Good villains can be one of the hardest types of characters to write. And yet, for an epic-style story, they are one of the most important. An effective villain sells the conflict. A cheesy, overdone, or wimpy villain can cause the entire plot to fall flat. (I’m looking at you, Balem Abrasax.)
How can you ensure that your villain hits the mark? There are many techniques for writing effective antagonists, but here are ten traits that are guaranteed to make yours shine.
1. He should have a clear goal.
Just like your story’s protagonist, the villain must have a defined objective, whether it’s something as lofty as conquering the world or something as subtle as gaining wealth. No matter what your villain’s goal is, it needs to contrast directly with your hero’s goal. This is the essence of conflict.
2. He shouldn’t be completely evil.
While there may be a place for pure evil – such as Sauron in Lord of the Rings – these kinds of villains tend to be trite and unbelievable. It is far more intriguing to read about a villain that has some conflicting traces of good. Which leads me straight to the next point…
3. She should be human.
Even if the villain isn’t technically a human (e.g., she’s a robot, computer, or alien), she needs to have depth. She needs to be a real person with desires, quirks, emotions, and personality traits outside of her villainness.
(Yes, villainness is a word. I mean, it should be. It is now.)
Villains that behave like real humans – and that are not completely evil – are not only more interesting to read about, but they are actually more unsettling.
Because when we look into these villain’s eyes, we see ourselves. We see our own flawed, human nature, our own selfishness, our own greed, our own desire for power.
In other words, these kinds of villains are relatable. And that disturbs us.
4. She should be detestable.
This probably goes without saying. If you can’t hate a villain on some level, what’s the point? While she shouldn’t be completely evil, she still needs to do things that flare in the face of our consciences, churn our stomachs, or at least make us angry. If your villain isn’t doing anything wrong, then she isn’t really a villain.
5. He should be likable.
On the surface, this seems like a direct contradiction to the previous point, but it isn’t. Most audiences are tired of thoroughly wicked, despicable antagonists. We’re almost desensitized to them. It’s far more original and enjoyable to read about endearing (and even funny) antagonists, whom we “love to hate.” In an ideal world, your readers will come back to the story just as much for the villain as for the hero.
6. He should be scary.
Of course, the best villains are also scary. They are unpredictable, they seem to defy basic morality, they are cruel and inhumane, or they have such vile intentions for our hero that we shake in our boots on his behalf. Some writers make a mistake here and think if they just make their villain look scary, then their work is done. But that’s just the beginning (and not to mention, completely unnecessary).
If you want to truly frighten your readers, mess with their heads. Fear is psychological more than anything, so focus on making your villain’s moves surprising, his intentions sadistic, or his nature so deeply entrenched in evil that it becomes hard for your readers to accept it.
Also, so long as your hero is scared, your readers will probably be scared, too.
7. She should be original.
There’s nothing as refreshing as an original villain. And there’s nothing quite as boring as a familiar one.
Creating original antagonists is difficult, though. With countless antagonists created by storytellers over thousands of years, how can you possibly expect to invent one that feels new?
I’ve found one tip that that helps me: Ignore every villain already created.
Just block them out of your mind. Pretend they don’t exist. It seems to me that the most clichés happen when we draw too much inspiration from other people’s work. That certainly has its place, but it needs to be a small place.
Rather, find inspiration from the real world. Don’t base your villain off of Sauron or Darth Vader or Lord Voldemort. Base her off of someone you hate, or someone who actually intimidates or frightens you, or even better: off of the person you desperately hope you never become. Take those examples from the real world, then magnify them tenfold or a hundredfold, and you will have a very convincing – and very original – villain.
8. She should be complex.
Just like any good character, your villain shouldn’t be one-sided. She needs to have three dimensions, weird idiosyncrasies, and contradictions to her personality. Yes, she has a clear goal – but why? How does her past feed into her current desires? How did she become who she is today?
Your readers don’t need a full back story, but you should definitely create one. Even if all the details of your villain’s personality and history never make it into the book, your readers will be able to feel the layers of her character, and it will greatly improve her credibility.
9. He should be intriguing.
Building onto the last point, great villains often have an air of mystery about them. For example, as soon as Darth Vader marches into the scene for the first time, we can’t help but wonder: Who is he? Why does he wear a mask? What’s underneath?
Mysterious characters draw us in. We want to learn more. And we keep reading (or watching), anxious to learn everything about them.
10. He should be subtle.
Villains are often overdone. Their evil overtones are emphasized too much; the way they laugh, or the way they talk, all comes across as cheesy. (I’m looking very hard at you again, Balem Abrasax.) You don’t have to spell out that your character is wicked. It’s far more effective, and unsettling even, to have it understated. Let the readers fill in the blanks. Allow for sadistic implications read between the lines of dialogue, for example.
What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) villains? Or: Tell me about a villain in your own story. What are your favorite things about him/her? Does he/she have any of the traits listed above?