Bill Sikes. Lady MacBeth. Captain Ahab. Voldemort. The Wormwoods. Sauron. Iago.
The best villains in literature send a shiver down our spine and make our blood pressure rise. Why do some villains have such a hold on us while others feel like weak sauce?
Here are some tips on how to craft a memorable villain.
They should provoke your protagonist’s best and worst qualities
The best villains get under the protagonist’s skin. They get in their heads (sometimes literally). They start messing with the protagonist’s identity and make them question themselves.
But they also inspire your protagonist to tap into their best qualities in order to defeat them.
Most times, the villain is almost-but-not-quite as powerful as your protagonist and forces your protagonist to give everything they have in order to win. That way, the villain shows the reader what your protagonist is really made of.
Think about how your villain can make your protagonist vulnerable and force them to dig deep in a compelling climax.
They should have both appealing and unappealing qualities
Perhaps the most frequent mistake I see when it comes to villains are bad guys who are too uniformly evil.
The best villains are more complicated than that. Sure, they may do things that are beyond the pale and inspire the reader to hate them, but they might be misguided or they are reacting to past suffering or they have the charm to seduce and manipulate.
When villains are too one-note they won’t feel lifelike and they’re ultimately just not that interesting. Instead, think about how you can make an antagonist all the more powerful and compelling because there are facets of their personality the reader can’t help but admire.
They should represent a competing worldview
Often what separates protagonists and villains are different ways of looking at the world.
Villains don’t just possess vices that are ethically wrong, but rather wrap those sins (selfishness, rage, greed, etc.) into an entire worldview. They might think the hero is naive or weak for being virtuous.
Often this breaks down along the lines of ideological battles such as selfishness vs. altruism, black and white vs. shades of gray, or win at all costs vs. mercy.
As individuals and as a society we are constantly negotiating over what kind of a world we want to live in. The villain shouldn’t just antagonize your protagonist, they should represent an entire way of living your hero wants to keep at bay.
They should have a compelling style
It’s not enough to have a villain who’s, well, villainous. The best villains also have style.
Whether it’s Voldermort’s snake face, Long John Silver’s wooden leg, or Captain Hook’s hook, great villains are perhaps even more physically memorable than the heroes.
Don’t just think about how to make the bad guys bad. Also think about how to burn them into your reader’s brain with unique physicality and style.
What do you think are the best elements of a great villain? Anything I missed? Take to the comments!
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Art: Dos viejos comiendo sopa by Francisco de Goya
I agree with all you’ve written, Nathan. Brilliant, in fact.
I particularly agree with:
‘Perhaps the most frequent mistake I see when it comes to villains are bad guys who are too uniformly evil. The best villains are more complicated than that.’
More and more, I wonder if most of the villainous characters are too comic book. What if those we perceive as villains in our lives are just like us but with different awareness and spiritual problems. What if we’re all shades of hero and antagonist with each one having the potential to be better or worse depending on our belief system at the time and how much freedom we have to choose. For example, the addict – even though on an obvious downward spiral – has little freedom to choose to stop the addiction without admitting that they have a problem that is destroying them, and they really want to be free of it. The domestic violence perpetrator is not free, but like the addict they don’t realise it. After an attack, many make promises it will never happen again. And they mean it at the time. However, given the same trigger situation, they lose self-control as something else steps in to control the reins of their mind.
It’d be great to see a few literary villains who are set free from wrong belief systems and spiritual problems who then turn their lives around in a heroic way. You read of this happening in autobiographies where apparently once seeming evil people come into contact with someone who takes them under their wing and imparts understanding, kindness and the truth that sets them free from their underlying anger, bitterness, fear and other soul-destroying limitations.
Shouldn’t art reflect life instead of promoting paranoia about these who are currently as much a victim as their victims?
I’m more drawn to stories that have a more sympathetic ‘villain’ character. For me, a comic-book style bad guy/lady lowers the tone of the book unless it is a comic-book style story.
JOHN T. SHEA says
But what about the REALLY important things a great villain should have? Like lots of undifferentiated expendable SIDEKICKS? A huge, luxurious and invincible LAIR? Great TOYS, like impossibly big and fast cars, planes, boats, ships, and so on? Impeccable and expensive cultural tastes that make the hero look like a slob, even if the hero is James Bond? A great long scene where the villain explains EVERYTHING to the hero before trying to kill him in the most complicated and precarious way possible, without bothering to wait to make sure the hero actually dies? And, finally, the most gruesome death scene imagineable?
All just like real life, in other words…
But seriously, thanks Nathan!