How to write a villain: Writing a more human antagonist

Characters are what drive the reader to care about what happens in your story. If your readers can relate to your characters or at least recognise familiar real world human traits in their behaviour, your story will be a more vivid read. Learning how to write a villain that your readers can understand as a complex human being (as opposed to a cardboard cutout) can give your novel depth. Here are several techniques you can use to ensure that even the most diabolical villain in your novel still has a human side:

Before you read the how, you might want to know why you need to make villains more human. Surely a character who is violent or cruel or in some other way at odds with accepted social values must be condemned? Who cares if he’s human or not? These are viewpoints that come out of an ethical or moral position, but as in life, villains in stories are no less complex than heroes and ordinary people. For fictional villains, there is either an explicit motivation behind their deeds or some causative trauma or else a basic lack of something that causes them to do bad things. Making your villains human, and even relatable on some level, can give your novel a sense of realism. It’s easy to hate a cartoonishly evil character, but by casting the characters in your story in shades of grey instead of black and white, you’ll end up with a more complex, nuanced book that won’t talk down to readers and tell them who to judge and how.

You might say ‘but I want my writing to teach readers my ideas of what is good vs what is evil’. Making your villain relateable doesn’t mean having to endorse their behaviour. If anything, the subtlety of creating villains who are close to other characters in their multi-dimensional human aspect can provide a more powerful lesson. It shows readers how easy it is to go astray and thus how much more necessary it is to work at being kind, compassionate, and other positive traits. It also leaves open the possibility of redemption.

How to write a believable villain 

Writing an antagonist whose depiction is multi-dimensional makes them more real, and can even increase the sense of threat and suspense. Think, for example, of the character Severus Snape in the Harry Potter book series. While he is presented as villainous in his unkind treatment of students throughout the series, a revelation about the character later in the series (no plot spoilers here) makes the reader understand how villainous behaviour has explicable origins and thus cannot be fully comprehended without finding out about its underlying cause.

Here are several ways to write a more human villain:

Try to think from their perspective

The first step in making your villain more human is to try think from their perspective. You’re going to need to see things from the villain’s point of view. While it’s true that some people are nefarious sociopaths, many more people imagine that they are doing the right thing however twisted that may be. Even a nefarious sociopath might have a very real source of trauma that has set off a series of bad choices. If, for example, your villain is a cold-blooded killer, consider what kind of background could lead to someone having this violent nature? This is where reading up about notorious real-world counterparts of your villain helps. This may be heavy or disturbing reading, but understanding the psychological underpinnings of your villains’ behaviour will bring them to life on the page.

Show villains’ fundamental errors

Villainy can often be explained by a mistaken belief or distorted ideology. If we look back at some of the most heinous villains of history, we’ll find that people like Stalin and Hitler firmly believed themselves to be in the right. In the case of these tyrannical and murderous historical figures, theirs were ideologies of Marxism and Nationalism taken to fascist, insane extremes. A more human villain might take on a set of destructive beliefs based on his misunderstanding of events or his situation in life. Showing these moments of error in your villain will convey how much of their behaviour is circumstantial and how much is innate due to shortcomings of psychology and personality.

Work out how villains think

So, how do villains think? Many villainous types tend to believe that any means at all justify their ends. They also do a lot of rationalising or excusing of their actions. This may be a little bit troubling to think about because rationalising one’s worst behaviour is something everyone does. Thinking about the similarities between how a villain and a less contemptible person think will help while you develop an antagonist for your novel.

A good exercise for seeing from a villainous character’s point of view is to sit down and rewriting scenes or descriptions from this character’s perspective. This should not be part of the story, of course, but is simply useful for improving your ability to write from the viewpoint of a person whose ethical or moral beliefs are quite probably a far remove from your own.

Don’t over-rely on backstory

It may be tempting to put in extensive backstory to explain why your novel’s villain is so violent or disturbed. For example, a horrifyingly abusive childhood is one real-world original cause. Yet it is worth weighing this kind of backstory against an inexplicably cruel nature. If you want your reader to have some empathy for the antagonist, backstory may help, yet a truly terrifying villain’s motivations might be completely opaque.  One danger with extensive backstory is that the pace of the plot and narrative drive might slacken. If back story is absolutely necessary, think of it the same way you’d think of line-editing your work. Keep it as concise as possible.

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of ordinary details

Another way to make your villain more human is by showing him or her doing ordinary things and interacting with people in an ordinary way. Does your villain have beloved friends and family? A villain who likes to relax listening to jazz on vinyl and entertain is far more interesting and complex than one who sits around torturing insects for fun in his down time. Consider the TV series Dexter (based on the book series by Jeff Lindsay). Despite being a serial killer, Dexter has romantic relationships as well as professional ones. The dual life he leads (that includes everyday activities that help mask his secret) creates a perpetual sense of suspense, in addition to humanising the series’ anti-hero. Give your villain another living being to interact with in a sympathetic way. This helps to show how we often compartmentalise the good and bad sides of people, selectively choosing what we like or dislike and emphasizing one trait or another.

Consider giving your villain vulnerabilities

A villain who is impervious to bullet or blade might seem more powerful and more dangerous for the protagonist of your novel to engage in conflict. Yet villains who have vulnerabilities can be useful in the following ways:

  • Villains’ vulnerabilities provide useful means for your protagonist to triumph. Does your villain fear a particular environment? Have your hero trick them into confrontation in an environment that places your villain at an immediate disadvantage.
  • A vulnerable antagonist can be used for light and shade when your novel includes multiple characters who do bad things. Having a lesser and greater villain provides the reader with a greater sense that your fictional world contains people of all shades of positive and negative character traits.

It’s commonly thought that characters need to be likeable in order for audiences to enjoy reading about them, but if we think about all the infamous villains in movies and books, we can see that this isn’t necessarily the case. What those villains we remember and love to hate generally share in common is that we find them engaging in some way. The more well-rounded your villain is, the more engaged the audience will be with the character.

What is your top piece of advice you would give to anyone wondering how to write a villain?

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  • Julie Musil

    Great tips! I tell ya, I’ve read some great books with villains I should hate but I don’t. The authors were talented enough to make me care about someone who did bad things.

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