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How To Write Believable Characters For Your Novel: The Villain

Updated on February 3, 2014

If the only thing that makes your villain evil is his ability to arch one perfectly plucked eyebrow and laugh like Count Chocula, kill him, mail his chocolaty entrails to his son, and wait a decade to give the boy time to grow into a man. Then you'll have a real villain - a dark character fueled by anger, fear, hatred, and a deep-seated need to squeeeeze your protagonist until the life goes out of his eyes.

Great villains, like all great novel characters, weren't born evil, but were made so by something that happened to them. Whether it's an abusive parent, the loss of a loved one, a dream crushed, or the sting of unrequited love, a good villain should have a worldly reason for who and what he is - and that reason better add up to more than a shoulder shrug and a quick nod toward his genetic code. That being said, its okay to blame some of his bad qualities on parentage, but there's a way of doing that without creating a boring villain who lacks all signs of having been shaped, and ultimately twisted, by his own personal experiences.

Maybe he angers very easily - not because his father had a short fuse, but because his father was a hypocrite who beat him for expressing anger and eventually stoked his latent genetic tendencies into a veritable firestorm of wrath. Maybe he despises shows of affection - not because his step-mother was cruel, but because she showered her biological children with love while treating the young villain with nothing but contempt.

Whatever reason you choose for his evil, make sure it's one that gives him an excuse to throw up his hands and shout, "Why doesn't anybody understand me? This is my RIGHT! I am JUSTIFIED in all my actions! I DESERVE this! I am only taking what is MINE!"

If he can't bellyache about the alleged crimes committed against him, if his goal is merely to giggle into his fist and congratulate himself on his mischief at the end of the day, the only thing he'll actually threaten is your writing career.

Power, Strength, And Courage

Great villains never lack strength. Take a few moments to think about the most memorable villains from popular movies and literature. What's one thing the vast majority of them have in common? They're powerful. So powerful, in fact, that few souls stand a chance against them.

Villains have armies. Weapons. Wealth. Influence. They are willing to deal violence and death to anyone who stands in their way, and they do not hesitate to go after what they want with the full force of their conviction. But there's one thing they lack, one thing that makes them vulnerable to the heroes of a story - and that thing is courage. This means that villains, no matter how frightening they may appear, are only strong on the outside.

I can't repeat often enough how important it is to keep this lack of inner strength in mind. Your villain must be strong to drive the plot, but remember that he's also a coward, so everything he does is either under-handed, manipulative, or done from a safe distance. Essentially, it comes down to the difference between mere guts and true courage.

Let's look at a few famous examples:

In Lord of the Rings, Saruman the White attempts to annihilate a race of tree-men called Ents - from the safety of the balcony at the top of his 200-foot tower. He has the guts to start a war, but he does not have the courage to raise a sword against the Ents himself.

In Braveheart, Edward Longshanks sends his daughter-in-law, Isabella, to meet William Wallace - while he sits in a castle miles away ordering an ambush. He has the guts to put the future queen's life in danger, but he does not have the courage to pay Wallace a visit himself.

In The Last Samurai, Japanese soldiers bring a gun to a knife fight - literally - because their commander, Mr. Omura, knows that he cannot defeat the samurai in fair combat. He has the guts to act on the emperor's behalf without express permission, but he does not have the courage to face the samurai on the battlefield without first securing a deadly advantage for himself.

How Evil Is Evil Enough?

If your reader doesn't want the villain dead by the time she's halfway through your novel, he's not evil enough. This means that you need to create a villain so utterly despicable, so hateable, so dark and foul to the bottom of his soul, that even your sweetest, kindest, most forgiving reader - the elderly humanitarian who'd rather carry a tarantula to safety with her teeth than hurt a living being - jumps out of her chair crying for blood.

Remember the The Patriot? In that story, the antagonist, Colonel Tavington, fits the profile of perfect villain perfectly. He shoots Benjamin Martin's son after the child attempts to rescue his brother from capture and certain death. Then he burns down the family's home and has the wounded soldiers seeking shelter inside killed. Finally, he lies to get the information he needs to hunt down freedom fighters, torches a church full of innocent people, slaughters the wives and children of his enemies by the dozen, and kills yet another of Benjamin's sons after playing dead to lure the boy closer.

I'm not going to lie - I wanted that son-of-a-biscuit hanging from a tree with crows picking out his eyes. He's THAT evil. But here's another great, perhaps even stronger example:

In Gladiator, high-born Commodus discovers that he won't ascend to the position of emperor following the imminent death of his father, Marcus Aurelius. When Commodus seeks answers, Marcus Aurelius informs him that he believes his first in command, General Maximus, is a better man and will govern the country as he envisioned. In a fit of jealous rage, Commodus smothers his father, orders Maximus killed, and sends Praetorians to murder Maximus' wife and young son. Maximus survives, but finds himself sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator, which eventually forces him to come face-to-face with Commodus again. At that point, the new emperor really slides off his rocker - he mocks Maximus' pain, murders the only just senator in town, tries to force his sister into bed by threatening her with her small son's life, challenges Maximus to battle but stabs him first to make sure Maximus can't win, and finally orders his guards to leave Maximus without a weapon so the wounded man can't even defend himself.

Ay, chihuahua! It doesn't get any worse than that. But that's why Commodus is such a brilliant villain - you can't wait to see him get what he deserves.

Love, Hate, And The Power Of Innocence

The cold-blooded villain gently stroking his cat as he turns to say, "I've been expecting you, Mr. Bond" isn't nearly as ridiculous as he may appear. Villains, like everyone else, have multifaceted personalities, so it's not uncommon for these evil characters to love something with the same passion as they hate everything else.

Take Ebeneezer Scrooge. He hates humanity. He hates Christmas. He hates poverty. He hates wastefulness. He hates winter. He hates Bob Cratchit. He hates his family. But what he doesn't hate - not one bit - is his money. He sleeps with it, hugs it, kisses it, counts it, pets it, keeps it safe, and even talks to it. In fact, if he could, I bet he'd leave his money TO his money after his death just to make sure it doesn't fall into anyone else's hands.

So it is with the Bond villain. He may despise James Bond and plan to take over the world, but he still makes time to feed, bathe, and pet his precious little kitty cat.

The reason villains love inanimate or innocent things is that, while they may be truly evil to the core, they still need comfort, a counterpart to their darkness. Both Ebeneezer's money and the Bond villain's cat provide this - and since neither cat nor cash is capable of betrayal, can upstage the villain's glory, or demands a complex emotional commitment, they are in and of themselves "safe" alternatives to normal human interaction.

Give your villain something to love, to protect, and see how much depth it adds to your story. Few literary devices are as powerful as a villain with a soft spot.

A Wolf Among Rottweilers

In order for your villain to capture your reader's attention and inspire her full contempt, he must be identifiable as the main villain early on (even if he's just an idea, as in "someone is murdering people, and we know it's the same guy every time"), and he must be irreplaceable. Here's what I mean:

In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the Ringwraiths are efficient antagonists, but they aren't main villain material. Why? Because they don't have personalities - they are merely mindless servants hunting the One Ring for their overlord. If the ring goes left, they go left. If the ring goes right, they go right. The object they seek exerts a gravitational pull on them, and they respond to it without thought or question. In other words, they don't bear any personal hatred toward the ring bearer, so there's no real conflict between them and Frodo. This makes them expendable - the plot would still work if the Ringwraiths were edited out.

The real conflict is between Frodo and Sauron - the necromancer who controls the Ringwraiths and all the other minor villains in order to gain possession of the ring. He is not expendable, because without him, there would be no story at all.

Keep this difference in mind as you plan your novel. Your hero can have many enemies and many heroic friends (Frodo certainly does), but usually, only ONE villain is THE villain, just like only ONE hero is THE hero. The battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil is what drives the entire plot, so make sure you give the part of main villain to a character whose name will become synonymous with the force he represents.

Not All Villains Are Alive

There's one last thing to remember in creating truly memorable villains: Not all of them are necessarily alive. There are villains that are undead, villains that are alien, villains that are manifestations of supernatural forces, and even villains that exist nowhere except in the hero's mind. This means that mental illness, self-doubt, depression, nightmares, or fear can be just as effective as evil "characters" in your story as any force of darkness that can physically appear in your hero's home.

Search your own life for inspiration, and you'll undoubtedly discover that some of your greatest opponents weren't people at all - or that maybe, just maybe, your worst enemy all along was none other than yourself.


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    • Harvest Moon profile image

      Harvest Moon 5 years ago from Earth

      Thank you, pommefritte! I'm glad you found the article helpful.

    • pommefritte profile image

      pommefritte 5 years ago from Northern Virginia

      This was very helpful. It's usually easiest to get into your protagonist, but this provides some great ideas for fleshing out the bad guys.


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