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How to Write a Great Villain

Villains, walking towards a city, red fog surrounds them

27 November 2023

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Writing a Compelling Villain

A well-rounded, convincing villain can make or break your narrative. They’re the counterweight to your hero, the darkness that brings your light into focus.

Whether it’s an evil sorcerer in a fantasy novel or a devious CEO in a mystery thriller, every good story needs a great villain. In many novels, well-crafted antagonists provide tension and conflict to keep readers engaged. But not all villains are created equal.

Here, I’ll break down the big questions about writing villains, including types of villains, common characteristics and how to write a memorable villain that readers will love to hate.

What is a villain?

The concept of a villain is a common trope in storytelling that creates tension, drama and the narrative’s moral contrast.

Typically, a villain is a character who is portrayed as morally evil or antagonistic. They often engage in actions or behaviours that harm others, break societal norms or go against the values of the protagonist or the larger society.

Villains can take on various forms and motivations, and their actions may range from deceit and manipulation to cruelty and violence. While some villains may be driven by personal gain, power or revenge, others might act out of ideological beliefs or psychological complexities.

Types of villains 

Villains make your hero’s journey worth fighting for, and they can create unforgettable moments of storytelling. But what exactly makes a good villain? What types of villains are there? Below, we’ll dive into some types of villains you might come across in fiction. (Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and there are plenty more types we could dive into beyond these listed.)

1. The mastermind

These villains are highly intelligent, cunning and often charismatic, making them both fascinating and intimidating. They are the puppet masters behind the curtain, pulling the strings and manipulating the hero’s journey.

An example of a mastermind villain is Hannibal Lecter from Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series is a cunning serial killer who outsmarts police officers.

2. The anti-villain

The anti-villain is a character who is considered a villain but has noble intentions or redeeming qualities. They may have a tragic backstory or a personal vendetta against the hero, but their actions are not entirely evil. The anti-villain can be a great way to add complexity to your story and can even challenge the hero’s morality.

Examples of anti-villains include Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series and Magneto from X-Men.

3. The schemer

This type of villain is a master of deception, manipulation and trickery. They are often charming, using their skills to get what they want. Their schemes can be complex and convoluted, and the hero must use all their wits to unravel the villain’s plans. The schemer can create a sense of tension and uncertainty, leaving readers unsure who to trust.

A schemer from literature is Iago from William Shakespeare’s Othello is a classic example of a deceitful villain who schemes and manipulates people to achieve his evil goals.

4. The psychopath

This type of villain is often the most terrifying, possessing no empathy or remorse for their actions. They can be sadistic, unpredictable and violent, creating a sense of fear and danger for the hero and readers alike. A desire for power, revenge or simply a twisted sense of pleasure may motivate them.

Annie Wilkes in Misery by Stephen King has elements of various villain types, but stands out as a true psychopath through her lack of empathy, erratic behaviour and capacity for violence.

5. The vengeful

This type of villain seeks revenge for a perceived wrong, often fueled by personal loss or betrayal. They can create an emotional arc for the hero as they try to accept their role in creating the villain. The vengeful may be ruthless and uncompromising, making them a formidable adversary for the hero.

The Count in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is driven by his desire for revenge against those wronged him, embodying the vengeful villain.

6. The corrupted

This type of villain starts as a hero or ally but is corrupted by power, greed or ambition. They can create a sense of tragedy, as they were once good, but have fallen from grace. The corrupted may struggle with their new role and try to justify their actions, creating an interesting character arc.

Jack Torrance from Stephen King’s The Shining gives in to the corrupting influence of the Overlook Hotel, leading to his fall into madness.

7. The power-hungry

This type of villain is driven by a desire for power or control. They may do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, no matter how morally reprehensible. The power-hungry can create a high-stakes conflict, as the hero races against time to stop them from succeeding.

Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has a primary motivation to seize ultimate power and control over Middle-earth. He creates the One Ring to achieve his goal, which corrupts those around it.

8. The beast

This type of villain is often a literal monster, creating a sense of fear and danger for the hero. They may be driven by primal instincts or a desire to survive in a hostile world. The beast can create an exciting action-packed conflict, as the hero tries to outsmart or defeat them.

Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is consumed by an obsession to hunt and destroy the giant white whale, Moby Dick, often seen as a representation of the beastly force of nature.

moby-dick, rising from the sea, what is a villain

Characteristics of a villain

Connection to the hero

One key characteristic of a great villain is their connection to the hero. A good villain challenges the hero in a way that’s personal and meaningful. They may have a history together or share a common goal, but ultimately, their motivations are at odds with each other. This tension creates conflict and keeps the audience engaged.

Depth and complexity

A captivating villain is never one-dimensional. They should have depth and complexity that go beyond their initial appearance. Think about Voldemort in the Harry Potter series—while we may see him as a purely evil figure at first, as the story progresses, we learn about his tragic backstory and motivations, making him a more complex and interesting character.

Speaking of backstory, it’s important to give your villains a reason why they act the way they do. This doesn’t mean that their motivations have to be sympathetic—after all, some villains relish in their evil deeds—but it should be clear why they are doing what they are doing.

Strengths and weaknesses

A villain without strengths is unconvincing, while a villain without weaknesses is unrelatable. Your villain needs to be a formidable opponent to your protagonist, but they must also be human (or human-like, depending on your genre). They should have traits that make them threatening, but also flaws that can be exploited.

Strong motivation

Remember that every villain is the hero of their own story. To them, their actions, no matter how monstrous, make sense. They have motivations, fears and desires just like any other character. This can add depth to your villain and make their actions more understandable, if not justifiable.

Let’s imagine a character who turns to villainy after betraying their friends. Why would they betray their friends? Without believable motivation, readers won’t connect with your character.

Moral ambiguity

Villains often have some degree of moral ambiguity. This means that their actions may be morally questionable, but there is some justification for why they are acting in this way. This creates an interesting dynamic where the audience may question whether the villain is entirely in the wrong.

How to write a memorable villain

So, how can you create an interesting villain that ticks these boxes? Here are some tips:

  • Give your villain a powerful motivation – even if it’s not sympathetic, it should be clear why they are doing what they’re doing. 
  • Make sure your villain has some depth – maybe they have a tragic backstory or a unique perspective on the world.
  • Give your villain a weakness – this makes the hero’s victory even more satisfying.
  • Create a worthy opponent – your villain provides a significant challenge for the protagonist, creating a high level of conflict and tension in the story. Keep your readers on the edge of their seats by crafting an engaging antagonist that poses a real threat to your hero.

Don’t settle for ordinary villains, collaborate with an editor

Villains are an essential part of any story. They are the source of conflict that drives the plot forward and creates tension that keeps the reader engaged. Crafting an engaging villain is not an easy task, but with the help of an editor, you can take your villains to the next level.

Whether it’s bringing a fresh perspective, helping you create complex characters, avoiding cliches or creating a compelling narrative arc, I can help you create a villain that is memorable and unique. Don’t settle for an ordinary villaincollaborate with an editor and take your writing to the next level. Find out more about my editorial services over on the Writing Hub.

Eira Edwards profile photo

Written By Eira Edwards

Eira is a writer and editor from the South of England with over five years of experience as a Content Manager, helping clients perfect their copy.

She has a degree in English Literature and Language, which she loves putting to work by working closely with fiction authors.

When she’s not working on manuscripts, you can find her in the woods with her partner and dog, or curling up with a good book.

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