There are many great ways a writer can create a believable villain, but often villains fall flat. Why is this? Because writers tend to put most of their thought and effort into their heroes and heroines. It is important to have strong characters who we cheer for, but without a spicy villain (the primary external conflict) forcing our heroes into action, risk taking, and survival mode – there isn’t much to cheer about.
When I read a story, I look forward to a well written villain who gives the hero a real challenge, is fully fleshed out as a complete and believable character, is a devious and intelligent adversary, puts me on the edge of my seat and affects my emotions. Unfortunately, there are a ton of cliché villains out there in book land, written by authors who have yet to grasp the important role their villain plays not only in the story, but more importantly for the reader’s experience.
I will admit I have been guilty of writing some pretty shallow villains in the past. Over recent times, I have come across some rather amazing help that opened my eyes to a problem that I had not realized before. Poorly written villains.
I want to share some of this knowledge with you, too.
Below is a checklist of “Don’ts” in writing your believable villains.
- Maniacal Laughter:
Of course, a villain wants to express themselves when their evil plans are going great. They may celebrate through the emotional release of crazy laughter. Okay, I think that is all right. It can be effective but it is a bit boring and cliché. Maniacal laughter hasn’t been original since Vincent Price’s monolgue rap and laughter were dubbed into “Thriller” in 1982.
Think about adding something different. Perhaps the villain laughs while reaching into their pocket to pull out a handful of bugs and toss them into their mouth. Or perhaps they do the cabbage patch dance, stick their finger up their nose and snort, or mutter a catch phrase or motto lika a mantra. Try to make the villain do something interesting besides just laughing like a lunatic. We’ve see it a thousand times before. Get creative.
- Fancy Talk:
So, everyone in your book talks like ordinary people from the era and culture they come from. Awesome. Then there’s the villain. He speaks with an extravagant flourish of big fancy-shmancy words that are reminiscent of a Shakespearian character with a fistful of PhDs from Harvard University. Can we even decipher what he’s talking about? Why is one character speaking in this way? Yes, your villain should stand out, but if there is no logical reason for him to have an British/German/Russain accent and a vocabulary that the hero, let alone the reader, has a hard time comprehending, you’ve probably gone over the top with fancy talk.
- Look of Evil:
If your villain has any of the following characteristics you are probably writing a cliché.
Possesses a wardrobe of only black clothing
Wears symbolic evil attire like a cloak, trench coat, top hat or spiked collar
Black hair/crazy hair/no hair, black eyes/red eyes, twirling mustache, gnarled teeth
Is the only ugly or scarred person in the book
Is the only person of different skin color, is LGBTQ, or disabled
Just a few examples here. You can probably think of others and that is why they are cliché. Because they are expected to the point of being over done. First off, why does evil need to be ugly looking or dress only in black? Why does the villain need to visually stand out in a crowd?
I think it would be far more disturbing if they were average looking, perhaps even attractive with an appealing smile. The kind of scary evil doer that most people would never suspect or would potentially be drawn to. Winning smiles versus not so great smiles fool people all the time. We make instant judgements on people based on this one simple aspect. It has been proven in social experiments that people will more readily trust an attractive person, or someone with a nice smile than someone who does not have those appealing qualities. Is it right? NO. But if our villain has this type of advantage and the reader figures it out but characters in the story take longer – oh the horror! How about a snazzy dresser with a charming personality? Or something else that is not so obvious in giving the announcement “Oh, look! The villain just entered the room”. Be sneaky.
- Purposeless Evil:
Ok – yes. In horror books there are evil characters who simply are insane weirdos living in the woods and taking out cute teenagers indiscriminately. That can be fun and thrilling to read every now and then, but if you are writing a science fiction, fantasy, or even contemporary novel that contains a villain who is trying to destroy your hero, the city, or take over the world, you are going to want them to have a purpose in mind. They are not just crazy mindless evil doers because it is fun. They have a plan, a goal, an outcome they desire and a reason for it. They are not a rich billionaire who wakes up one day and decides they don’t like Brad anymore and decides to kill him. Hates New York City and decides to blow it up. Why? What has cultivated this desire and what is the ultimate goal? Something has been festering inside them for a while. Something is motivating them to achieve their master plan for a specific reason. It is your job as a writer to hash out that purpose. Make sure it is something that makes sense for the villain to go to extremes for.
- Evil Dud:
This villain is incompetent. The other characters of the story are always slipping through his evil fingers. He just is not very good a being evil because he is probably not as smart as he ought to be. This type of villain exists because of lazy writing and which will be to the detriment of your story. A pushover villain is nothing to get excited about because readers know that he is not a challenging adversary. Every time he enters the scene and does his evil stuff – kidnapping the damsel, or capturing the hero – it does not take enough smarts or effort for theses characters to find a route of escape or ability to overpower them. Therefore, they are not taken seriously, they are boring, and the reader may put the book down. Do not insult your reader’s intelligence by slapping together a sloppy and weak antagonist. The villain should have at least equal smarts and skills to your hero, extra points if they are even more impressive and appear nearly impossible to beat.
- No Moral Code:
Even villains who simply rampage through your story killing everyone and behaving all around rotten ought to have at least one self-imposed boundary. Your villain should have a personal rule they won’t break, a boundary they refuse to cross, a self-imposed moral code. If we know there is nothing in the world that makes them hold back then there is no humanity in them at all. They are only a monster and we cannot relate to them as a human being what-so-ever. That isn’t interesting.
However, if there is some set of rules, or even just one rule, that they follow faithfully and, for whatever reason, consistently refuse to break – that is very human. It is not only relatable, but something we hope may serve as a weakness for that villain somewhere later in the story. If we know the villain never hurts little girls, because he had a little girl once – then it shows a vulnerability and possibly an inner conflict that will break them down later. Or what if they never kill or commit evil acts on Fridays and Sundays because these were family days when he had a family once. More humanizing of the villain and showing an internal belief that could hinder them. You can come up with multiple aspects of the villain’s moral code, or just one really strong one that matters. Get inventive.
- MIA Villain:
The missing in action villain is the one whom we and the characters in the story hear about all throughout the book, but never actually experience until somewhere toward the end of the story. Yet, we are supposed to be shaking in fear of this terrible villain who is the devil incarnate, but who apparently is in hiding because, well, he doesn’t really have a roll in the story. But gosh darn it we will vanquish him and save the land before the book is over. And when he does show up in the story it is likely he will put on an impressive show and the author’s laziness will be forgiven. But it would have been a lot better if there had been a few instances of engagement with this villain sprinkled through to the finale. Try it.
- Talky Villains:
Talky villains are the kind who keep telling the hero what they are up to and why. I don’t know about you, but I have met some villainous people in my life and most of the time they didn’t tell me what they were up to or why they were doing it. To me that is worse than having all the details. If you don’t know what their next move is, it makes it even more difficult to stop them. If you do not know why they are doing what they are doing it heightens the torture because our minds cannot rationalize what is going on. And the reason it is aggravating as hell is because the biggest mistake we make as humans is believing that others think the same way we do in some respect, even the evil ones. This belief causes us to make mistakes in trusting when we should not or believing that someone who is doing us wrong is misguided and can be reasoned with.
To make a good story, don’t have your villain reveal all their plans and secrets to the hero. Make the hero work through the mysterious web of evil. It’s a puzzle that the hero must solve in order to save himself and everyone else. It is far more intriguing. If I were taking over the world and wanted to get away with it, I would probably keep my evil schemes to myself. Once, it appears everything is falling into place and I am unbeatable, maybe that is the time a villain begins to brag about their brilliant deeds.
- All Bad is Bad:
If your villain is nothing but bad, they will exist, as I mentioned above, as a mindless monster. Not very human and not necessarily believable as they rampage through your book only doing bad things all the time. To breath more reality into them, we need to give them some personality. What are their likes, dreams, positive traits? Perhaps instead of your villain being a polar opposite of your hero they are very similar, except in the way they shoot for their dreams or use their positive traits. They take the dark road, make the wrong decisions to get what they want, instead of the right and moral path like the hero. Think of Thor and Loki. They are both charming in their own ways, and each has a similar desire to rule Asgard, but they go about achieving their goal very differently. Thor tries to do the right thing by improving himself and winning his right to the crown, while Loki takes the dark path of evil to try and get what he wants. But is Loki all bad? He is a misunderstood character, but I still think he is evil – well done. There are a lot of reasons we can sympathize with his character. Odin claims to love his sons equally, yet Loki is the second son, adopted, another species and living in the shadow of his all-powerful golden-haired brother. He wants to prove himself worthy but goes about it all wrong and becomes a villain. Loki, to me, is a very interesting and compelling illustration of a villain who we can sympathize with. He is so bad and yet has redeeming qualities. Villains who are all bad are boring. Make me feel something besides hate for the villain (and possibly the writer) and now we are talking!
- Monologue Villain:
The monologue villain is the type who reaches that moment when they could simply off the hero with a bullet between the eyes, an arrow through the heart, or flip the switch on a more inventive death design and end the battling once and for all – but alas, they have a little some’n-some’n to tell the hero before they get to that. The villain breaks into a four-page monologue about their tortured past, why they hate the villain, and who their real baby daddy is, etcetera. All very interesting to be sure, but probably would have worked better if this information had been shared throughout the book instead of provided in a critical action scene, thus weakening the power of the scene with a rant, at the end of the book. Give your villain the opportunity to share bits of their story in other places and through other methods earlier on in the book. Because the long-winded monologue really puts a damper on the action scene where hero and villain should be battling to the death, not taking a break to discuss what’s what. Might as well roll out the tea trolly and enjoy a cuppa while we’re at it.
As you can see, there are a ton of ways to do your evil dude wrong. But it is really easy to fix if you think of the villain as being just as important as your hero and other characters. The most important thing to remember is to make them as human and real feeling as possible. Readers enjoy deep, thought provoking villains that make them sit up and pay attention. The resulting affect a great villain will have on your story will be worth every bit of the effort.
Villainous writing, to you!