So, you might ask, how would I get into the mind of a villain?
While many of us don’t want to admit it, sometimes we are the antagonist. Think of a time when you’ve been hurt by someone. It could be emotional or physical or mental damage.
Did you think about why they did it? “How could they do this to me?” “How could they be so mean?” “What the $%@# were they thinking?” If so, you’ve thought about an antagonist.
Have you ever wondered why you were chosen as the victim? Maybe you were walking down the alley at just the wrong time. Maybe you were carrying the suitcase full of diamonds. Maybe you were interfering in when someone was trying to get stolen gemstones to the force-field generator and save the thousands of people on your ship. You were the antagonist in the eyes of your “villain.” The hero of your novel is the villain in the eyes of your antagonist.
If you’ve ever been made fun of, been hurt, been attacked, been in a fight, then you know about villains. Another person decided it was a good idea to hurt you, and you paid the price. There’s a story that leads up to their heinous action, and a story about how you overcame (or maybe still are or haven’t) what they did and learned from it, changed because of it, and became either a better or worse person.
Now think of someone you hurt that you could’ve chosen not to. What did you do? Why did you do it?
Think of that person as a hero. To them, you were the momentary or perhaps long-term villain.
This is why we love stories—we’ve lived, loved, and been loved in return. We’ve been hurt, wronged, and wronged in return. We’ve been heroes, secondary characters, and antagonists on occasion. When constructed with proper protagonists and antagonists, stories increase our understanding of humanity, the guy next door, and ourselves.
THE MAKINGS OF A PROPER VILLAIN
Making a villain come to life is similar to the construction of every character in your book, whether they’re a hero, secondary character, or antagonist. Each one will have important aspects that you, as the author, need to know.
Before mapping out a villain’s character chart, there are some important aspects to creating the perfect villain for your particular story. In crafting the conflict and therefore the antagonist, you must think about your hero as well as your theme. You have a hero, exploring and learning certain things, and overcoming whatever it is to reach their goal. Everything they learn or overcome should support your theme.
So while your hero is supporting the theme, the villain is going to work against that theme, or try and prove the opposite of whatever truth the hero is working toward. This usually happens unconsciously, because the villain and hero are making choices based on their own needs, their perceptions, and the consequences for them. This works even when the villain is an act of nature, another person or being, the world the main character lives in, or the main character themselves.
The villain will keep the hero from their goal. They will be the one who criticizes your hero. Therefore, villains are not necessarily evil. They are simply the opposing force from at least one major aspect that’s going to make the antagonist stop (or be in the way of) the hero getting what they need and maybe what they want.
In this way, the basic philosophy or moral premise or the plan of action of the protagonist and antagonist are opposing. They’ll work against one another throughout the novel and both continue changing. Our hero will come to some truth while the villain will continue their descent. And of course, there are variations of this. On occasion, the villain might see the light and that’s what resolves the conflict. Or the villain is so bad in the beginning that what worsens is their methods of attack. Overall, one learns and grows for the better while the other meets their demise.
To fully connect your villain with your hero, add in something about them that makes them similar as well. This common trait will have a two-fold affect. The villain will know how best to properly understand and therefore torment your hero. It’ll also showcase the ways they’re different, which will be the characteristic that defines one as good/right and the other as evil/wrong in the eyes of the reader. (Think of Holmes and Moriarty. Genius but different uses for that genius.) As usual, you can overdo this. Make sure you don’t go so far as to make us love the villain to the point of siding with them.
Now that we have a general theme and opposing viewpoints, the details of your characters can be filled in. As you get to know your protagonist, you’ll begin to understand the proper antagonist or vice versa.
- Internal Goal(s), Wants, Desires
- External Goal(s), Wants, Desires
- Internal Need(s)—that they might not be aware of
- External Need(s)—that they’re usually painfully aware of
- A Value System—that they’re loyal to
- Humanity and Kindness—at least toward what they care about
- Similarities to Protagonist (optional)
- Physical Traits
Internal and External Goals
Fairly straightforward, these are what the character wants out of life. It could be something as basic as being loved, as simple as buying a lollipop from the store, or as complex as curing cancer. The character’s backstory is going to provide the set-up for this.
Internal and External Needs
These aspects of the character are more hidden, but they’ll become apparent as the character makes choices throughout the novel. They might sacrifice their wants, like making new friends with nice people, for a need, like gaining an ally they hate who can help them fight off the zombie hoard. When the main character is kept from the things they need, there will be a heavy consequence.
The most satisfying endings come when the main character gets what they want and need, but there’s always some varying combination of the internal and external wants and needs that will make a realistic and mostly satisfying ending for the reader. Maybe they get what they internally need and but not what they externally wanted. These are the things you’ll consider in plotting how the antagonist might keep the protagonist from succeeding fully.
These can be complex. Being made fun of by insecure people wanting to make themselves feel better. Name calling by people who were trying to be funny. An attack on the way to get ice cream by a drunk man out of money for another shot.
Could the child killing you during childbirth be considered by someone who loves you a villain? Absolutely. For the husband who resents the child for the rest of their life, yes. Do we want to read about that guy? Maybe. He might be an interesting character and if done right, could be fascinating to read about. Other readers might prefer the kid to be the protagonist whose father resents him for killing his mother.
Why is that?
Because it’s an injustice that doesn’t have to be there, which makes the father an antagonist because of his choice. But at least he’s real, with his reasons and individual perspective, even though we can’t justify his actions. His actions will provide the major conflict of the story against a child who couldn’t control what they were doing.
So one key to a good villain is understanding the motivation behind what they do, but we can’t justify their unfair behavior to the protagonist. The most terrifying villain is one we can understand but not justify.
Internal and/or external enabling traits lead the character to make the choices they do and see the logic in what they’re doing. Think about an antagonist whose been lied to, who thinks they’re helping. Their internal moral compass is justified and right, but their external conditions or circumstances have caused them to foil the main character in a serious way. Again, the possibilities of internal and external enabling traits can be combined in innumerable ways.
The protagonist and antagonist can have the same goal as well, but one goes about it differently because of a flaw in their ideology. (Think Dr. Xavier and Magneto.) Their methods get in the way of one another, and of course, each has an end game that accomplishes the goal but also has the desired outcome for them personally, so they work against one another.
Remember that the backstory of a villain is complex. We often skimp on creativity when it comes to the backstory of the villain, or use some stereotype like abuse to turn them into a ‘bad’ person. But people don’t have to have been abused to become antagonistic or even evil. Indulgence, manipulation, justification of mistakes, and the list goes on. Make the backstory and therefore the triggers of your antagonist unique.
When I say triggers, I mean the things that make them act a certain way. What part of their past incites their current behaviors? An example: An artificial intelligence programmed to protect humanity ends up ‘protecting’ people from themselves by taking away agency. (I, Robot)
A Value System
If they’re not loyal to any value system, they’re unrealistic as a person or considered insane. More about that later. For the rational villain, we need to see that everything they do fits into their value system. How they justify themselves in their mind helps us understand them. When we understand them, we’ll be more terrified of them.
Most often, the villain doesn’t see themselves as the bad guy. When laying out their value system, remember that, from their perspective, they’re the ones fixing the world of its ailments. The reader will be able to see the duplicitous nature and hate them all the more for their hypocrisy. Or the reader will see their twisted mind and be fascinated, if disgusted by their actions. However you play it, it’ll make a better villain.
Humanity and Kindness
Even bad people care about things. Often, they have the same values as the protagonist but -follow them in a twisted way. Perhaps the villain has a family they love, a spouse they provide for, a church they attend. They won’t kick their dog, but when they go to work…their job is to run a sweat shop and make sure the workers are properly motivated with beatings when they fail.
How do the people who love the villain feel? Think about them that way yourself. Sympathize with your villains. It’s tragic that they’ve taken the path they have but won’t allow themselves redemption.
Let us see the perspectives other characters have on your villain. Like a testimonial, we’ll see various aspects of your villain through their eyes. Don’t make the mistake of demonizing them in every way. Take the opportunity to have many varying opinions. We’ve all had professors or teachers we hate. Most likely, there were other students who loved that teacher. Humans, even villains, are capable of good and bad. In addition to this, create scenes where the reader sees the villain interacting with other characters. These different types of situations with characters of varying opinions of the villain will reveal their character.
Make the villain as capable as your protagonist. If they aren’t, it’ll stifle the arc of the protagonist and make defeating the villain less fulfilling. They don’t have to be equally smart. Their talents can differ while remaining equal to or stronger than the protagonist.
The more capable mentally, emotionally, and physically the antagonist is, the more valuable and rewarding the defeat of this villain will be for the hero and the reader. The protagonist will have to grow to match the capabilities of the antagonist and win the prize, which will increase their character arc. Just don’t bend it until it breaks our ability to suspend disbelief.
Similarities to Protagonist
As discussed earlier, this can be a powerful tool.
In considering which traits your protagonist and antagonist share, think about the strengths and fears of the protagonist. Sharing the same strength can make it possible for your protagonist to become exactly like the antagonist.
Think of Darth Vader, equally powerful in the force. One of them uses it selfishly while the other wants to save the people he cares about and build a better world.
A strength like faith can be a positive in keeping your main character motivated, but it might also allow the villain to justify their actions.
Humor can protect the main character from feeling overwhelmed or give them a reality check. A humorous villain might be better at convincing people they’re right because they’re so likable.
The reader will take these traits and automatically compare.
Unfortunately in a lot of literature, the physical traits of the villain have often been associated with disfigurement. Not only is that not realistic, it hurts the disabled community by creating associations between disabilities and being “bad.” There’s an article all about this from Teen Vogue: How Disfigured Villains Like “Wonder Woman’s” Dr. Poison Perpetuate Stigma.
The villain can (and maybe should, depending on your story and theme) be outwardly beautiful. There’s a tendency to paint villains with an ugly exterior: ruddy, pockmarked skin, a grimace, greasy, wearing a wife-beater, etc. While your villain may actually have that—and that’s okay—think about the reality of life. Design your antagonist to be believable. Maybe an accident happened to them, but that’s not what turned them to a life of crime. It was the choices they made to either overcome the adversity or let it overcome them. That should be very clear.
Conversely, a lot of people who do bad things are beautiful: the tailored businessman who skims retirement funds, the woman at the gym who seduces men to steal from them, the famous actor who destroys reputations to secure parts in films. Conversely, a lot of heroes are plain, everyday people.
Even if your villain is handsome, they can also have some internal part of them be horrific to the reader. Humans have a tendency to relate the bad with the grotesque, so if your villain has something terrible that they hide or mask, it can make them more intriguing and complex. Relate this horrific trait to their main flaw that makes them the primary antagonist.
Every trait they have should be a part of their backstory and have a reason fro being there.
TYPES OF VILLAINS
The Evil Villain
This is the antagonist who is evil for evil’s sake. They’re bad and they know it and they want to be bad, or at the very least don’t care about what they have to do to get whatever it is they want. In the modern novel, this type of villain rarely works.
The trick with the evil villain is to make them believable rather than a stereotype. Do this by focusing on their humanity and their backstory. Focus on ways they have been good or show characters who love the villain and why.
A basic sub-category of the evil villain is the monster. They don’t have the same moral system and can’t be expected to, so it makes them evil on more of an instinctual level. The reader experiences a primal connection with the protagonist and their need to survive. While we can’t expect the evil monster to have our own moral code, we also can’t excuse them for wanting to destroy the hero.
All antagonists (world, alien, nature, etc.) can be personified and humanized by giving them human traits. They could be lonely or misunderstood or anything relatable. (The monster in Super 8)
The Everyday Villain
You could think of the everyday villain as nothing more than someone who keeps the main character from reaching their goal. Perhaps they have the same goal as the protagonist but have a different way they think it should be obtained, or they want it all to themselves and for good reason. This antagonist could simply be discouraging, they could be a hindrance to the protagonist’s goal because they’re an authority figure who thinks differently. There are an infinite number of possibilities for this villain.
One type of everyday villain is the person who’s jealous or envious of the protagonist. They might seem to have it all, but they have some deep-seeded insecurity that they’re also needing to overcome but don’t. (This isn’t their hero’s journey.) They feel threatened and, like an abused dog backed into a corner, they can commit every crime to protect themselves.
Another type of everyday villain that deserves a shout-out is the beloved antagonist. This is someone who cares deeply for the main character, and who the main character loves in return. But they’re actively against the main goal of the protagonist, and they provide the main conflict.
The main difficulty with the everyday villain is usually keeping the tension of the novel high. This villain isn’t usually trying to destroy anyone, and often they can be easily understood and even leave the reader feeling like they aren’t sure who to root for. But remember, we’re in the point of view of your antagonist, so this everyday villain needs to look worse or appear worse to the protagonist than they really are. For example, a parent keeping their child from sneaking out at night is trying to protect their child. But to the child, our protagonist, who knows that if they don’t sneak out and meet their best friend, she’s going to have to go and face something terrible alone and may never return—the parent is doing something more terrible than they realize. We can sympathize with both the protagonist and antagonist, while creating tension for the novel.
The Nebulous Group
The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person or single entity. Sometimes the villain standing in the protagonist’s way is a large group or society. This group has a moral system or a goal that the protagonist is against. This could be an oppressive government, a morally strict society the protagonist doesn’t inherently believe in, a group that’s done something wrong that the protagonist witnessed, etc. The possibilities are endless.
The difficulty with this type of villain is finding a way for the protagonist to fight back. Often it’s just too big of a task for one person to accomplish on their own. This can be dealt with by personifying the group using their leader or turning them into a few individuals who the protagonist can interact with. A villain and their crime become more personal when it’s personified.
In a lot of character driven stories, the villain is an antagonistic force that the main character must face and overcome. It’s their primary fear, a regret, a major flaw, a past event that haunts them and stifles their progress.
This can be illuminated in different ways. There can be a goal that the main character wants to achieve. If they don’t, their life will get worse, but the internal problem is also standing in their way. Another possibility is showing the main character’s dissatisfaction with their current life as compared to some other character the protagonist is forced to interact with. They know life could be better and they can’t stand themselves or the issue anymore, and it’s approaching a breaking point. They’re either going to lose something they have that they hold dear, making life worse, or they’re becoming run-down or unfit to continue.
Sometimes there is an external force ( adversity as the adversary) that causes the main conflict for the protagonist. A few examples are nature, a physical disability or tragedy, an illness, a supernatural force, technology. The list goes on.
I would also categorize the insane villain here. Like a storm or a lightning strike, they’re more of an irrational force that can’t be reasoned with or predicted.
A writer uses this to challenge the MC. When the external villain poses conflict, the main character must develop and overcome the adversity. How the main character learns to cope with these new external forces becomes the hero’s journey.
SOME GENERAL NOTES FOR CREATING COMPELLING AND USEFUL VILLAINS
Avoid stereotypical and melodramatic dialogue like the maniacal laugh or “I’ll get you, my pretty!.” This only makes the villain more difficult to believe in, and therefore, less threatening.
Have more than one villain. Every person is facing more than one conflict in their life at a time. Things are messy, and if you only have one villain in your novel, the reader won’t be able to suspend disbelief.
Use a combination of external antagonistic forces, for example, an adversity that already exists, a secondary character who has a different agenda, and then the main villain who all work against the protagonist.
Give the antagonist minions. There are often other people who work with the antagonist to make life difficult for our hero, and they can create conflict and wear our hero down while building to the main climax of the novel, when the protagonist faces and (usually) defeats their primary antagonist for the reader to have a satisfying ending.
The variety of villains is endless. We know them, because we’ve lived with them, been them, and worked against them. Readers know how strong the adversity of life can be, and we expect it to be just as strong for our hero or heroine. The true satisfaction of any hero overcoming the villain is because that’s what we’re trying to do everyday–overcome our own adversity. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the satisfaction.
Remember to not be melodramatic or over-the-top. It has to feel doable. But the stronger your villain will be, the stronger your main character will become to defeat them.
Have fun crafting the perfect ones for your hero!