Too many novelists create a villain who does bad things because he’s the bad guy. He might as well appear in a melodrama, wearing a black hat and a cape while twirling his handlebar mustache.
But a melodramatic villain is a cliché by definition — predictable, unrealistic, and there just for fun. Hissing at the bad guy when he comes on stage may add merriment, but in serious fiction such characters don’t work.
Creating a realistic, believable villain requires subtlety and genuine motivation.
Enter the character with actions so subtle readers may not even know he’s the villain until he reveals his true colors.
(Note: I use the male pronoun inclusively here to refer to both genders.)
In real life — as it should be in your story — real villains don’t know they’re villainous. They don’t think they’re wrong; they believe their actions are justified.
Villains have reasons for what they do — and sometimes those reasons are good. This doesn’t mean they’re always right, but they can rarely be persuaded they’re wrong.
What is an Antivillain?
Some — including many experts — refer to such fictitious characters as Antivillains. I don’t.
To me, a villain is a villain, and the more complex you can render him, the better. While the term Antihero is valid and worth studying, I contend that Villain is the right term for your bad guy.
What others may parse as an Antivillain and ascribe to him even more villainous complexities, I would simply call the right kind of villain. So, in this post, we’ll discuss how you can best create a worthy adversary for your protagonist.
The best, most credible villain can be a mostly virtuous, likable antagonist with sometimes even heroic goals, but whose methods are questionable — and ultimately evil.
Their actions sometimes fall into a morally gray category — making the reader wonder whether they are truly well-intentioned or monstrous.
Readers should be able to relate to your villain. He’s believable, his actions (even though bad) are understandable, and his motivations are mostly good — unless they’re not.
Forget Antivillains: Make Your Villain Complex, Even Likable
Want to really stand a story on its head and compel readers to keep turning the pages? Avoid caricatures and straw men by refusing to paint your villain as all bad.
Too often we see villains who hold the opposite view of, say, a social issue than that of the author or the main character. Fine. That’s a recipe for conflict and tension.
But the mistake is to then make the villain a disgusting human being. Try making him a great spouse and parent, perhaps a helpful, giving person. Someone you’d enjoy being friends with.
Yet, because he’s on the other side of the hero’s issue, he is, indeed, the villain. But the reader likes him!
Don’t we often see this in real life? Someone diametrically opposed to our worldview fights against our worthy cause.
We want to despise them, see them in an evil light. Yet when we meet them, they’re charming. That’s complicated. That’s real life. That makes for a great story.
The villain must still be defeated and right must win out. But not because the bad guy in the story is repulsive. Rather, in spite of the opposite.
That kind of thinking about your villain makes him complex and, frankly, more interesting. It also challenges you to write with more finesse.
The villain’s motivations are good, or at least justified, in his own mind, but in the end, he must fail.
4 Types of Complex Villains
This type acts because he believes duty calls. He’s merely doing what needs to be done. He’s still wrong, of course, but he doesn’t see it that way.
- Dracus Malfoy and Regulus Black from the Harry Potter series
- Jesse Pinkman and Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad
Readers feel sorry for this character because perhaps he didn’t begin the story a bad guy. But in his mind, desperate times call for desperate measures, so he goes all in.
His character arc can be dramatic because often he’s so psychologically damaged that there’s no turning back.
- Carrie in Stephen King’s Carrie
- Frankenstein’s monster
- Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars
- Loki from Thor
- The Master from Doctor Who
Ever know somebody who means well, but everything they do makes things worse?
His intentions are good, but he’ll do anything to accomplish his goal. Sometimes he becomes aware how wrong his actions are and his character arc becomes redemptive. Or he might double down and become even more evil.
- Javert in Les Miserables
- Lady Melisandre in A Song of Ice and Fire
- Marvel’s Thanos
- Raymond Reddington in The Blacklist
4. Villain In Name Only
This character actually mirrors the hero in many ways. In fact, they may pursue the same goal, but with opposite motives.
At his core, he’s not really a bad guy. His intentions may be mostly good, and he’s smart, but dangerous — mainly because he’s likable and no one suspects him.
- Many of the villains from Sherlock Holmes
- Dr. Connors in The Amazing Spider-Man
- Sergeant Shultz and Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes
5 Tips for Creating an Effective Villain
A good bad guy is foundational to powerful fiction — he can make or break your story. The more formidable your antagonist, the more compelling your hero.
Your villain must:
1. Have a realistic and sympathetic backstory.
This gives him reasons for being who he is and doing what he does.
2. Have strong motivations.
Reveal what drives him — his Why.
- Hunger for power
- Natural disaster
- Military combat
3. Exhibit power.
He will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Avoid making him a bumbler. That doesn’t make for a worthy opponent for your hero.
4. Force your protagonist to make difficult decisions.
Because your villain may seem to have mostly good intentions, it’s often hard to tell if he’s good or bad, which poses a problem for your hero.
Remember, your main character becomes more heroic the more worthy his opponent.
A truly authentic villain competes with your hero for the same goal — only for different reasons.
Writer and writing coach Joanna Penn says it’s important you make the conflict specific and the hero’s adversary appear unbeatable. This forces your main character to make difficult decisions and ultimately become heroic.
5. Cause the protagonist to grow.
Increasingly difficult obstacles build the muscle a protagonist needs to become truly heroic.
Allow your villain to throw everything he’s got at your hero. His response will speak volumes about how he’s changed — or hasn’t.
Time to Get Started
Don’t shortchange your villain. Invest as much time crafting him as you do your lead.
Too many novelists create a deliciously evil but otherwise one-dimensional villain and wonder why their story falls flat.
Conjure instead a villain who surprises both your hero and your readers. Make him real and familiar and believable and credible — even attractive.
If you’re a Pantser (like me), you may not have the patience for that and prefer to dive right into the writing. Do what works best for you.
I can’t wait to see what you come up with!