Traditionally, an antagonist, aka villain, is the story’s bad guy. Simply put, the villain has evil intentions and mostly works against the protagonist (the main character). While it’s easy to come up with examples of traditional villains like Joker in Batman, Sauron in Lord of The Rings, Count Dracula in Dracula and Napoleon in Animal Farm, the villain is not always so easy to detect.
Whether you choose to develop a villain whose personality and character arc is traditional or are interested in exploring the concepts of good and bad and right and wrong more deeply, there are certain basic rules everyone should consider when creating a villain. Especially if you want your villain to be believable.
Past, present and future
Just like ALL your other characters, so does your villain need a past. It doesn’t mean that you have to write their entire biography into the story, but you do need to know their entire biography as the writer to be able to develop their character. (If you are interested in reading about the basics of character development, you can do so here.) The reason why you need to know your villain’s entire life story in detail is that you need to drop some information about it throughout the story to support their character arc, explain their motivations and to give the story its much-needed depth.
“Past reveals your villain’s motivations, and goals reveal their traumas” -Maxima Runo
You might think you don’t need to develop a backstory (past) for your character if they are a robot, an animal, or a soulless monster, but you would be wrong. Even Stephen King’s villain Christine (from the novel Christine) has a backstory, and Christine is a car! A literal car. Despite the story’s villain being a car, she has an origin story of how she was made, where she was made, an account of different phases of her life and the owners she had in the past before crossing paths with the story antagonist. There is absolutely no excuse not to know and, to an extent, share the past of your villain with the reader.
Now there are writers and readers who appreciate a crazy maniac villain who likes to hurt others for the love of hurting, and there is nothing wrong with that, BUT even then, there are reasons why someone is this way. Perhaps the reason lies in the abuse they endured as a child, or maybe they suffered a brain injury from an accident or were simply born with different brain chemistry. Maybe they are possessed by an evil entity or suffer from mental illness. Again, whatever the past, there is a past.
Just as important as your villain’s past, so is the future. What drives this character? What do they deem worthy of working towards and why? As you can see, it is impossible to answer these questions about the future without looking into the past. Your character’s actions and feelings today reflect what kind of life they lived yesterday, and there is no separating the two. If you wonder how your villain would react in a certain situation, first look at their goals and then make sure you got it right by looking at their past.
Fears and weaknesses are essential
If you are writing your villain as some all-powerful fearless indestructible being, then you aren’t going to convince your reader. Yes, your villain can be a force to be reckoned with, but they must have personal weaknesses and fears. If they don’t, then why should the reader even care? Where is the anticipation if we already know nothing can beat your villain?
There is a school of people who like to say, “just give your character a flaw”, but I say one or two flaws aren’t enough. Do you know anyone with only one or two flaws (including fears and weaknesses)? If you said yes, then you don’t know that person as well as you think. The key to creating a believable villain is to make them relatable. Even if you can’t personally relate to them, someone else might. A good character is human-like, even if they are an inanimate object or a mythological monster. That’s why those animals in kids’ shows are always talking or mimicking human expressions and emotions. Our human brain is wired to look for those human clues, to constantly seek ways to relate.
Your villain, just like all the other characters in your story, needs a character arc with a turning point or a major change. This doesn’t mean they should undergo a personality change, nor does it mean that the villain’s goal has to change or cease to exist. It means that they should come to some kind of deeper realisation/experience even if it doesn’t ultimately lead to them changing their behaviour. Something must matter to them (other than hurting others), and when facing major challenges while striving for those things that matter to them, it must have some effect on them. Call it humanising a villain if you like, but it is an essential part of writing a believable character.
If you are a good writer, you will link the character development of the antagonist (villain) and protagonist (main character) together. Their existences should be in many ways intertwined, or they should act as mirrors to each other. A good villain, no matter how evil and disgusting, should bring out some uncomfortable truths about the main character.
Avoid the overuse of cliches
When it comes to creating a believable villain, do try to avoid overused cliches. Even if your bad guy is an all-powerful sadistic demi-god, he doesn’t have to be a disfigured guy who only wears black and speaks with a foreign accent or a lisp. Rather try to create some kind of contrast, as contrast is always more interesting. Whether you try to hide your villain from the reader or make them obvious, and whether your villain is a person or an inanimate object, give them contrast.
I do want to add that if you are writing children’s books or your audience is very young; then you can easily get away with writing classic villain stereotypes and cliches. In that case, it might even be recommended, but if you do write for young adult or adult audiences, then please don’t underestimate your reader.
2 thoughts on “How to write a believable VILLAIN”
This is an absolutely great blog for anyone who wants to develop as a writer. Keep up the good work.
Thank you Antti. I’m delighted to hear you found value in my blog.