How to create a villain readers won’t forget: 6 tips

How to create a villain

Learning how to create a villain – the ‘bad guy’ of your novel – is as important as learning how to create a memorable protagonist. Read 6 tips for writing vivid villains:

1: Make a villain three-dimensional

2: Give your villain’s wrongdoing history

3: Show how your villain wasn’t always the bad guy

4: Avoid stereotypical villain dialogues

5: How to create a villain: Use vivid description

6: Create multiple opponents and accomplices for variety

To delve into each of these suggestions more:

1: Make a villain three-dimensional

Pinky and the BrainIn the cartoon ‘Pinky and the Brain’,  about two laboratory mice and their quest for world domination, the goofy mouse Pinky always asks the other, Brain, ‘what are we going to do tonight?’ Brain (the mastermind, as the name implies) replies ‘the same thing we do every night, Pinky: Try to take over the world!’

This exchange pokes fun at the absurd side of fictional (as well as real-world) villains: their often single-minded obsession with achieving destructive and unsustainable goals. Yet for your villain to not be cartoon-like and a reductive image of villainy, the reader needs to take your villain’s plans seriously.

A three-dimensional, believable villain doesn’t simply have an inexplicable obsession with gaining power – they also have a motivation behind this desire for power. This motivation might derive from personal trauma and resulting bias. It could result from irrational thinking, for example racism that assigns certain groups more human value or less threatening status based on arbitrary common features. A three-dimensional villain is never malicious or destructive ‘just because.’

Your fictional villain can simply be bad through and through, like Shakespeare’s Iago in Othello, who manipulates others to murder seemingly for fun (although you could also say power hunger is Iago’s motivation). Yet when your villain is as complex or interesting as your protagonist, your fictional world feels real.

So how do you make a villain memorable and three-dimensional?

2: Give your villain’s wrongdoing history

There should be history behind your villain’s wrongdoing.

Think of great examples from literature. For example, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the character Kurtz is remembered as an organist and scholar in his native Europe. Yet once in a position of power in central Africa, Kurtz commits gruesome acts of violence against locals and abuses his power to the fullest extent as the commander of an ivory trading post.

Avoid making your villain seem a prop that exists solely to thwart or endanger your novel’s central characters. Instead, show the history behind your villain’s behaviour. To make your villain a complex product of their own backstory and their society, show the personal attributes (psychology and backstory) and external circumstances (societal values and norms) that contribute to or enable their behaviour.

3: Show how your villain wasn’t always the bad guy

Avoid writing a villain who, like a Bond villain, seems as though they were born stroking a hairless cat while hatching plots. Instead, show or at least hint at your villain’s evolution.

J.K. Rowling does this expertly in Harry Potter. Lord Voldemort was once a student at Hogwarts, just like the series’ titular hero. Over the course of the series, Rowling drips out Voldemort’s backstory. Why show that your villain wasn’t always bad? For two reasons:

  • You can show the reader how personal faults, environmental circumstances or both created your villain – development makes your characters more believable
  • You’ll gain more storylines to unfold alongside your main story arc as you share the origins of your villain

4: Avoid stereotypical villain dialogues

In villain-writing, there are many clichéd phrases to avoid. For example:

  • ‘We meet again, Mr. X…’
  • ‘Say goodbye to your [life/dreams/pet poodle/]
  • Say hello to [my little friend/my obedient entourage]
  • ‘Did you really think you would [defeat me/find the documents/die without listening to a long and self-congratulating monologue first]?

The problem with many of the above is that they are unoriginal, being the fodder of countless action and revenge sagas. What’s more, they try too hard to convey the snide maliciousness and self-importance of a stereotypical villain.

Instead, craft key dialogue between protagonist(s) and villains around their opposing motivations or goals. Intimidation by great villains is often indirect, as in this line spoken by the cannibal Hannibal in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs:

‘A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.’

To improve dialogue between heroes and villains, take notes whenever you read a conversation between these two character types in a novel that feels unforced and effective.

5: How to create a villain: Use vivid description

The most memorable villains of literature are described using strong, vivid detail. Referring to a villain’s ‘cold, dead eyes’ isn’t always enough. Think about other details and mannerisms such as:

  • Manner of walking or gait
  • Small habits and tics (such as repeatedly licking lips or cracking knuckles)
  • Stand-out physical features – what would someone use to identify your villain in a line-up, other than their eyes?
An artist's identikit of Stephen King's character Annie Wilkes

An identikit of Stephen King’s character Annie Wilkes. Source: http://thecomposites.tumblr.com/

Here are some examples of vivid villain descriptions from fiction:

‘His exhausted face, with its scarred mouth … As his pock-marked jaws champed on a piece of gum I had the sudden feeling that he was hawking obscene pictures around the wards … But what marked him out was the scar tissue around his forehead and mouth, residues of some terrifying act of violence.’

J.G. Ballard’s description of Vaughn from Crash: A Novel

‘Her nostrils flared regularly, like the nostrils of an animal scenting fire … That stony, obdurate look covered her face like a mask … Only her eyes, those tarnished dimes, were fully alive under the shelf of her brow.’

Stephen King’s description of Annie Wilkes from Misery.

6: Create multiple opponents and accomplices for variety

To truly show the scope of a villain’s tyranny, influence and power, it’s often useful to show their multiple associations. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron fights wizards and ordinary Hobbits alike. He is aided by allies and accomplices, such as the fallen wizard Saruman.

To create a memorable villain, show how your antagonist interacts with those in their favour as well as those who aren’t. Do they treat both with equal cruelty? Or is there contrast between their respect towards people in their camp and malevolence to anyone outside it?

Creating multiple adversaries as well as henchmen will give you opportunities to show different facets of your villain. You can show how far power has corrupted your villain, depending whether he is uniformly unforgiving and cruel or has select blind spots.

Who is your favourite fictional villain of all time? Tell us in the comments.

Working on your own story’s villain? Get helpful feedback from other writers on how to improve your villain now.

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