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Sinister Scribbles: Writing Compelling Villains

May 21, 2024

A good villain can make or break entire stories. There are so many stories that would be way better if they had an interesting villain, or stories that would fall apart if their villains weren’t as memorable.

But what makes those villains “memorable” in the first place?

If you’re looking to write a story and want to make sure your antagonist is one of its best highlights, keep these tips in mind.

Tips To Help You Write A Great Villain

1. Figure Out What Direction You’re Taking

Modern audiences tend to love the characterizations of villains more than the heroes, and a big reason for that is the variety that antagonists can have. There are bad guys like Inspector Javert, who adhere to a code so strictly that it turns them into fair, lawful, yet terrifying villains. Then there are villains like Gollum, who were once innocent and even long to have that innocence again, but realize they can’t have it back so evil is their only option.

Lastly, you have unhinged bad guys like Professor Moriarty, one of history’s greatest and most recognized antagonists, who is simply a villain for the sake of his own ego, selfishness, personal gain, and desire to cause problems for others. All three types of villains are common, but all three are loved and interesting in their own ways. Which of these roads you choose to put your villain on can completely change the way your story goes.

So, the first most important aspect of writing a villain is that exact choice. If you want mayhem, go for the unhinged antagonist that’s just always looking to destroy the protagonist. If you want something similarly “crazy” but more unnerving, a character with a relentless code that drives them to being the bad guy should be your go-to. If you want to give your villain a big focus and expand on them almost as much as the hero, a more sympathetic and detailed character is your best bet.

2. Give Every Action A Reason

Every good villain needs a reason for why they behave the way they do. Mysterious characters are definitely compelling, but don’t keep your audience completely in the dark. Share just enough so the reader knows what drives them to hate the antagonist as relentlessly as they do, what encourages them to adhere to a set of rules so strictly, or what made them choose a life of villainy.

Keep their motivation and goals clear. Don’t keep everything hidden until the end. That can just lead to cheesy monologues or uninteresting info-dumping about the villain that ruins the pace of your story. Plus, other than some rare cases, it immediately makes your antagonist go from a good character to an underwhelming one.

3. Don’t Give Your Villain The Backseat

Villains, especially in the modern age of storytelling, tend to drive the story forward even more than the hero. Their actions dictate how the story goes, and what hurdles the hero faces. So, don’t make yours the kind of antagonist that just shows up at the start of the story, makes a mess, and only returns at the end to answer for it.

They should have regular appearances, and those appearances should be meaningful. Depending on the type of villain you choose to write, focus on little details during their appearance to make them a better character.

For example, show someone challenging or mocking a lawful villain’s set of rules, and show what kind of reaction that elicits. If you’re writing an unhinged, insane type of antagonist, show them going out of their way to ruin someone else’s day (or even their entire life) for the littlest of reasons. Show sympathetic characters having a human moment, or give them further reasons to descend into villany.

All of these are different examples, but they serve the exact same purpose: giving the protagonist (as well as the audience) more reasons to be afraid of them or consider them a threat. An antagonist that’s all talk and no show will eventually feel flat or straight up boring.

4. Fleshing Out Villains (More)

Think of any villain you like as a character, and there’s bound to be a tiny detail about them that sticks out. It could be something as little as Darth Vader’s breathing, or Anton Chigurh’s tendency to stay clean no matter what. These are little details that make the antagonist more memorable, and they can make them scarier too.

From their appearance to the way they talk, behave, carry themselves, or even look at other people, there are so many directions you can take when it comes to giving your villain characteristics that flesh them out and paint a terrifying picture in the reader’s mind.

These are things that appear small but can also become big plot points later on, or at least a way for readers to remember your villain. Showing the consequences of their rampages, giving glimpses of how they handle everyday situations, putting them in tense situations of their own; all these things are great ways to expand on the character of a good villain.

5. Give Your Villain Some Growth Too

On the subject of fleshing out your villain, make sure that they grow a little alongside your protagonist. Someone that just stays generically evil and one-dimensional will get boring super fast. As a writer, you’ll drive yourself into a corner with them, and your readers will lose interest too.

Think of even the most unhinged villains, like the Joker, who is maybe the most popular of them all. His entire character is the personification of cruelty, evil, chaos, and wickedness. But, even he has character arcs in all of the most memorable pieces of Batman media. That character arc usually revolves around him finding a purpose in wanting to break Batman’s code or spirit. It gives him purpose after being a lowly villain that used to terrorize gang lords and motivates him into being more deranged than ever.

Sympathetic characters especially need an arc like this to make them even better. The arc can focus on them going from a good person to a much worse one. Another good option is them realizing that what they’re doing is simply wrong, but in a believable way that doesn’t seem to be there to shoehorn a happier ending.

Their growth alongside the main character of your story makes the final confrontation between both parties that more tense and meaningful. It’s a great way to set up a climax for any saga and entices readers to see how things unfold between your protagonist and antagonist alike.

6. Don’t Get Too Cliche

It’s hard to not fall into cliche territory when writing a villain. There’s such a thin line between a good antagonist and a straight up cartoonish one, which is why writing them is such a challenge. But, if you can stay on the right side of that line, you can almost guarantee that your story is a good one.

If you follow all the tips shared so far, you can avoid cornering yourself into a “we’re not so different, you and I” situation. Making a villain believable is as simple as making them realistic. There are good people and bad people in real life, and the best villains are the ones that are so morally bad, yet so easy to imagine as real people living around you.

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