On Writing Villains
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
There are a few things that the majority of villains have. They have a motive, opportunity, and some connection to the main character, assuming that the protagonist is a hero. But what makes a villain good at being bad?
There are a few different types of villains. There’s the creepy villains, the evil villains, the spiteful villains, and the jealous villains. For the remainder of this post, I’ll be focusing on how to create a creepy villain.
*Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers for BBC’s Sherlock.*
1. Your villain must be likable. The most unnerving villains of all are the ones hiding in plain sight. This can make the protagonist and the audience question everything they ever thought to be true. Take Jim Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock, for example. From the pool scene on, the audience knows this man must be stopped at any price. But then, a few episodes later, Moriarty is shown not as the consulting criminal Sherlock knows him as, but rather as Richard Brook, an out of work actor Sherlock “hired to play Moriarty.” The evidence for this second story, a supposed cover, is so rock solid the audience can’t help but question Sherlock, even if they’ve trusted him all the way up to this point.
Why does this work? Because Richard Brook is likable. He reads stories to children on TV. He’s an innocent bystander in the crazy life of Sherlock Holmes. Who would suspect that he’d killed all those people?
How do we do this in our own writing? You can do what the BBC did with Moriarty and give your character an incredibly convincing cover. Or, you can give the villain such a relatable backstory that no reader in their right mind would dare to hate him. Readers may strongly dislike him, but if the readers can relate their own lives to that of the villain, it will give the villain’s actions a much stronger punch.
2. Your villain must be unpredictable. If your villain is repetitively doing the same thing over and over again, they’re going to be predictable, and your reader will wonder why the protagonist doesn’t use their rigid schedule against them.
Some practical ways to keep your protagonist on his toes with the villain are as follows: Have the antagonist intentionally let the protagonist escape. This leaves the protagonist wondering why and keeps the antagonist playing mind games with them, even from a distance.
Have the antagonist show up in the protagonist’s life every once in awhile, just to “pop in for tea” or check up on them. If they show up, ask how the protagonist’s day was, help themselves to the fridge, or go through the antagonist’s closet, but leave without doing anything to the protagonist, it can send a message to the protagonist that the antagonist owns them and has power in their life. It also can send the hopeless message of “I’m here and there’s nothing you can do about it” to the protagonist, which can do damage more often than if the antagonist physically assaults them.
Have your antagonist genuinely believe they care for the protagonist. People will do anything if they honestly think they’re helping another person. (In this case, the antagonist’s definition of “help” is very different than the protagonist’s.) If the antagonist often keeps the protagonist captive, write the protagonist’s experience different every time. For the first few times, they can be kept in a cellar and starved. The next time, they can be given a luxury bedroom and all the food they could desire, and allowed to leave. This makes the protagonist question whether or not they really can trust their antagonist or not, and trust is a powerful tool in the hands of a villain who’s good at being bad.
3. Your villain must be normal. This ties into making them likable or relatable, but if your villain only ever hides in their lair, tapping their fingers together maniacally and plots how to make the protagonist’s life miserable, you and your readers are going to get bored very quickly. Like all people, villains and heroes have separate lives when they’re apart. Think about what your villain is doing when he’s not plotting the parts of his life that intersect with the protagonist’s. Is he a well-known scientist? Is he a weapons manufacturer? Does he have a family that takes up most of his non-evil life? If your protagonist went to a coffee shop, would he see your antagonist across the room sipping a latte and having a perfectly legitimate business meeting? Just as your hero can’t only do the heroic acts—she must still pay bills, hang out with friends, or do homework—the villain must have a fully thought out life beyond the hero.
If there’s anything you think I missed or anything you want to hear more about, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also connect with me on social media (@AuthorJJHanna).
J. J. Hanna is attending Taylor University for a degree in Professional Writing. She has published multiple devotions and book reviews and is a beginning comic artist.
This post originally posted September 12, 2017 on https://pwr.taylor.edu/2017/09/12/on-writing-villains/.