How to Craft a Believable Villain
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Everyone loves a good villain.
From Emperor Palpatine to Lord Voldemort, Hannibal Lecter, and beyond, countless villains have stood the test of time to become classic fictional favorites. Love to hate ‘em or hate to love ‘em, I think it’s safe to say we want readers to feel just as passionately about the villains in our own stories.
But how can we, as writers, craft antagonists that go beyond mere mustache-twirling and maniacal laughter to become the truly believable, bone-chilling villains we long for them to be? Let's dive deep into villainy in today's breakdown, writer!
But first, what exactly is a villain?
Before we get started, it’s important to note the difference between a villain and an antagonist. An antagonist is the character who creates primary external conflict in a story by hindering the protagonist in their journey to achieve their goal or overcome dissatisfaction. But an antagonist’s actions or intentions aren’t necessarily evil by nature.
In some cases, an antagonist merely happens to share the same goal as the protagonist — no ounce of malice in sight. In other stories, antagonists may commit good deeds with ill intentions or bad deeds with good intentions. Sometimes even a little of both. Villains, however, are a different story altogether...
In fact, villains are specifically characterized by both their malicious actions and intent. Thus, they commit heinous acts in the full knowledge that they're in no way morally acceptable according to society’s norms or that they uphold the norms of a corrupt and oppressive society.
It's often this utter disregard for justice and compassion that makes a villain's actions so horrific. But sheer horror doesn’t make for bone-chilling villainy alone…
Where do writers often go wrong when crafting villains?
Here at Well-Storied, we’ve often discussed the dangers of creating too admirable a protagonist, one so noble-hearted and entirely lacking in fears and flaws that their characterization becomes unbelievable, even contemptible. When crafting villains, writers often make a similar mistake.
Inarguably, villains are defined by their cruel and malicious actions. Yet, in most cases, villains are also human. They are people with pasts and personalities and pain, and so they deserve their own rich and compelling human stories.
This is not to say that you should temper your villain’s evil in any way. In fact, some of the cruelest actions can strike true terror in the hearts of readers — but only if shown through the lens of humanity. Yes, our villains can sneer and cackle and kill. But when their actions make us question our own humanity or reveal chilling truths about the reality of our lives? That is what makes a villain so wholly and utterly terrifying.
Could that have been me if my life had taken a different turn?
Who are the people I pass in the street?
Do I know someone who carries their own horrific secret?
These are the questions that believable villains make us ask when reading. And readers ask them because the author behind that story took the time to develop their villain just as fully as any protagonist, giving them a truly chilling story to call their own. How can we, as writers, do the same?
The key to crafting truly believable villains…
Remember, every villain is the hero of their own story. This is probably the most popular piece of advice to be found on the topic of crafting villains, and I think it’s deservedly so. Treating our villains as the protagonists of their own stories is a great way to ensure we develop them as fully as their purpose demands.
From their goals and motivations to their personality, history, worldview, and beyond, crafting each of these primary characterization elements with care is absolutely necessary if our villains are to hold their weight against our protagonists.
But more importantly than even developing these elements, we must take care to do so with depth and intention. It’s not entirely unbelievable for a story’s villain to want to take over the world, but why? “Just because they’re evil” isn’t enough. And how do they plan to take over the world anyhow?
Get specific when developing your villain. Dig deep into understanding what they want, why they want it, and what has or will motivate them to take action. If you’re looking for step-by-step guidance as you develop your story’s villain, you may enjoy our new ten-day free email course, Developing Complex Characters. Here’s a link if you’d like to check it out.
What if your villain is a Dark Lord or a demon?
On occasion, stories may feature villains that aren’t, in fact, human. Whether they’re a Dark Lord, a demon, or some other supernatural creature, utilizing a villain that may, in fact, be purely evil isn’t necessarily a mistake.
When using this type of villain, however, you must remember that readers aren’t going to fear them in the same way they would a truly terrifying human character. Such pure evil is largely outside the realm of what we experience as human beings, and so as writers, we must find other ways to strike fear into the hearts of our readers.
Often, villains of this nature are merely a catalyst for the story’s true and most terrifying danger: the protagonist’s fight against their own fears or temptations. You’ve often seen this as a reader. Just think of Frodo grappling against the allure of the One Ring, Jack Torrance’s slow descent into madness, or Edmund Pevensie’s struggle against the White Witch’s temptations.
By taking the time to develop a core internal conflict for our protagonists that is instigated by the villains’ power, we can relay to our readers just how truly terrifying that power is. And if we’ve placed readers in our protagonists’ shoes, they should find themselves wondering just how deeply they would struggle in the same situation. Believable villainy, for the win!
How can we develop our villains on the page?
Giving our villains the point-of-view isn’t always the most viable or effective option in our stories, yet we still need to develop them as fully on the page as we have in our notes. This is just one more reason why we must craft our villains with care.
A villain may very well be terrifying in theory, but if they aren’t specifically designed to prey upon the protagonist, readers won’t have much of an opportunity to come to fear them. Therefore, take the time to first understand your protagonist’s fears, flaws, and desires. Lay the foundations of their story.
Then, design a villain who can hold their weight against that story, lending to it rather than standing apart. Voldemort, for example, is an effective villain in the Harry Potter series because he foils Harry’s compassion and preys upon his fear of fear itself, terrorizing him at every turn.
After establishing a protagonist and villain whose stories are so deeply intertwined, take some time to develop scenes in which they’ll interact or in which the protagonist will experience the consequences of the villain’s actions. Each one of these scenes should give you the opportunity to further characterize your villain through your protagonist’s eyes.
Need a little help? Here are a few prompts to spark your imagination:
Create a scene in which...
The villain and protagonist first meet.
The protagonist observes the villain from afar.
The protagonist must deal with the consequences of the villain’s hurtful actions against others.
The protagonist surprises the villain.
The villain utterly destroys the protagonist’s confidence.
The protagonist hears others speak of how they view the villain.
The protagonist meets someone who views the villain with pity, love, or respect.
The protagonist sees the villain’s reaction to losing something of value.
The protagonist and villain come into conflict without a clear winner.
The protagonist learns of the villain’s past.
The protagonist learns something surprising about the villain.
You may not be able to develop all of these scenes for your story, and that’s okay. The idea is simply to give readers as many scenes as possible in which they can learn something new about the villain, whether that be through the villain’s actions or reactions, from the consequences left in their wake, or from the lingering shadows of their past.
By working to create both your villain and their characterization in your story with intention, you’ll have done your very best to encourage readers to buy into their believability. And with any luck, you’ll even send shivers up their spines. So put the effort into crafting truly bone-chilling villains, writer. It’ll make all the difference as you work to bring your story to life!