How to Write a Good Villain

What makes a good enemy, someone you love to hate?

1. A good enemy is a complex, nuanced character. Like all complicated people, a villain has streaks of good mixed in with all that bad. He is, in some way, vulnerable. Some people may sympathize with the villain. Some may even like him.

2. Ordinary people make great villains. An ordinary life picked apart with the meanest, basest aspects brought forth and emphasized is a terrifying prospect.

3. Sometimes villains exist in environments that allow them to behave as nastily as is their inclination. They might get away with what they do, and maybe even forever.

4. Villains who see the conflict as black or white, winner take all, can be quite motivated to succeed and may go to great lengths to assure a particular outcome.

5. They can also be relentless in their justification of their behavior to themselves. They may believe that they are in the right, for example, or that they have no choice, or that they are the chosen one.  These justifications act as an internal, exculpatory script that gets repeated over and over. The villain doesn’t learn because he never takes information in.  There’s no room in his mind. There’s only his goal and the script.

6. Villains may have backgrounds that have led them to this dark place. Maybe nobody loved them enough, or someone important died, or there’s a score to settle, or an ancient fear. These needs shape the psyche and behavior of the character.

7. Villains may also have twisted minds of some kind that make them extremely dangerous. Obsessed, possessed, angry, grieving—some violent storm may motivate their behaviors. And yet, on the outside, they may appear quite calm, even engaging.

8. Villains do bad things, even horrible things. But some villains may not perceive their acts as harmful. Some villains may feel that they are doing God’s work.

9. The villain drives the conflict in the story.  Sometimes the villain succeeds.

A really good villain is hard to forget, and yet, you so wish you could.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo/drawing by elfwood.com.