make no contribution to the story per se, they will, I feel, help the reader get into the right mindset and feel anticipation for what is to come.

    I am conflicted though if I should include these.

    What are your views? What would an agent or publisher’s opinion be?

    Best wishes

    Reno

  18. Jessica August 31, 2011 at 12:59 PM #

    How about a hero that turned into a villain from being fed up with heroing? What evil deeds would he do? I’m thinking he should be bad at it

  19. Zloch December 20, 2013 at 10:01 AM #

    I don’t agree with the ‘villains think they’re in the right’ perspective and I think it’s one of the most important things to consider when crafting your antagonist. Do they think they’re right? Do they know what they’re doing is wrong but don’t care? Have they never even thought about it? Do they deliberately try NOT to think about it? Do they even believe in right and wrong at all? These are questions you need to ask about your villains.

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