by Skylar Nitzel
When you think of a villain, what do you imagine? The tyrannical dictator of a dystopian novel? The gruesome monster under the bed? The smooth criminal in elusive mysteries? For me, there is no greater character than the villain when writing. Everything from the dark and charming narcissist to the chaotic and evil overlord, these characters make stories happen.
There was a time when the villain existed for no reason other than to do bad things, but the traditional image of the villain has gradually changed in literature, film, and culture as writers redefined what the villain character was. Villains are more than an inconvenience in the hero’s path—they are breathing, thoughtful individuals pulsing with a life of their own, and they deserve to be explored. There are still villains that readers love to hate simply for their evil actions alone, but more and more there exists villains where the lines are gray, morals are questionable, and the definition of “bad guy” is up for interpretation.
Villains are crucial to stories, so how do you write one that’s interesting and multilayered?
Perhaps the most important aspect to consider when creating your villain is how to make readers understand things from their point of view. This adds complexity and substance to their character. You don’t have to necessarily justify their actions (in fact, you probably shouldn’t), but exploring the reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing keeps your readers interested in more than just the bad things they’re doing to your hero.
Does the villain see themselves as good and noble? Are they getting revenge? Doing something bad for love? Have they been wronged by society? These questions can help you start to build a framework for how your villain perceives the world.
Think of some sympathetic or tragic villains like Marvel’s Loki, the overlooked and unworthy brother of Thor who only wants validation, or X-Men’s Magneto, who truly believes there is no other way to accomplish his goal other than with violence, which comes from his own dark past. We can sympathize with these villains because we understand where their perceptions come from.
Other villains aren’t so gray. Some simply seek power and ruthless control for their own purposes, like Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 or Voldemort in Harry Potter. If there’s no backstory that reveals a motivation for their villainy, consider amplifying their stakes. Like your hero, you should ask, what does my villain want and what’s stopping them from getting it? For an ambitious villain the answer is “nothing,” so now ask what are the consequences? Who’s opposing them and why? What is your villain willing to do to keep what they have?
One of the scariest traits of a villain is being able to relate to them, to see ourselves in them. Their humanity makes us understand that villains are not so different from ourselves. The most successful villains in my opinion are the ones that make us think, “I would do the same thing if I was in their position,” which is terrifying in itself.
Think, for instance, of Walter White from Breaking Bad. When he turns to making and selling illegal drugs in order to support his family financially, audiences sympathize with his situation and begin to overlook his choices because they make sense. Who wouldn’t do everything in their power to keep their family safe?
Stuart Fischoff, in his paper “Villains in Film: Anemic Renderings” writes, “Villainy is, in essence, behavior inspired by values which are inscrutable, aversive or repugnant to us in our more civilized moments of reflection.” He further writes, “what makes a villain truly interesting is to glimpse his or her…distinctly human rationalization of these values.” Writing a strong villain doesn’t always equate to writing a character who does horrible things. Give your villain a twisted agenda that makes sense to them while also giving them a favorite color. The more human they are, the most your reader will be compelled to follow their narrative.
Villains should also have a good dynamic with the protagonist. It’s no fun reading a story in which the protagonist defeats the villain in one battle. A villain should be more than just an opposition to your protagonist’s goal—they should be a competent match because the fear comes from knowing there’s a likelihood your hero won’t succeed. Make sure your villain is depicted as honestly as your hero. Why is your hero trying to stop them in the first place? Does the villain’s morals contradict theirs? What has your villain done that makes us want to root for the protagonist so badly?
Above all, perhaps, remember your villain is human, and they’re yours (unless you’re writing about a monster, in which case, it’s up to you to decide if your monster species has human feelings). Everyone is the hero of their own story. Show us that story. Show us what happens when even monsters lose loved ones. This takes time. It takes time to make readers hate your villain, and it takes even longer to make us understand—not agree with—them as well.
Some exercises to try:
Write an internal monologue about your villain from the perspective of a person they’ve hurt. This is intended to help you develop a sense of your villain’s capabilities and determine their limitations.
Write one page describing your villain directly (telling), then one page describing them indirectly (through appearance, dialogue, or actions).
Write a scene in which your villain and your hero talk over coffee without knowing they’re enemies yet. What would they talk about? Can your villain pinpoint a moment where their worldview deviated, and will they admit this?
About the Author: Skylar Nitzel is a creative writing and journalism student at the University of Denver where she works with Denver Quarterly and writes for the DU Clarion. She lives in Colorado where she takes frequent mountain trips with her family. When she’s not falling for villains in epic fantasies, she’s watching movies, listening to new music, and writing her own horror stories.