How do you create a compelling villain?
Queue my maniacal laugh! Call them what you want (villains, antagonists, rivals, or bad guys) but readers love a good baddie.
In many ways the villain is nearly as important as the hero. It should go without saying that the villain should be as well developed as the hero. But sometimes (and I find myself guilty of this from time to time) our villains fall a little flat.
Here are tips and tricks I’ve gathered to help a villain to stand out and be memorable:
1. THE VILLAIN IS THE HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY–– I apologize for the all caps on this one, but that is how important I find this tip. Honestly if you consider this as a golden rule, the rest of the tips sort of just support this idea. The villain has to have a starting state and an ending state, just like the hero. The villain has to have goals and motivations, just like the hero. And the villain should be well developed and flushed out, just like the hero!
2. The villain should help define your hero–– Often the villain is thought to be the other side of the same coin as the hero. They should be strongly connected and their stories should be interwoven in a pretty big way. They will counter each other in multiple aspect and their stories both intertwine to impact the other’s arc.
3. Justify the villain’s actions–– This doesn’t mean that you have to convince the reader that murder or wicked wrong doings are okay, you just have to convince them that the villain believes that it is okay. The villain should have specific motivations for acting the way that they do. Also, this reason cannot be that the villain is ‘evil’. Evil is not a motivator; it is a perception of specific action. Show the reader why the villain is doing things that are considered evil.
4. Clearly identify the villain’s goals–– what does the villain wish to gain by the end of the story and how is that complicate the life of the hero. This should be something concrete and specific. The Villain’s motivations should be clearly expressed to the reader.
5. Make them unique–– Give the reader something to remember about the villain. A faceless bad guy won’t stand up. Just like you would the hero or a chipper side character, give the villain some quirks that really make them stand out.
6. Give them strengths–– For every good hero, you need a worthy adversary. It is especially compelling if the hero and the villain possess strengths that either counteract, contradict, or are extremely distinct from each other. I’ve read that for approximately 85% of the story the villain should seem insurmountable and completely unbeatable. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it is a lot more engaging for the reader to wonder how on earth the hero will stand a chance against this all mighty villain.
7. Give them weaknesses–– In addition to having strengths, the villain must have some fatal flaw(s). This is what will be exploited by the hero to eventually win. The weaknesses or flaws should also be aspects of their character and part of their development. In some cases, the flaw will resemble something the hero also struggles with, but they will handle it in radically different ways.
8. Give ‘em a good ‘ol backstory–– I don’t think I can repeat enough that a compelling villain should be well rounded and developed. Any time you are developing a character you will want to consider their backstory. In regards to the villain, this will help establish where their character motivations stem from. If the villain is set on destroying the world, I’m expecting them to have a tragic past to show me why they want to do that.
9. Make them fun–– yes, villains often deal with serious life or death situations. But a villain should provide the reader with some entertainment. With that in mind, make sure that the entertainment fits the tone of the story and doesn’t come off as gimmicky. The best way I’ve seen this done is through strong and entertaining dialogue.
10. DO use villain tropes DON’T use villain Clichés––There are several classic villain tropes that are worked, subverted, and reworked in fiction because these are story components that readers find intriguing and compelling. The key is to utilize a trope with a fresh perspective and a unique take. Once again I want to point out the importance of dialogue––please avoid cliched villain speak like the plague, resist the urge to add in a “I’d like to see you try!” or “You’ll pay, you’ll all pay!”
NOTE: there’s a whole different issue writers can have known as the “Villain Problem”. This is when the villain is so compelling that the hero falls flat.