10 Traits of an Epic Villain

10 Traits of an Epic Villain

posted in: Storytelling | 23

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.)

Balem Abrasax scream from Jupiter Ascending
Yes, Eddie Redmayne, your acting was phenomenal, but unfortunately your character was not.

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.

Kylo Ren
Here I eagerly jump on the opportunity to include a picture of brooding, morally-conflicted Kylo Ren.

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.

Why?

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.

Shocked Moriarty
Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock is probably my favorite example of a likable (and hilarious) villain.

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.

Darth Vader entrance scene
*cue dramatic entrance music*

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.


For discussion…

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?

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23 Responses

  1. Michael Dunne
    | Reply

    Well, when I first read through this I thought, ‘Oh no! I have to go and rewrite my novel!’ Then I calmed down. I realized that in my new series, there is an archetype villain who is the impetus of the protagonist’s conflict. But, he also has henchmen, which add some of the humor you mention above. However, my ‘villain’ is not the true, most e-ville (say this word like Vincent Price) character in the book.

    While I agree with a lot of your points above, I think that the villain/antagonist can be truly evil. However, your point about making them ‘human’ is well taken. I don’t want my villains to be cardboard cutouts. I do want them to have depth, complexity and mystery about them.

    So, for that (and because I will be taking this New Year’s day to review my manuscript to date), thank you!

    Great blog 🙂

    MD

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Oh no!! I hope you don’t have to rewrite it! ^_^

      Your point is well made. As I said, there may be a place for pure evil in some instances, particularly in fantasy. (I think Sauron and Darth Sidius are prime examples of this.) You have to figure out what makes most sense for YOUR story! Just be aware that the purely evil characters are a bit harder to pull off, but that sure doesn’t mean you can’t handle it. 🙂

      I’m so glad this post was useful! And thank you for taking the time to comment your thoughts; I really appreciate that! ^_^

      Happy writing,
      Brianna

  2. Candace Kuhn
    | Reply

    I am searching through your blog because of your giveaway post on Twitter not realizing I’ve read many of your posts that I found through Pinterest. Yay! Your posts have been helpful with my writing, and quite entertaining!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Candace, you have no idea how happy this makes me! I only recently started making the effort to make my blog “Pinterest friendly.” I’m so glad that’s been working!! And I am even more pleased to hear that my posts have been helpful and entertaining! That is all I want them to be. ^_^

      Best of luck with the giveaway. 😉

  3. I began reading this post, was contemplating its important implications to my writing, and then BAM KYLO REN. I think I had thoughts but now they’re, um, gone. Okay, let me reread the post. *avoids the Kylo Ren picture*

    I THINK I FAIL POINT 4 ALL THE TIME. I tried writing my WIP from the perspective of a villain and then she was so awesome she kinda slipped into hero territory. Gah. I JUST LIKE VILLAINS OKAY IT DOESN’T REFLECT UPON MY SANITY. Also, I should calm down, but I have like zero calm all the time. I think I need to work on 6 a little more as well — I’m such a fan of non-hammy villains they never turn out creepy enough.

    Really great advice here, Brianna!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hehe HELLO KYLO REN. (A.K.A. everyone’s favorite emo villain right now…)

      Number 6 is definitely a hard one, because it’s hard to make villains creepy without it coming across as cheesy. Funny enough, point 4 is really easy for me… (does that say anything about my OWN sanity?? *bites nails* *chuckles nervously*) I LIKE VILLAINS TOO AND I UNDERSTAND. I think every writer has a teensy bit of villain in them. ;D If we didn’t, how COULD we write stories with conflict and evil and torturous situations for our heroes to endure? >_>

      Thank you, Alyssa!! ^_^

  4. Katherine Viti
    | Reply

    I love this! I just saw The Force Awakens, and I think this is one of the best things about Kylo Ren. Also, Loki. Villain development is an area I’m personally struggling with. Love your blog!

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Thanks so much, Katherine! I loved that about Kylo Ren, too. I’ve never cared much for Loki, BUT I can see why so many people like him! ^_^ I’ve always struggled with villains, too, until recently it just kind of “clicked”… thus this blog post! 🙂

  5. Michael Dunne
    | Reply

    Hmmm. Loki in the Marvel universe is a little different animal than Kylo Ren. In Norse mythology, Loki is the “trickster,” and as such, you just never know where he’s coming from. Native American mythology also features trickster-type characters, but my personal opinion is that these are different from out-and-out villains. Not to say that they can’t be one and the same, but no one ever mistook Darth Vader for a good guy (except Luke, of course).

    I think as long as our villains have clear motivation for what they’re up to – even if it’s not something that shines the ‘good’ light on them – that will make them deep enough to be believable, suitable villains.

    Excellent blog, by the way 🙂

    MD

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      That’s a great point… Loki isn’t really a true villain. He takes the role of an antagonist at times, but that’s not always the same thing.

      And I agree. The opposing motivations are what make for great conflict!

      Thanks, Michael! ^_^

  6. Aiden Shade
    | Reply

    I think the most interesting thing that I have observed in good stories is when the villain is right but they come into conflict with the protagonist because the hero is bound by a set of rules or moral codes. This is good for some psychological conflict within the main character because the villains cause is just but perhaps their means or methods are extremely detestable or misguided. One example that comes to mind is the Batman trilogy when the villains target Gotham’s leaders because they are seriously corrupted, but Batman still is morally obligated to stop the villains for one reason or another.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      That’s a great point, Aiden! I love it when morals and ethics get all twisted together and confusing. It makes for more interesting heroes AND villains. Batman IS a great example of this, especially in Batman Begins.

      By the way, sorry I’m only just now responding! I’ve gotten horrible behind in blogging and am catching up! *nervous laughter*

  7. Jocelyn Montpetit
    | Reply

    Unlike most writers or screenwriter (I am myself a former student in screenwriting), I think the antagonist character IS THE MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL STORY well written. The antagonist is the one who leads the dance and against which someone will oppose (the protagonist). And after having seen Kylo Ren, I can say that it is one of the worst Star Wars VII characters. Finn is much more interesting and intriguing. The problem with Kylo Ren is its lack of explanation as to his motives. Why he hates his parents so much? Where does his hatred? What happened? Why is it so? Otherwise, we are left with a series of scenes illogical actions without much sense, banal and uninteresting. And these character’s motivations should have been told in the film, not to a freelance journalist as JJ Abrams has done.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      I agree that the villain is EXTREMELY important!! It’s interesting that you found these to be weakness in Kylo Ren’s character, because for me these were strengths. They made me more intrigued about his backstory. I wanted to learn more, and I assume the next movies will give that to us. Even Darth Vader was mysterious at first; we didn’t know what had turned him evil. But, if his character didn’t work for you, then that is a failure at least on one level! 🙂

  8. Elise P.
    | Reply

    I have been struggling with creating a villain for a book I am trying to write and this was very helpful in thinking about what I should be considering. Though, it made me realize that two of my main characters would be great villains if considered from a different perspective… Oops!
    I would have to say that my favorite villain is probably Hannibal Lecter. He’s diabolical and as much as you despise him and what he is doing, you can’t help but love him for his cunning and class.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hi, Elise! I’m sooo glad to hear this post was helpful! ^_^ And maybe those characters can become villains… or, they’ll just make for more dynamic heroes. 😉

      I’ve never seen Silence of the Lambs, but I imagine he must be a great character!!

  9. Marie
    | Reply

    I was just thinking about this sort of thing recently.
    I can’t stand villains who are so over the top evil and one dimensional at that. Your villain shouldn’t be drowning puppies or burning down orphanages to show us they’re evil.
    I think every villain should have his own moral compass. A villain with a (warped) sense of right and wrong, I think, is far more powerful than the mustache-twirling tie-her-to-the-railroad-tracks villain. They’re also funner to write.

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Marie, I agree soooo much!! Villains with a warped moral compass are more believable and realistic. And they are definitely more fun to write, because as a writer you can come to love them more. ^_^ Villains should be multi-dimensional, just like heroes.

  10. Aurora
    | Reply

    I’m having trouble with my villain, I have two main antagonists in my series, and my 1st antagonist is fine, she has a personality and all that… But, my second is insane and I have trouble making her “human” because she is so cruel that I have trouble with her humanity… Do you have any tips?

    • Brianna da Silva
      | Reply

      Hi Aurora! Hmm, that is tricky! My suggestion is to think about what matters to your villain. Even if she is insane and cruel, there will be things that she holds dear. Maybe there’s a family member she especially cares about. (Perhaps she was close to one of her siblings growing up. Or perhaps she has a sickly mother whose health secretly concerns her.) Maybe she has a soft spot for animals. She might hate all humans, but she feeds the ducks in her backyard, or she has a pet dog or stray cat that she takes care of.

      Or, go deep into her backstory. What made her first become cruel? You may already know the answer to this, but finding her motivation could be the key to her humanity. Maybe she wants revenge on the world because she was trodden over in the past. Maybe she wants power, and she wants people to fear and respect her, because she was neglected and ignored as a child; she craves attention in extreme forms. Or maybe she’s just a psychopath, but psychopaths still have their own emotions and insecurities.

      Maybe she is hard and calloused on the outside, but no one is born evil. Deep down, I bet there’s some sort of hurt, or some sort of resentment that caused her to become evil. Only you can discover exactly what that is, but if you show that side of her to your readers, she will feel far more human to them.

      I hope this helps! 🙂

  11. Elena Rodriguez
    | Reply

    My character actually tells everyone he’s a Villain. But so does everyone in his School, so I guess that makes it okay. My characters all go to a School for fairy tales, so some are Princesses and Princes, some are sidekicks, and some are Villains. He’s the coolest Villain in his School though, in the sense that he’s the scariest. But my main character develops a crush on him, which makes for a very awkward reveal near the end. Imagine that. Your crush is threatening to kill your best friend.
    She had been warned against hanging out him with though. By her best friend. But half the time he’s awake he’s daydreaming, so it’s understandable why she wouldn’t believe him.

    • Stephen Weimer
      | Reply

      You should read ‘The School for Good and Evil’ I think you would like it.

  12. Stephen Weimer
    | Reply

    You would like Darken Rahl from Legend of the Seeker He fits almost perfectly into this list, and is one of my favorite villains. The actor who played him in the TV show did perfect as well.

    In my own stories, my main villain has all these points except for he isn’t the most original, although there are not many I have found like him, and he is original for me, he was my first and best villain I have written, so I guess he fits that point as well. The only thing I am still working on is his goal, or at least narrowing down his many goals. But posts like this remind me that I need to work on that aspect of him, and even inspire me to do so.

    This was a good read thank you.

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