“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

8 Things I Learned About Villains from My First Novel

A hero is no hero at all unless there is something to stand against. That’s where villains come in.

villains

We love to hate them, but they serve a critical function within the anatomy of a story, the yin to your protagonist’s yang. This might say something twisted about me, but creating villains is one of my favorite parts of writing.

What My First Novel Taught Me About Villains

As I wrote my first novel, I learned a lot about what makes a villain work, and what makes a villain flop. As I prepare for its release this month, I’ve been reflecting a lot about how I got my manuscript to this point.

And I want to share what I’ve learned. So here are eight things I learned about creating villains from my first novel:

1. The villain believes they’re the hero.

Regardless of how terrible or twisted your antagonist is, there is still a reason behind their actions. Every character needs their own ethical code, and this is especially true for your villain.

Consider the cold rational behind Ozymandias’ plot in Watchmen, or that of Amy from Gone Girl. Even the Joker has his own internal mission to create as much chaos as possible.

Sure, these codes are, at best, terribly misguided, but each of these villains stands for something they believe in.

2. They need their own plot arc.

It’s tempting to pull your villain in and out of the story as they’re needed to face off with your protagonist.

But even when they’re out of sight, a story’s villain is at work. What are they doing? Factor it in.

3. Careful with the slinking and creeping.

By which I mean, watch the clichés.

You shouldn’t need to whack your readers over the head with your villain’s evil. The character’s actions, and how the other characters respond to them, will speak for itself.

4. Be despicable

So if your villains actions need to speak for themselves, make those actions utterly, horribly terrible.

Go big or go home. Make your villain worthy of your readers’ hate.

5. Give them their own motivations.

Your villain isn’t only there to stop your protagonist. Just as important as their own plot arc and their own code of ethics, villains need their own agency within the story. That means giving them their own motivation.

There is a reason why your villain is clashing with your protagonist—what is it?

6. Make it personal.

Like everything in your story, your villain’s got to offer a personal challenge to your protagonist. It doesn’t have to be direct necessarily, but it’s got to be significant.

For example, in The Hunger Games the villain is President Snow, and his actions are deeply personal to Katniss, whose life is on the line because of his actions—and yet he’s hardly in the first book, because his role is largely out of sight.

6. Make it epic.

Because in a story, there are layers. Your hero’s personal world is critical, but it’s also about the story’s world at large. Your villain needs to impact the world, too.

There’s got to be something big and serious on the line. If you don’t have this in your story already, take a careful look at the stakes.

7. Be sympathetic.

As the author, it’s your responsibility to understand and sympathize with every single one of your characters—even if you don’t agree with them. If you can’t, take it as a red flag that your character isn’t working.

Don’t be afraid to make your readers sympathetic to your villain, either. It can make for some of the best, most complex stories.

8. Don’t rig the game.

Obviously, (usually) we want to see our heroes triumph. Because we know that going in, this can sometimes leak into the plot development, which leads to a deck stacked in the hero’s favor. Don’t think your readers don’t notice.

When this happens, your readers get comfortable assuming your hero will prevail. And that sucks the tension—and fun—right out of it. So make your hero work for every inch along the way by creating a villain who can go toe-to-toe with them.

Your Villain Matters

If your hero is the tentpole that holds the story up, the antagonist is the support that keeps it in place.

So give them their due with careful forethought, so they are full characters with likes, dislikes, and histories. Give them your understanding, so they have their own moral code and a little sympathy. And give them a hearty dose of evil, just for fun.

Who is your favorite villain and why? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

As an exercise in character development for your antagonist, rewrite a key scene of your story from your antagonist’s perspective for fifteen minutes. What are they feeling? Why do they act the way they do? When you’re done, share your work in the comments!

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • Sana Damani

    Kilgrave from Jessica Jones is my current favorite villain. [Possible spoilers ahead]

    The man is truly despicable and frightening and has no regard for anyone else, but he does have his own motives and a backstory that *may* explain why he is the way he is, which could make one sympathize with him. They even give him a moment of redemption which makes you think that just maybe he has good in him.

    I think a good backstory is just as important for a villain as it is for the hero because it tells you *why* the person is evil and you don’t simply assume that he was born evil and that his purpose in life is to ruin our hero’s life. That makes for more interesting stories IMO.

    I also think that the villain must be a juxtaposition, either in terms of ideals or powers, to our hero.

    In the current example, we have a hero who is super-strong (practically superman-like abilities), but who still lives in fear, because all her strength means nothing when the villain can simply control her.

    The show also has a person who *thinks* he’s the hero, but isn’t. This guy is the embodiment of the “doing harm for the greater good” ideology.

    It is also good to put a face to the villain. For example, in the Hunger Games series, the government could have been the faceless bad guy, but adding Katniss’s interactions with Snow made it more personal and real.

    I really enjoyed this post. Maybe I’ll finally write a story that has an actual villain 🙂

  • rosie

    Magneto from X-men is a good villain. Well, he’s not a villain in the strictest sense, but his motive is to kill all the humans because of how they mistreated him. I really empathized with him, and although I thought it was Nazi-like, I understood where he was coming from.
    Villains need cronies too. He can send his “minions” to do the dirty work, which makes him even scarier, and introduces a variety of slimy characters. It also makes your villains more realistic, because most people don’t work in complete isolation.

  • Annie

    In my story that I am currently writing, the villain is also one of the heroes. That sounds totally confusing, but it’s a lot less complicated than it sounds. The main character is afflicted with Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder). One of her personalities is a naïve, innocent girl, while the other is a malicious, plotting, psychotic girl. She believes that what she is doing (trying to take over the world) is for the good of all humans lesser than herself. The scientists in the lab she took over are trying to stop her. The other hero, besides the protagonist, is named Marcus, and he wants to stop the villain/hero but not hurt her along the way (as he may have a secret little crush on her). So the majority of the story is told from the point of view of the villain personality, with some from the hero’s perspective.

    • So creative!

    • EndlessExposition

      That’s a really interesting and unique idea! Good luck with the writing! 🙂

  • Kiara McNeil

    Rowan Pope from Scandal. He has an interesting but underdeveloped background which would be interesting to explore. He’s the villain but he definitely has a reason for why he’s done what he’s done and for all intents and purpose he feels justified in what he’s done. He’s despicable, he’s killed, molded mind, ruined families and leveled just about whatever it is you can think of in his quest for power.

    He’s a great villain because he comes from humble beginnings and has all the motive to become a good person but at some point he veers left and changes completely. In a quest for power, and an attempt to balance love and family he loses himself completely and makes the choice to make it about power while somehow squashing in his twisted family life.

    While Rowan/Eli will say a million times that he knows he’s the villain, he’s a monster and a despicable person he doesn’t believe it. He believes he’s the saving grace of an entire country, a small legion of soliders/his children and that he knows most but not all. He believes himself to be the hero of the story. It’s interesting because the show has many villains but no real hero but I felt like he definitely fits the mold of a lot of your points. He’s supposed to be opposite of his daughter but they’re the exact same in many aspects, but definitely thanks for your post it reaffirmed some things for me.

    • Haven’t seen this show yet (I know, I NEED to) but this sounds like a great example. How fun that he would say he’s a villain but doesn’t really believe it.

  • saadia

    so creative and interesting it really motivated me to be a good writer

  • Dina

    Thanks, 2 and 6 really resonated with me.

  • Wow, this was a good one! Loved the article, and the practice was challenging. (I love that!).
    My novel’s a little complicated, because one of my protagonists (Jacob in the scene below), actually started out as the antagonist, but changed halfway through the novel.

    This is a scene about 3/4 through the book, that was actually from Alyssa’s POV. This really was interesting. Great article!

    She looked so innocent, Andrew thought to himself as he observed her from across the cafeteria. He hadn’t seen her in four months, and she looked nothing like the helpless
    person in a hospital bed that she had been then. Now, though still wheelchair-bound, she looked happy.
    He knew Kim would be here any minute. He’d wait ’til then to confirm his suspicions. She’d love to know his connection to Alyssa Brenton, who now seemed to have caught her eye on something. Or someone.
    Andrew looked to the left, and his mouth dropped open. of all the people he’d expect
    to see in this place, Jacob McCarthy had to be the last. But here he was, making a beeline for none other than Alyssa. Slowly, Andrew’s gaping expression changed to humorous, and he let out a chuckle. Wasn’t it ironic, the two most pathetically religious people he had ever seen, and now they were what, dating? Perfect.
    “What’s up?” Kim came behind him. He grinned, “Bet you don’t know who that is.”
    “Sure I do. It’s the religious girl, Alyssa.”
    “No, I mean him,” and with that he marched towards the table, Kim close behind him, “But I know exactly who he is, and this is perfect. We can take care of both of them here.”
    “Are you crazy? She’s never met you in her life. You’re just going to march up there
    and tell her what you think of her when she doesn’t even know you?”
    That made him stop, and smile, “Well, she has met me, but I guarantee she doesn’t
    remember it,” he paused, “I guess you’re right. But you could go first.”
    Kim rolled her eyes, but he knew this opportunity was too much for her to pass up.
    She could get in trouble for saying anything abut Alyssa’s beliefs while she was on the job. But off the clock, they were both equal again.
    At that moment, Jacob took a phone call, and he rose from the table and started to
    walk down the row of tables. Towards Andrew.

    Andrew watched Kim approach the table, acting so casual. At that moment Jacob hung up his phone, and when he looked up, he locked eyes with Andrew, and his expression froze. After darting a look at Alyssa, Jacob put his gaze back on Andrew. He didn’t want a scene, Andrew knew. But with a chuckle, Andrew started to make his way over to the table. Jacob might not want a scene.
    But he did.

  • Dina

    I had to do some hard thinking about the type of villains I had in my stories.
    Here’s a scene…

    Gregora’s hotel looked the same as always. Elegant, expensive. The hub of Ucratsian – Arrkanzan entertainment. As I walked around at all these Ucratsian sitting quietly laughing, dining, sophistivatedly enjoying their new status in this world, I shook my head ever so slightly. If they only knew the foundation on which The Luxe Ucran Hotel had been built. In Ikhrania, they was one just like it, and that one funded this one. The hypocrisy of it all. I hated Ucratsia and maybe that was a hypocrisy all in itself. Everyday I was reminded that I was born Ucratsian. That Ucratsian blood and the awful vaccine flowed tthrough my veins.
    I took my seat. Gregora had given me the best seat. Some looked and whispered. Her regulars no doubt knew exactly who I was. They knew exactly who it was that would meet me here.
    They felt the same about me as I felt about her. Traitors, betrayal.
    But wasn’t I the more justified. They didn’t know what went on in Ikhrania. I did.
    All they knew, what they heard; was that four Ucratsian girls ( relic whores or not) had been trapped in a room at Dalton estate in Ikhrania. A room which also held a wild Relic and everyone had died, everyone except me and the Relic had walked away, while I held still held my finger on the button that could release the airbourne vaccine that would’ve killed the Relic and saved all of us.
    That’s what they heard, what they couldn’t know was that the Relic woman Astra had entered our estate a couple of hours prior with enough money to buy only a couple ounces of blood. But she needed a lot more I could tell. She was pregnant. No money, no blood.
    The baby wouldn’t survive without it. My sister had long stopped caring about such things;
    But Astra had come back to the only place where Relic walked around unvacinated. A highly illegal offense.
    The stakes for her were as high as they were for us. The estate was rigged with anti Relic defenses but did she know I would hasitate. That I wouldn’t have seized those moments her attention were on the others.
    That instead of racing to the button I would take out the knife I had stolen even before I had been sold to the estate, and sliced my own wrist.
    And whether it had been to save the baby or my sisters or save the rest of my miserable existence, I didn’t know. Only that after killing my sisters what she wanted was someone that could and save her child. Someone who had to betray the entire Ucratsian society to do it and I suppose she found someone who would.
    They had betrayed me everyday of my life. The monsters were all around us and they didn’t have to be Relic. I’d save the only person who I knew that was truly innocent.

    • EndlessExposition

      It was a little hard to follow given that I don’t know the world of this story, and there were some spelling mistakes, but you’ve set up a really interesting premise for this villain’s background, and I think they have a lot of promise!

      • Dina

        Hi thanks for the feedback. Uh, yeah I have to get into the habit of rereading what I write and editing etc.

        And about the setting it’s sort of a dystopian world, Ucratsia and the Ucratsian are your humans. The Relic are your vampire type (ish) and there’s the Seltiq and Quevet and Mouralians ( which are your “evolved” witches with a twist). Basically the Relic and Quevet terrorized the world for millenia until there was nearly a Ucratsian genocide. Then a Ucratsian scientist came up with a “vaccine” which basically makes Ucratsian blood like poison. A couple of decades later the world “spun” and now Ucratsians are on top with everyone else ( except the hidden Mouralians) nearly extinct or pushed to the very borders.The world is really sophisticated and science based ( no place for Non-Ucratsians).

        What fuels LynZ’s perspective is that she has suffered by the hands of more Ucratsians than she has Relic. She’s not nieve to believe that all Relic are good but she has seen enough not to say that one species are monsters and the others aren’t. The hypocrisy she mentions comes from the fact that she knows that most of Ucratsia is built upon an illegal ( supposed to be)secret blood trade and that in the highest of places there are Relics who are supposed to be incapable of civilisation. She was sold as a blood runner when she was seven and was basically educated by her Relic clients.
        In the version I’ve written here she sacrifices alot of Ucratsian lives for a child that shouldn’t have been born. She also risks the lives of her sisters as it is also illegal for any Ucratsian to be unvaccinated. She is more of a risk to Ucratsian society than the Relic.

  • Pingback: Tuesday Two-Minute Writing Tip – Sharing Other Blog Posts: Creating Villains and Emotional Arcs | Author Alicia Dean()

  • EndlessExposition

    I posted a character study of Kaya, the main character from my ongoing sci-fi screenplay, on 4 Lessons from Orphan Black on Character Development. Here’s a character study of one of the villains from that same screenplay. As always, reviews are much appreciated!

    The Red Captain

    She had that recurring dream about her father again. In the dream her father took her to his room and opened the chest at the foot of the bed. She, seven years old, was barely tall enough to see over the top of it. Her father picked her up and held her over the chest so she could reach inside. She pulled out a brightly colored buba, and her father said, “That was your great grandfather’s. He was a very brave man. He saved his family when all of Nigeria was dying of the Ephesus Virus. He made fake papers for them to get onto a spaceship. He saved my father. He gave me life, and you. The breath in your body, the blood in your veins, is his gift to you. Remember that. Every day that we live to its fullest, in success and happiness, is a thank you for his courage. Always remember.”

    The worn cloth of the buba felt rough like wild grass on her fingertips. She lifted it to her face and imagined she could still smell the warm sunlight of Earth Prime. Suddenly she dropped the buba, wiggled from her father’s arms like a slippery fish, and ran through
    the house and outside. The wind whistled between her outstretched fingers as she flew through the field outside her house. Her feet pounded the hard ground. If sharp pebbles cut into her soles she didn’t feel them. She was buoyant with the power of her own freedom, of her strong, young body. This was her great grandfather’s gift. She laughed and laughed, and it sounded magic.

    But as she ran farther and farther from the house, the landscape began to change. The green grass turned brittle and brown. The blue sky overhead turned grey and stormy. The leaves disappeared from the trees. What had happened? She looked back and screamed. Her house was in shambles – the roof caving in, the walls crumbling, the windows dark and cracked. She sprinted back and burst inside. Everything was disordered and cobwebbed. The house reeked of death. She raced from room to room. Her mother was slumped on the kitchen table, dead. Her siblings sat surrounded by their
    toys, dead. Sobbing, she went into her parents’ bedroom. The chest was still open. Her father lay next to it, clutching the buba and moaning. She kneeled next to him and shook him. “Daddy! Daddy!”

    He looked at her, eyes bulging from his emaciated face, and mouthed her name. “Fola…” Then the eyes rolled back and he was gone.

    She kept shaking him, not believing, not wanting to believe. “Daddy, Daddy!” She became aware that her hands were wet, at first she thought from her own tears, but when she looked down they were red. Blood. The buba was soaked with blood. She leapt back, shrieking.

    Her father’s face became the face of an old man, screaming, “Selfish! Selfish!” There was blood on her hands and in her hair and in her eyes, she was covered with blood and screaming, her great grandfather was screaming, screaming –

    And then she woke. She shot up ramrod straight with a shout, trembling and sweating. Quickly she stumbled out of bed. She got in the shower and blasted the cold water. She washed away the sweat and the shaking and the clinging stickiness of imagined blood. When she finally felt clean, she turned off the water and leaned back on the shower
    wall. She closed her eyes and felt water drip from her hair down over them, washing away the dream. It was partly memories, partly phantasms, always so very real. As her breathing slowed, the rasping voice of her father grew dimmer and dimmer inside her head. She chuckled. Fola. No one had called her by her real name in years.

    She got out of the shower, toweled herself off, and went to dress. She straightened the pieces of her uniform on her leanly muscled body with a methodical sense of calm. The time for being frightened by dreams had passed with the rising sun. It was now time for
    battles to be fought, for order to be restored, for enemies of the Syndicate to tremble in dread. Adjusting her cape, she looked in the mirror, meeting her own steely gaze. “Always remember.” And with that, the Red Captain swept out of the room.

  • Abigail Clark

    This is really helpful! Now I want to know: how do I convert my neutrally good character into a villain?

  • Nikki

    Another good example is Loki, who is Thor’s brother and enemy. Loki’s tragic backstory in Thor (film), how he turned into Thor’s mischievous little brother into the psychopath who invaded New York. I love Tom Hiddleston’s input of the character, and that Loki is much more dimension and we can’t help but sympathize him.His motivations and his goals, while his feelings are very understandable and his motivations, he did make bad choices. And in Loki’s mind, he believes himself a hero. His feelings are much more complex and one of the best things about him is that despite his intentions, he still has good in him and people he deeply cares–his mother, Frigga. I love that Loki shows that he can be redeemed.

    His character inspired me creative a deep villians with a lot of inner conflict and their motivations.To create a very sympathetic antagonist. It made me care the antagonists, possibly much more than the protagonist, because I feel very sorry for them. But I have trouble making sure the villians are not ‘victims’ and just a bad guy, in the protagonist’s perspective.

  • Margaret Khan

    Wow, the government has been writing it’s War On Terror story for quite some time. Ben Laden had to be killed off, great triumph for Obama. ISIS chops off heads of Christian children. Obama funds, arms, trains ISIS. Did he train them to do that? Oh well, media tries to keep that part out of narative.

    • Doug

      I’m not sure I understand the relevance of this comment as it relates to the subject matter of the article. Do you just roam the internet randomly dropping bits of your personal baggage?

  • Doug

    So, wait… I can’t just have the scene be tilted at 30 degrees to indicate that I’m dealing with the villain?

    I learned that from Batman.