Every story needs a villain! Living or not, most of the best novels that I have read have had an extraordinary villain that made them exciting.
Think of Harry Potter, No Country for Old Men, Dracula, and Hamlet; they all had some riveting characters as villains. However, recognizing that good villains improve a story is the easy part; writing a great villain is laborious.
It takes a lot of imagination and creativity and, in most cases, a lot of research. You should give your villain as much attention as you give your hero because a lame villain makes the hero lame. A hero is only as big as the challenge the villain poses to them.
So, what makes a good villain?
Well, let’s find out.
What is a Villain?
A villain is the hero’s major opponent, the antagonist of the story. The villain is driven by motivations and actions that go against the protagonist’s goals and drive. Usually, a villain is driven by the need to do maleficent things and often revels in their own wickedness.
Although the villain is usually an evil character, writers fail to create a good villain when they solely focus on the evil side of the bad guy.
This makes the villain shallow, unrealistic, and unbelievable. It’s important to know that not every story needs an external, individual villain; the antagonism in your story can come in other forms. It may come from within the protagonist—for example, a misguided belief that repeatedly detours them from their purpose and leads them to self-destruction.
Having an internal antagonist is either determined by or determines the genre. For example, it is easier to have a hero antagonizing themselves in a psychological thriller because—and having such a character transforms a standard suspense novel into a psychological thriller.
What Every Good Villain Has
An Interesting Backstory
A fascinating and believable backstory is needed to help the readers relate to or sympathize with the villain. One of the best examples is Darth Vader, who was Anakin Skywalker before joining the dark side.
Anakin was a slave on Tatooine who became an accomplished Jedi and later joined the dark side, becoming a Sith called Darth Vader.
With that history, the audience can see his transformation, sympathize with him, and hope that he can turn back to the light side of the force. This backstory gives the villain more depth and makes the reader compare the villain’s good to bad journey to their circumstances and temptations.
A good backstory takes advantage of the story’s theme and creates the villain’s motives or drive from an earlier experience related to the theme.
The villain must have a somewhat misguided belief concerning the theme. Take, for example, the theme of justice. The villain might be someone whose parents were killed by cops in a case of mistaken identity and who is now dedicated to abducting, torturing, and killing policemen who have killed people.
Even though they’re evil villains, they should have a fun side. If you look at The Joker, Loki, Captain Barbossa, and Hannibal Lecter, they are all exciting villains who kept their audiences engaged.
Villains have to be witty, cunning, or both. Such villains end up winning the hearts of the readers and viewers, even if they want them to be vanquished by the hero.
When creating a character, we sometimes end up giving them too much or too little. When it comes to the main characters making such mistakes, it can be disastrous because what the audience is looking for is a character who pulls them into the story.
They want a relatable character.
Humans are flawed in so many ways, they bleed; they have common needs and wants; they have biases; they experience emotion; and so many other traits.
That’s what the audience is looking for in a villain, apart from superpowers and intelligence. If you make your villain something close to a normal human being, you create a relatable antagonist.
If we go back to Captain Barbosa, we can see that despite betraying Jack a couple of times, he ended up sacrificing himself for his daughter. That shows that although he was a two-timing violent pirate, he still had love buried somewhere in his heart.
He transcended the villain stereotype because he had most of the human traits that I mentioned earlier, and, in the end, we ended up falling in love with him.
Distinct Moral Standpoint
You can’t have your villain kill people without any reason just because your story needs a villain. You might get away with it in the horror genre, but in the other genres, there must be a moral standpoint that makes them believe they are doing something right.
Of course, they’re villains, so their beliefs have to swing towards nihilism rather than good morality.
Thanos, for example, believed that by destroying half of the universe, he would bring balance to it. In real life, Thanos would be a radical environmentalist who believes that the earth’s resources can no longer keep up with human overpopulation and that eventually all species on earth will die due to the imbalance.
From this, we can see that although his methods were genocidal, Thanos had a clear moral point of view, which is why there are so many Marvel fans who think that he’s right.
A worthy opponent
As I said, a hero is only as great as the challenge that the villain poses; hence, the villain has to be a strong antagonist.
Some focus on making the hero way better than the villain, and this usually backfires. You have to balance their superpowers/abilities. You can give the villain powers that offset the hero’s advantages. You can also give them similar powers/abilities, initially giving the villain some slight advantages.
Your hero shouldn’t be able to easily beat or outsmart the villain throughout the story because this only makes the story boring. Going back to our Thanos example, the infinity stones gave the Mad Titan a great advantage over the Avengers, but he was defeated using the Avengers’ wits and team spirit.
A word of caution: don’t make the villain so powerful that defeating them becomes unbelievable.
How to Write a Great Villain
1. Use a real-life inspiration
One of the characteristics of a good villain that I listed in the preceding section was being relatable. To achieve this, make them a bit more human by modeling them after a real person. It doesn’t always have to be a famous person or historical figure; it could be a normal kid from your neighborhood or the quiet, baldheaded man next door.
A good example—although not a villain—is Harry Potter, one of the most famous fictional characters, who was modeled after a boy who lived in the same neighborhood as J. K. Rowling when she was a child.
Since they are villains, you can choose an infamous person to make the job of identifying negative traits easier. However, you shouldn’t focus solely on the negative traits; you can come up with new physical attributes and backgrounds or use something similar to the real-life villain.
2. Make the most of empathic abilities
I’m sure that this article has articulated well enough the importance of empathy when creating characters. And this being one of the most important characters in your story, you know that you need to put your empathic skills to use.
You have to put yourself in their shoes, their world, and their mind. You have to take into account all the things (hardships, challenges, negative influences, lack of guidance, etc.) that have brought them to this state. They can have a bit of “normal” and pure villainous reactions that make them unique and—may be different from you/most people.
3. Give them a strong motivation
Just like the hero, your villain has to have a goal. Their motivation must be believable, and to achieve this, you can ask yourself some questions to spur your imagination.
The motivation usually makes or breaks; a believable motivation is likely going to make your audiences fall in love with the villain. The motivation is often threaded into the villain’s backstory, traits, desires, insecurities, and other related elements that add more depth to the character and story as a whole.
4. Make them crazy!
Your villain needs some seasoning. Apart from the motivations and powers, they also need to be crazy. Whether they are a preacher, teacher, or local businessman, they sometimes need to have some quota of madness.
You don’t need to have this madness all the time, but for some villains, it just feels right. There are a lot of examples, but some of the most successful ones include The Joker, Thanos, Agent Smith, The Green Goblin, and Hannibal Lecter.
5. Write an edge-of-the-seat entry scene
Your villain should “kick down” some doors in their entry scene. What’s a villain if they can’t petrify your protagonist and readers alike? Some prefer the “Scooby-Doo” approach, where the villain is revealed at the end of the story. That’s great, but you must make sure that even when the true villain has not been revealed, their actions must bear a stamp of evil.
Villains are the underrated heroes in nonfiction because, without them, you have a weak hero, a stale conflict, and a story that fails to capture the reader’s attention.
Of course, the hero can be his own worst enemy, and the story can center on the hero conquering his own dark side. In this case, the protagonist plays both hero and villain.
Among other things, a good villain has a backstory, is relatable, is made with special sauce, and is a worthy opponent for the hero.