Tips and Tricks, Writing

How to Write a Good Villain: Five Questions to Create a Compelling Character

Have you started work on your novel, the next bestseller? Have you looked at your villain and stopped, wondering if your villain is cliche, boring, or just not something your readers will have much feeling about? If you sit down to write and find yourself asking how to write a good villain, then you’re in the right place.

Here are five questions to ask yourself to tell if your villain is the next Moriarty or the next Dr. Dufus.

1. Does your villain have motivation?

Often times a cliché villain is someone who is evil for evil’s sake. To avoid this, make sure you explain why your villain does what they do. And don’t make it a simple ‘I want to rule the world’. If you want to write a good villain, you need to explain why they want to rule the world or destroy the hero. Does he want to rule because of a twisted sense of purpose, that he can rule it best? Does she want to because she was oppressed as a child and has tasted power and become greedy for the feeling it brings? Does he want to keep someone he cares about safe? The ‘why’ will make the character come to life.

2. Can the reader relate?

To write a good villain, it is vital that a reader can relate to them in some way. A lack of this isn’t always a sure-fire indication of a boring villain, but often times a villain that a reader can’t relate to is hard to care about at all. Do they love someone or something? Do they feel humiliation, shame, embarrassment? Do they make mistakes, stumble over their words, get tired? Having a villain who is just pure evil, never tires, never makes a mistake (except maybe the one the hero uses to stop him in the end), and in general seems distant is going to be the villain your reader doesn’t care about.

3. Does the villain have a relationship with the hero?

Again, this is not a black and white issue. Sometimes the villain will have no idea that the protagonist even exists. But most of the time, it is a good idea to show how they interact. These characters are complex and we often take our cues of how to feel about our villain from our protagonist. If they don’t have a deep, complex relationship, we won’t care about the villain nearly as much. This one works both ways though. Does the villain admire the hero’s power? Does the hero admire the villain’s dedication? Write how the villain feels but also make sure to highlight this for the protagonist as well. Writing a good villain is often times not just what he does, but how the characters we love perceive him. (A silly but good example of this is the movie Megamind.)

4. Does the villain believe in the mission?

The mission your villain is pursuing (usually a catalyst for the story) will give us a lot of insight and direction of how one is to feel about your villain. This factors into motivation but is it’s own separate beast. Instead of understanding just the overarching ‘why’, this focuses in on the execution of a specific plan and the determination to achieve it. Most importantly when writing your villain, they need to avoid being wishy-washy or apathetic towards their goals and plans. Now they can have doubts about what they do. That can create some great tension. But they need to care greatly. Maybe not about the protagonist and definitely not about everything (that’s impossible for anyone to do). But certainly, they need to care about what they are doing and why they are doing it. Crank the emotions up. Because if they don’t believe what they’re doing each step of the way is important, how are the heroes (or us readers) supposed to?

5. Does your villain always lose?

I can understand wanting your hero to win, but if your villain is constantly failing and never gets one over the protagonist, you’ve probably got a rather boring character and a low-stakes plot. There’s no suspense, no feeling of tension, and no engagement. This is also bad for your protagonist creation. Unless they are having an extreme amount of internal conflict, your hero is having an easy time of it, winning every time, and that’s just a story that doesn’t have any meat to it. This question will help you write a good villain AND a good story if the answer is no. You won’t get a hero that readers love and a villain they love to despise if the villain doesn’t win sometimes.

Who are some of your favorite villains? Feel free to post them below and share some of your favorite aspects! Or tell us about the villain you’re writing.

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