Site icon Joan Wiley

10 Villain (Antagonist) Traits Writers Should Avoid

Originally article posted February 2020

Do you love a deliciously wicked villain?

I certainly do! Unfortunately, many villains fall flat. Why? Because writers tend to put most of their thought and effort into their heroes and heroines. Yes, it is important to have strong protagonists readers can cheer for and fall in love with, but without a spicy villain (the primary external conflict and driver of the story) to force our heroes into action, risk taking, and survival mode – there isn’t much to cheer about.

When reading a story, I look forward to a villain who gives the hero a real challenge, and is developed as a complete and believable character. I crave a devious and intelligent adversary, who puts me on the edge of my seat and affects my emotions. Unfortunately, there are a ton of cliché villains out there in bookland (and movieland), written by authors who haven’t realized the critical role their villain plays, not only in the story but, more importantly, for the reader’s experience.

Over my years of reading a variety of thriller, horror, science fiction, and even other less villain-centric genre, something is undeniable – a solid villain is a primary element in the books I loved the most. Conversely, poorly written villains dilute the strength of a story.

Here are 10 types of villains you should avoid writing:

  1. Maniacal Laugher:

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’s all right (maybe once). Do it more than once and readers will it not only find it cliche but silly. Think Dr. Evil from Austin Powers. Maniacal laughter hasn’t been entertaining since Vincent Price’s monolgue rap and signature maniacal laughter were dubbed into Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1982.

Think about doing something different with your villain through actions and words. By adding an original habit, gesture or saying, your villain will be more memorable (and interesting) for the reader.

Example: Perhaps the villain chuckles while pulling a handful of bugs from their pocket, tossing them into their mouth like sunflowers seeds. Or they do the cabbage patch dance, snorting with glee, or repeating a signature phrase like, “I’ll have them eating my sandwich crumbs like chickens at my feet!”.

Have the villain do something interesting besides laughing like a lunatic. We’ve see it a thousand times before and it is ineffective in moving your reader. Get creative!

2.    Fancy Talker:

So, everyone in your book speaks like ordinary people from the same era and culture. Perfect. The villain, however,  speaks with big fancy-shmancy words and an accent, reminiscent of a Shakespearian character with a fistful of PhDs from Harvard University. Can we even decipher what he’s talking about? Why is he/she the only character speaking 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.

  1. Look of Evil:

If your villain has any of the following characteristics you are probably writing a cliché.

Just a few examples here.  You can likely think of others and that is why they are cliché. Because they are expected to the point of being overdone. First off, why does evil need to be ugly or dress only in black? Why does the villain need to visually stand out in a crowd?

It is far more disturbing if a villain is average looking, perhaps even attractive with an appealing smile. The kind of evil freak that most people would never suspect, or could potentially be drawn to. Wide, friendly smiles fool people all the time.

Whether we realize it or not, we make instant judgements about people based on shallow visual impressions. Social experiments have proven people more readily trust an attractive person, or someone with a nice smile than someone who does not have appealing qualities. Is it right? NO. But if our villain has this type of advantage and the reader figures it out but book characters in the story take longer to realize it – oh the horror! How about a sweet talking, snazzy dresser with a charming personality? Or something else that is not so obvious, whose appearance doesn’t announce their villainry. “Oh, look! The villain just entered the room in their blood stained overalls, with hatchet in hand ”. Be sneaky.

  1. Purposeless Evil:

Ok – yes. In horror books there are evil characters who simply are insane weirdos living in the woods, hacking up cute teenagers indiscriminately. It can be fun and thrilling to read less complicated villains, 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 going to be as intriguing if only crazed lunatics without reason. Villains are richer and more hateable with a plan, a goal, a desired outcome, and a reason. Always think about the why.

Take these scenarios for example:

Somewhere along the storyline, readers will want to know a bit of backstory, it’s how you get their buy-in. What has cultivated this treacherous desire and what is the ultimate goal? Something has been festering inside them for a while and we want to know. This villain is hellbent on achieving their master plan for a specific reason, and it is your job as the all-knowing writer to give the long, or short, of it. Give us something. Make sure it is something that makes sense for the villain to go to such extremes.

  1. Evil Dud:

This villain is incompetent. The other characters of the story are always slipping through his evil fingers. He doesn’t seem very good a being evil or he just isn’t smart. This type of villain exists because of lazy writing, 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 other characters to find a route of escape, or a way to overpower them.

If you write a villain this way, they are not taken seriously, are boring, and the reader may put your book down. Do not insult your reader 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 crafty and seem impossible to beat.

  1. No Moral Code:

Even villains who simply rampage through your story killing and behaving psychopathic ought to have at least one self-imposed boundary, or positive trait. 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 one rule, they follow faithfully and, for whatever reason, consistently refuse to break – this is human and relatable. 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. What if they never kill or commit evil acts on Fridays and Sundays because these were family days, and he had a family once? Or, perhaps he/she is a cat lover and will not go after anyone who keeps cats?

Give the villain humanizing qualities by showing internal beliefs 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. We love to hate a great villain, so, get inventive!

  1. MIA Villain:

The missing-in-action villain is one we (and the characters in the story) hear about but never actually experience until somewhere toward the end of the story. Yet, everyone is supposed to be shaking with fear of this terrible villain, the devil incarnate, but who apparently is in hiding because, well, he doesn’t really have a roll in the story.

Gosh darn it, the characters are determined to vanquish him and save the land before the book is over! When he does finally show up, 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 throughout the story prior to the grand finale. Try it!

  1. Talky’ Villain:

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. Not knowing every move is far more harrowing than having all the details.

If characters don’t know what the villain’s next move is, it makes it even more difficult to stop them. If readers do not know every detail, it heightens the torture because our minds cannot rationalize what is going on. We keep turning the pages!

A major flaw many people (and characters) have is thinking the minds of others work the same as ours. This is how the villain is so often a formidable adversary. Trusting a psychopath even a little, or believing we can foresee their next move based on rational thought – bam! We are caught in the web of evil.

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 a villain plans on taking over the world and wants to get away with it, they should keep their evil schemes a secret. Once, everything is falling into place and they appear unbeatable, a villain’s over-confidence may cause them to brag about their brilliance. Hold back a little.

  1. All Bad is Bad:

As with #6 No Moral Code, if your villain is nothing but bad, they will exist 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 he is evil – well done.

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 is a very interesting and compelling illustration of a villain with whom who we can sympathize. He is so bad and yet has redeeming qualities.

Villains who are all bad are boring. Make readers feel something besides hate for the villain and now we’re talking!

  1. Monologue Villain:

The monologue villain is the type who reaches that moment in the story when when they are wide open to off the hero. 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 lights a cigarette and 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 for 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 villain 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 result is a great villain who will enrich your story and will be worth every bit of the effort.

For a wickedly villainous read, grab a copy of Villainous Minds: Psychological Thrillers, on Amazon. A collection of five stories chock-full of villains. WARNING: For mature audiences.

Villainous writing, to you!


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