There’s something delicious about writing a good villain – perhaps it’s about letting our dark side peek out, safe in the knowledge that it’s only fiction and nobody is really going to get hurt.
But writing a good villain isn’t as easy as coming up with a good cackle and kicking a few puppies.
That might have been good enough in the past, but readers today prefer a bit of nuance. The best villains of today aren’t black and white but many shades of grey.
Read on as we break down the six key characteristics of a compelling villain and look at how villains have evolved as our understanding of ourselves has evolved.
How to Write a Good Villain in 6 Steps
These steps have been broken down into three steps to build a classic villain; two for a villain that will be compelling to modern audiences; and then a final bonus step if you want to really knock it out of the park.
So, let’s start with three steps to create a great classic villain:
1. Make them Powerful
One of the most critical aspects your villain must embody is power.
There is a reason villains are often rich, with huge numbers of minions at their beck and call.
David and Goliath is an inspiring story because David was up against seemingly impossible odds. Imagine if Goliath had been a frail, elderly dwarf instead of a raging giant. We would not have felt good about David smacking him in the eye at all.
Humans have an inherent sense of fairness and we don’t tend to take pleasure in seeing someone powerful crush someone weaker. No, opponents need to be well-matched – or even better, we would much prefer to root for someone who is going up against the odds.
So if you want your readers to be invested in your characters and story, the villain needs to be someone who has everything in their favor – money, power, influence – while the hero is limping along with a bent sword and a broken bow and arrow.
Of course, all these aspects can be subverted or used through specific lenses.
While it is common for villains to be objectively powerful in the world at large, it’s actually only necessary for them to be powerful within the world the story is set, so if the story world is much smaller, the range of their power can be much smaller but still be overwhelming for the hero.
For example, Tommy Lee Royce in the second season of Happy Valley is not only penniless, but actually in prison – on the surface, he appears to lack any kind of power.
However, he still manages to use his looks and charm to convince a besotted woman to continue terrorizing our hero and her loved ones.
This is a great example of how the ‘power’ aspect can be subverted and interpreted in unique ways.
Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is only powerful within the specific setting of the Mental Institute, but as that is the ‘world’ of the story, that is quite enough, as it essentially gives her ultimate authority.
Anne Wilkes in misery has no power, influence, or wealth outside her own home – but once she has Paul Sheldon trapped in her home and unable to leave, that equates to ultimate power over him.
2. Make them Proactive
Heroes must always be proactive, and the same goes for villains.
It’s not good having a villain who is powerful if all they’re going to do is sit around and whine.
No, they need to be a person of action. They need to be giving orders, stirring things up, and pulling levers. And all of this action should be causing problems for your hero.
In some cases the villain may be pursuing their goal indifferent to the hero – and the hero must stop them if good is to prevail.
Or the villain may be directly in conflict with the hero – doing everything they can to thwart whatever the hero is trying to achieve.
In the first Star Wars movie, Darth Vader is constantly active, striding around barking orders, punishing people who don’t do his bidding quickly or effectively enough, capturing people, and torturing them.
This is a guy with a full schedule.
Anne Wilkes in Misery is proactive on a smaller, more personal scale, but no less damaging way.
She begins by ‘rescuing’ Paul Sheldon and continues by forcing him to do her bidding, and escalates by committing multiple murders in order to maintain her control.
3. Make them Unhinged
Arguably, all villains must be unhinged by definition – because if they weren’t they wouldn’t behave how they do.
But you can think about exactly how unhinged they are going to be.
You could have a villain who is almost normal, but just takes things a little too far – perhaps like Darth Vader.
Or you could have an utterly psychotic baddie who is completely unpredictable, such as the Joker or Joffrey Barratheon.
Setting them outside of reasonable mental bounds often takes the form of them being unpredictable and/or not having boundaries.
It could also be that they react in a way that is opposite to what we would consider a healthy, balanced, ‘normal’ person. For example, perhaps they do enjoy seeing Goliath crush David, or they find the sight of newborn lambs utterly disgusting.
Next – how to build a nuanced villain…
So, those are three aspects you are likely to find in all villains, across all time.
However, as mentioned earlier, human beings and our understanding of ourselves have evolved over time and that has had a huge impact on the kinds of stories we find plausible and compelling.
While we love to hate a villain, we often find them more compelling when there’s a bit of ambiguity thrown in.
If someone is 100% bad and always shown that way A) we don’t really find them believable as a person, and B) it’s a bit flat and therefore boring.
So the next two points explain ways in which you can create a more complex villain which will appeal to modern audiences and make them start questioning their own morals and beliefs.
Read on for two ways to lift your villain out of two dimensions and make them make your audience deeply uncomfortable…
4. Give them a Noble Motivation
Some of the best villains have motivations we understand – even admire.
The reason this is so effective is that having a villain who is straightforward to hate, who wants to do something for terrible reasons, is too simple.
We can put them in the box of ‘evil’ and get on with our day.
But if there is a villain who we find ourselves reluctantly agreeing with, even though it’s clear they are a terrible person, then that gives us a squirmy feeling inside and is much more likely to stay with us for longer.
Probably the most common example of this in modern times is the villain who wants to destroy a large portion of humankind in order to save humankind long term.
Destroying humankind = bad.
But saving humankind = good, right?
Cue – squirmy feelings.
Another popular motive is scientific discovery.
All manner of torture and suffering has been committed in the name of furthering human understanding of the world, and doubtless, some of our greatest discoveries, which have helped thousands of people, would not have happened if the scientists had had more regard for their study subjects.
From splitting up twins or triplets to study the impact of environment versus genes, to testing medical procedures on prisoners to using orphans as guinea pigs for psychological experiments, science and ‘helping people in the future’ has often been used to commit harm in the present.
SPOILER ALERT: Hap from the OA is a perfect example of this.
He will do almost anything in pursuit of his scientific breakthroughs, including imprisonment of innocent people, torture, and murder. But he takes no pleasure in any of this behavior, if anything he finds it pretty distasteful.
However, he puts aside his aversion because he truly believes that once he discovers the truth about life after death, it will transform the whole of humanity for the better.
Another popular defendable motive is to restore the rights and dignity of oppressed people.
Again, it is easy to agree with this motive, but if it requires punishing or even eradicating those who have been doing the oppressing, then the noble motive begins to creep into the dark side.
A key way to think about it is that villains often live by the phrase ‘the ends justify the means.’
So they are willing to commit all kinds of heinous crimes if they believe the ends are worth it.
Whereas a more ‘heroic’ person sees that there are limits to what is acceptable to do, regardless of the result.
Of course, what is acceptable is a matter of perspective, and may change depending on whose point of view you are standing in.
For more on that, see our article on anti-villains.
5. Make them Empathetic
A good way to understand how our fiction tastes have changed over the years is to study how the character of Dracula has evolved.
The original internationally successful vampire story, published in 1897, has a villain that is utterly black in a black-and-white world. He is a literal monster.
He drinks blood, preys on vulnerable people, and has no mercy or compassion.
We find out little of his thoughts, motives, emotions, or backstory.
However, by the time the movie starring Gary Oldman was released, almost 100 years later, in 1992, the character was presented completely differently.
The modern Dracula has a tragic backstory: his beloved wife commits suicide after hearing false reports of his death and all his actions thereafter stem from his desire to be reunited with her.
While this may not justify all of his actions, it does go a long way to making us feel empathy for the character and finding it harder to easily box him up as evil.
You will often find that the best villains in modern stories have similar tragic backstories which elicit our empathy and sympathy.
This makes for a more engaging and compelling experience than something more simplistic.
Shere Khan of The Jungle Book was born with a crippled foot, and if this physical disability hadn’t been enough, his mother consolidates his trauma by nicknaming him ‘The Lame One.’
Voldemort also has a tragic backstory which is gradually revealed over the series.
It transpires he is an orphan, whose mother died shortly after giving birth to him, and he grew up in a dingy orphanage – unloved.
Of course, a tragic backstory isn’t the only way to create empathy for a villain – you could show them in some kind of pain in the present – but this is trickier to pull off, as it could conflict and undermine the ‘powerful’ element described above.
I mentioned above that these two elements ‘noble motive’ and ‘empathetic’ are both aspects of modern, more three-dimensional villains. This sort of villain is sometimes called an anti-villain – read more about that here.
Bonus step to making a transcendent villain
Now for the 6th and final step in creating a compelling baddie, which will help you lift your story from the entertaining to the truly transcendent…
6. Make them Mirror your Hero
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
The truly masterful storytellers pull off an extra trick, which can be extremely effective when done well.
This is to link the hero and the villain so closely they are the light and dark sides of the same coin.
If every story is an exploration of a specific aspect of the human condition, then the hero is usually the vessel that carries the message.
For example, the author may be exploring the theme ‘true happiness can only be found in selflessness’.
In this case, the adventures of the hero will all relate to the rewards or punishments for behaving in a selfish or selfless way.
By the end of the story, the hero will have learned this lesson, and in their final test, they will behave in a selfless way and will reap the rewards for growing as a person.
This is all well and good.
But to really make this point stand out even further in relief, you can take your villain on a similar journey, making them in many ways similar to the hero exploring the same theme – but the difference is that at the end of the story, where the hero prevails and makes the right decision – the villain cannot.
The villain will always make the wrong decision in the end (in this case acting selfishly) and therefore will never achieve what they want or need.
Harry Potter and Voldemort are the perfect example of this. Similarities between the two characters are laid out consistently throughout the books, including the fact that they are both orphans, grew up not knowing they were wizards, are both able to speak parseltongue, and are the only two people ever to have been chosen by a wand with a phoenix feather core.
But where Voldemort has been cruel and manipulative since childhood, Harry is consistently kind, generous, and loyal.
Batman and the Joker are also entwined with similarities, and yet at the same time completely opposite. They are both at the top of their game, with great resources at their fingertips. They both lost their closest loved ones in tragic circumstances.
However, while Batman channeled his grief into fighting crime and creating order, the Joker went in a different direction and put all his energy into creating suffering and chaos.
Where Batman is reserved, dark, and controlled, the Joker is vividly colorful, wild, and erratic.
So to take your readers on a fascinating journey on the exploration of good and evil – make your hero and villain simultaneously almost the same, and complete opposites.
Villain Characteristics You Can Use as Inspiration
Now we’ve established some rules of thumb about the ingredients that make a good villain cake, let’s sample a few examples and consider what makes these popular villains so effective.
All of these summaries will contain spoilers.
1. Cruella DeVil
Cruella DeVil is one of the most iconic baddies of all time and is a great example of a classic villain.
Let’s explore how the 6 aspects of villains manifest in her – or not.
Cruella is undoubtedly powerful. She is rich and influential and is used to getting what she wants. She is also proactive. She bursts into people’s houses and orders people around in order to achieve her aims.
She’s also unhinged, which is demonstrated in her maniacal nature and tendency to lose her temper and get violent.
But is she complex?
Cruella’s motive is to have a coat made out of puppies…not many people will find that very noble.
And that makes sense, because Cruella is a classic villain, not a modern one.
For the same reason, she lacks a tragic backstory (until very recently – more on that below), and there are no situations in which she is shown to be compassionate or vulnerable.
Finally, Cruella does not really deliver on the ‘mirroring’ aspect.
While there are contrasts that can be seen between Cruella and the dog protagonists: she is cruel and abrasive while they are caring, loyal and gentle – these are quite general, and it would be hard to say the mirror technique is particularly applied here.
An aside: The fact that 65 years after the original 101 Dalmations Book was released, Disney gave Cruella her own dedicated movie (starring Emma Stone) is another fascinating example of how audiences’ tastes have evolved to desire complex characters.
While the original Cruella was pretty two-dimensional, in the movie she had all the complexity you would expect from a modern villain.
She has a tough upbringing, has to deal with rejection, has noble goals and dreams – and she is even given a damn good reason to hate Dalmations.
But there is none of this in the original book. And anyway, since we are all the heroes of our own stories, she is actually the hero of “Cruella”, not the villain.
It’s a complicated subject.
2. Darth Vader
Darth Vader is arguably another of the most iconic villains of all time.
Let’s see how the aspects of evil stack up in his character. For simplicity, we’ll only consider the original trilogy, where Darth Vader played the role of the key villain.
He unquestionably embodies the villain characteristic of being powerful – he is the right-hand man of the most powerful person in the known Universe and has vast resources at his disposal.
He is definitely proactive, as mentioned above, he is always marching around getting stuff done.
With regards to being unhinged, Darth Vader is quite controlled, to begin with, but definitely shows his lack of boundaries when he loses his temper and becomes violent even to those who are supposed to be on his side – because they don’t meet his expectations.
Darth Vader’s motives are to serve his boss well and to be the best at what he does. Not much to argue with there.
Darth Vader spends most of the trilogy playing the role of a classic, two-dimensional villain.
However, in the end, Darth Vader is an excellent example of a complex villain who we can’t help but have some empathy for.
While he spends most of the original trilogy being violent, aggressive, and torturing people – at the end of the final movie, he finally redeems himself by saving his son and killing the Emperor, before having an emotional heart-to-heart with his son and dying in peace.
Not so easy to put in the ‘evil’ box after all.
And finally, Darth Vader is a perfect example of a villain being a nemesis – a mirror of the hero.
Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker both have the same great skill with the force, but while Luke Skywalker always chooses the side of light and right, Darth Vader embodies everything it means to make the opposite choice and follow the dark side.
Voldemort is probably the most well-known villain of the last couple of decades and Rowling expertly evolves him from a classic villain in the early books, to a much more complex character by the end – reflecting her audience’s coming-of-age and development of their own views of the complexity of good and evil.
So, Voldemort embodies the three classic villain traits throughout the books, but with interesting nuances.
In the first book, it could be argued that Voldermort is not powerful as he barely has physical form.
However, throughout the story he is referred to as being one of the most powerful wizards in the world, which puts that idea in the reader’s head, even if we haven’t seen him directly.
And, as with Tommy Lee Royce, even while he is greatly weakened by objective accounts, he still manages to use his skills into making other people carry out his dirty work – which has the potential to create great harm.
He is proactive, working hard towards restoring his strength and power, and trying to harm Harry at the same time.
Voldemort generally appears very logical and in control of himself – he is only unhinged by virtue of what he wants (mass murder and ultimate power) being completely opposed to the rest of society.
Voldemort becomes more empathetic as the books go on, while simultaneously becoming more powerful and therefore more dangerous.
We learn his tragic backstory (his mother died giving birth to him, grew up in a grim orphanage – classic stuff), and at the very end we are presented with a view of him as literally a naked fetal creature – utterly vulnerable and helpless.
How do other villains stack up? You give it a try
Here are some other well-known villains – consider how the six steps to evil apply to them, and how it affects how scary and memorable they are. You could also think about your own favorite villains and see how this list applies.
- Nurse Ratched
- Count Dracula
- Shere Khan
- Anne Wilkes
- The Joker
- Joffrey Barratheon
So, hopefully, you will have a good sense of what makes a good villain and how to create your own.
Don’t forget that all of the aspects can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, and the more creative and original you can be when playing with these aspects, the more likely you are to come up with something unique and delicious for your readers.
Think about how some of the aspects could be subverted. Play around with giving your villain different aspects in different amounts.
And please do join our Facebook group to tell us your thoughts on this article and analysis of your favorite villains! We’d also love to hear about your own baddies…