Everybody loves a good villain, but every writer knows that creating a good villain is one of the more difficult things to do. Regardless of whether you want a sympathetic, lovable, or truly despicable villain in your story, you need to put a lot of work into their character to evoke the strongest emotions in your readers. Successful storytellers often end up making their villains fan favorites, and some readers may read the entire story just for the times the villain is in a scene, or for the conflict they create.
And that’s another thing… Most stories are hinged on the villain. A villain creates conflict in the story, and conflict is the reason why the story exists. A story without conflict would be a pretty dull read. The villain is usually the reason that a hero has to act, so really, you should worry about making a good villain before you even think about making the hero!
The heroes in a story often steal the writer’s spotlight, even though villains can often end up being the characters that readers like or relate to more—and that’s tragic. Villains should get the same amount of care, development, and time put into their design and personality. If you don’t make your villains truly interesting, that could be enough to push some readers away.
First Things First: What is a Villain?
Just to clear up any confusion from the beginning, let’s start by defining some terms. A villain is not the same as an antagonist. Likewise, a hero is not the same as a protagonist. Although villains often end up being the antagonists, that depends on the story being told.
- A protagonist is the main character of a story. They are the character through which the story is told, and they are often at the center of the conflict. They make the decisions, they drive the plot, and they are typically in most of the scenes. You should not assume that a protagonist is “the good guy” simply because they are the one the story is about, however. Protagonists don’t have to be moral little angels—and in fact, stories are often better if they aren’t.
- A hero, on the other hand, is the good guy. Heroes are the characters in the story who fight for a just cause, and stand by what they believe to be right. Typically, the protagonist ends up being a hero, but that is determined by the perspective of the story. The protagonist could actually end up being a pretty bad person that a hero needs to stop.
- An antagonist is a character in a story that gets in the protagonist’s way. Most people understand antagonists to be villainous people that actively try to foil a hero’s plans, but they don’t have to be malicious. In fact, an antagonist could be a friendly neighbor that keeps the hero in a conversation about their garden just long enough for them to miss their bus.
- A villain is a character in a story that acts out in selfish, illegal, or dangerous ways to achieve something. They could have a warped sense of justice, like getting revenge, they could be trying to get famous, make money, or exploit others, or, they could have the same goals as the hero, but dangerous ideas for achieving that goal. In simple terms, a villain is a character that needs to be stopped.
To reiterate: if your story is about a villain, then the villain would be the protagonist, and the hero would be the antagonist.
What Makes a Villain “Good?”
There are several factors that go into making a villain a “good” one. That doesn’t mean that they are secretly a good person—in fact, it can mean quite the opposite. A good villain can be someone who is so horrifyingly cruel that it gives your readers chills. And there’s the goal with villains: make your readers feel something when they’re on the page, whether that’s sadness, disgust, horror, or something else. If you can elicit strong emotions from your readers, then you know you’ve made a good villain.
Making a good villain a good character can be tough, but there are a few things that you should be trying to include in their character to make them complex enough to be interesting. Before you proceed, you need to identify what specific emotion you are hoping to elicit with this character. Do you want your readers to identify the villain as misunderstood, and feel bad for them? Do you want your readers to fear for the hero’s safety every time your erratic villain enters a scene? Do you want to make a character so awful that readers love to hate them? Define your goals, and you’ll have an easier time making the character do what you want.
Good doesn’t mean “good” in this case; it means “interesting.” If you’ve been on my blog before, then you’ll know by now what you need to do to make any character more interesting. You need to think about their quirks, the way they speak, and the notable features of their appearance. They’ll need a backstory, goals, and motives. They will also need to be—and this is especially important for villains—believable and relatable in some way. All the best villains tend to be someone readers can sympathize with, since it adds a layer of desperation to all their wrongdoings.
One good way to get started on making your character interesting is to consider what their flaws are. The things a character does wrong are inherently more interesting than the things a character does well. Check out my other article: “How to Create Complex Flaws for Characters“ for some ideas.
As a sidenote: villains don’t always have to be treated like true characters. If your story features a demonic entity, a corrupt god, or some other non-human or otherwise intangible threat, then they could just be a vessel for bringing the hero’s own sins into focus. By focusing on the hero’s struggle with power, greed, temptation, redemption, vengeance, etc, the conflict in the story can become internal as the hero struggles to overcome their less-than-heroic character traits.
How to Create Believable Villains
In most cases, villains are going to be regular people. Sure, something in their past drove them towards a villainous lifestyle, but before that, they likely had a normal job, a life, a family of some sort, hobbies, pets, food allergies, favorite colors… you get the idea. Those things should still be important to your villain, even if they have changed significantly from that time. A villain with a soft spot for cats, for example, gives you a wonderful opportunity to show some tenderness in your otherwise cold-hearted villain.
Your villain should have a life outside of doing villainous things. If they’re running from the law, that doesn’t have to mean they go out for pizza on Sundays or something, but they should have some things they like to do outside of just ruining things for the hero. Chances are, they aren’t obsessing over the hero or their plans all the time. They should have some other thing they like to do—even if that other thing is being catered to or pampered by their minions.
In addition to that, you should consider the traits your villain has that aren’t all that bad. Bad people can still be genuinely attractive, charismatic, friendly, or even charitable—as long as those good traits don’t contradict the villainous traits you’ve already given them. Be aware, really amping up the character’s charisma or friendliness could give them a creepy vibe—though that can be a good thing!
If you want to lean into the creepy aesthetic for your villain, take a peek at my other article: “How to Write a Creepy Character Realistically.”
Want to make your own evil genius? Look to my “Simple Tips for Writing Genius Characters!”
How to Make Villains Sympathetic
Making your villain sympathetic is not something that’s going to work with every story. If you already know that you don’t want your readers to feel bad for your villain, you can go ahead and skip this section. However, if you think that could provide an interesting dynamic for your villain, you should read on.
You’ve probably heard the saying “everyone is the hero of their own story” before. Sometimes that’s true, but not always. Yes, it’s true that some villains have good intentions but bad methods, or they have a warped sense of right and wrong. But sometimes, villains know that what they are doing is wrong—they just choose to do it anyway.
One of the ways you can start to build your villain up as a sympathetic character is with how you frame their intentions. There are a couple of options for setting this up:
- A good way to make your villain sympathetic is to distort their understanding of the world such that they believe that they are doing the right thing. If they truly think that what they’re doing is good, despite any consequences, then it’s difficult to brush them off as being simply evil.
- Another option is to give your villain a scapegoat complex. They know that what they’re doing is wrong, and it makes them a bad person, but they are willing to accept the consequences of that in order to achieve a goal. If their plan is to murder a politician they disagree with, that makes them a bad person and they know it. But a scapegoat character is willing to accept responsibility for their actions in order to (in their opinion) better the world. This also applies to plans that would inevitably conclude with their death, and yet they proceed anyway.
- A popular option for making villains sympathetic is to make them a victim of circumstance. People can do terrible things when put under pressure. A starving person may start stealing to survive. A child being abused may murder their abuser (purposefully or accidentally). A person being blackmailed may do whatever is necessary to comply with the blackmailer’s demands. After an initial event, you can continue to manipulate the villain through external forces, you can have them assume they are already bad and just continue those behaviors on their own, or you could devise some other plan for them to continue their sinister deeds.
- Somewhat similar to the option above, which forces a suffering person to do what is necessary to survive, this next option is to have your villain act to protect, save, or even resurrect another person. Everyone has someone special in their lives, and your villain just might have someone worth committing a crime for. A villain with a sick child may kidnap scientists and force them to work towards a cure. A villain mourning the loss of their spouse may come unhinged and try to raise the dead. A villain that started out as a one-man-show might have started a family later down the road, and now must do drastic things to keep them all safe from capture. If your villain is acting on behalf of another person, you can appeal to that sense of love and make them a more relatable character for your readers.
- Revenge is an age-old justification for cruel or homicidal behaviors. If a villain has a vendetta against the hero (or any other character in the story) because the hero killed someone they cared about or otherwise ruined their life (knowingly or unknowingly), then a revenge plot might just make them seem sympathetic to your readers. It could also be a good way of showing that your hero isn’t as perfect as other characters may believe them to be.
- A villain could also begin committing crimes as a result of a debt owed to another person. Maybe they are not an inherently mean or cruel person, but they are forced to act in such a way to repay someone who helped them in the past. This is a great opportunity for making your villains just misunderstood, scared, or manipulated, which can make an eventual death even more heartbreaking. (Ever made a reader cry because a villain died? This is how to do it.)
These are just some of the options for making your villains more sympathetic. However, these guidelines only work to make them sympathetic if the character behaves in a way that is justifiable or forgivable from the reader’s perspective. If a villain is heartlessly cruel, then your readers are going to have a hard time relating to them, regardless of their circumstances.
Creating the Villain’s Motives
A villain’s motives are probably one of the most important aspects of their design. The motive is what drives them towards a goal, and that goal is what makes them dangerous. Go beyond just imagining what your villain wants, and also consider why they want it, and how far they will go to get it.
So what is it that drives your villain? Is it fear? If your villain is afraid of death, then consider why that would be. Are they religious? Do they believe they will go to hell? Or is the thought of endless nothingness enough to strike fear in their heart? Then, how far are they willing to go to escape death? Do they conduct grotesque experiments on others to one day enhance their own body to lengthen their lifespan? Do they lash out violently at people who only vaguely threaten them? What lengths do they go to protect themself from injury and death?
Maybe instead, your villain wants to be so incredibly rich that they could buy up nations, build castles, and have a small army of people at their bidding. Why would they want this? Do they believe they deserve it, because of a noble bloodline, a lifetime of strife, or an unrewarded good deed? Or, do they want the protection and power associated with vast amounts of wealth? And finally, what are they willing to do to achieve this goal? Are they unbothered by the thought of thousands of people dying for this effort? Are they willing to steal, bribe, and ransom belongings, people, and information? What would they not do for this goal?
It is incredibly important to consider the “how far they will go to achieve their goal” aspect of this phase. That is the element that can turn a good deed into a bad one. For example, a person may want to save the environment, and they believe lowering the population’s carbon footprint is the best way to do that. That is a noble goal. However, when you consider what they are willing to do, that can get a lot more sinister. They may believe that a sharp decline in the population is the best way to reduce the carbon footprint, and so would start killing people themself. All of a sudden, a good person with a noble goal is turned into a villain because of how far they are willing to go to achieve that goal.
Making a Backstory for your Villain
Backstory is an important aspect of creating any character. This is especially true for villains, since a villain’s past often justifies their motives and goals in the story. Revealing a villain’s past should give at least a little insight into why they behave the way that they do. As with any character, you should consider how they were raised, what they were like as a child, and whether anything big happened in the past to shape them into who they are in the present.
A common choice for writers is to riddle their villain’s past with trauma and pain. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, since trauma can be hugely influential, but I urge you to be careful. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very serious, very real condition suffered by a lot of real people, so if you’re going to give that trait to your villain, you need to understand a few things first.
- The villain acts out in dangerous ways as a result of their trauma—if, and only if, the other factors in their life lead them down that path. Trauma alone is not enough to drive someone towards villainy. Do not, under any circumstances, villanize the condition itself. PTSD does not make people bad. But it does have unpredictable effects on individuals, and a person predisposed to cruelty may become a villain as a result.
- Real people suffer from this condition. You should strive to be respectful and understanding of those that really have it.
- People’s responses to trauma are varied and complex. You need to be ready to do your research to properly convey the condition so you can write it well. As a bonus, that research will make your story more relatable, more emotional, and just better overall.
- To reiterate on the first point: do not suggest that the PTSD made them a villain. There are many other factors that go into the development of a villain, and simply relying on a condition is not only offensive, but it’s also cheap writing.
These rules apply to any other condition you may be considering adding to your villains. Many books and movies demonize conditions like Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, also known as Multiple Personality Disorder), PTSD, Psychosis, and a host of other mental conditions. Do not do this.
You can still give these traits to your villains, but be cautious about how you go about it. It would be better to frame the condition in a sympathetic way, rather than a frightening way. Readers should feel bad for villains with these conditions, but they should never feel the need to blame the villain’s actions on their condition.
Make Your Villains a Match for Your Heroes
This should be obvious, but your villain should give your hero a run for their money. No one likes a hero that wins too easily. Letting your villain win a few times in the beginning will raise the stakes for the hero, and give them more of a reason to work hard towards improving themself.
The villain could be a strong foe, capable of defeating the hero in battle. Or, they could have a psychological advantage over the hero, being able to tempt or manipulate the hero. They could outwit the hero, and stay a step ahead of them no matter what. There are many ways that one person can best another, so try to think of all the ways in which you could give your villain the upper hand. An imposing foe makes the hero’s inevitable victory that much more satisfying.
Let Your Villains do the Unthinkable
Sympathetic villains are great and all, but sometimes, you need to remind your readers why your villain needs to be stopped. Don’t be afraid to let your villain do something truly horrific to show your readers just how broken, cruel, or heartless they truly are. Let them do something absolutely harrowing to a supporting character. If they understand the hero, then let them do something uniquely horrifying to them, something specifically designed just to get to them. Shock your readers. This is your bad guy. Even if your villain is sympathetic, even if they’re confused, even if they’re misunderstood, you need to shock your readers. You need to drive home the point. You need your villains to do things beyond what normal people are capable of. Often, beyond what they’re even capable of thinking about. Only then can you craft a villain truly worthy of your reader’s respect, and create a character they’ll love to hate.