50 Shades of Villain: How to Characterize Without Cliché

by Liz Bureman | 12 comments

This past weekend, ABC Family had a Harry Potter marathon. My roommate recorded the first part of the Deathly Hallows, and we're watching it now as I'm writing. It's oddly fitting that the close of this discussion of heroes, villains, anti-heroes, and anti-villains happens while watching a film of the series that encompasses basically every shade of hero and villain that we've covered.

darth vader kitty

Photo by J.D. Hancock

50 Shades of Villain

In exploring levels of hero, anti-hero, villain, and anti-villain, there can be a surprising amount of overlap. An anti-hero can show shades of anti-villain as well. Much of it depends on the writer, the universe they've created, and the character they've created to oppose him.

There are also levels of anti-hero and anti-villain outside the lists we've covered.

Simplification is a good starting point, but you can just as easily create an anti-villain who might have evil intentions, but who just can't seem to actually do anything evil, either by a series of coincidences or by sheer virtue of the fact that their plans always backfire in a way that turns them into a hero.

Or you might create an anti-hero who has his heart in absolutely the right place, and wants only life and prosperity, but can't seem to leave a village without leaving at least one building on fire.

Characterization Starting Points

The great thing about writing constructs is that they're only starting points. If you've written a hero or villain who doesn't fit into any of the archetypes that we've covered, that's fine! That's even great, because that means you're not limiting yourself to what has already been established.

You're creating your own type of hero or villain, and maybe it will become one of the great examples that young writers fifty years from now will emulate.

You have to start somewhere.

What well-known characters can you think of who don't fit the molds we've discussed in this series?


Take the type of hero or anti-hero, and type of villain or anti-villain that you've created in the past four weeks, and put them together.

Write for fifteen minutes in the world that you've created with those two types. See how they play off each other. Post your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.


  1. R.w. Foster

    This is a brief excerpt from an upcoming novel. Please forgive the roughness.

    A huge feast was arrayed before the four co-conspirators. Drago lifted a goblet and took a noisy drink. “Trust me Samhaine, the Walker of Worlds will not be a factor any longer. I took care of that.”

    “An’ how did ye manage that, Dwarf?”

    His upper lips curled at being addressed so callously. ‘Soon, Demon. I will kill you, too.’ He reached into an inner pocket of the waistcoat he wore. He held up a blue-white gem shaped like a fist. “The Fist of Ra.”

    Samhaine sat back in his chair. “A mighty artifact. How did you come by it.”

    “A half-troll that he thinks is on his side brought it to me a fortnight ago. She has proven to be a most useful spy.”

    A gaunt and skeletal female with withered flesh stretched tight against horribly visible bones leaned forward. Bright pinpoints of crimson light burned brightly in otherwise empty eye sockets. “What did you do?” she croaked, a blast of decayed air flowing over the table from her mouth.

    “I commanded he rape his beloved Keeper.”

    “That’s twisted,” said the last. A crown of horns circled his head. Large, bat-like wings were furled on his back. A scaled, ebony hide covered his muscular frame. “I like it.”

    “Thank you, Lucien. That’s quite a compliment.”

    “Did ye witness it?” Samhaine licked his lips as he leaned forward.

    “Yes, and it was-”

    An explosion shook the room. Food flew from the marble table which vibrated from the power rippling through the air. Before Drago, crouched on the edge, was a muscular young human. Sable hair hung over his shoulders.
    Form-fitting silvery, purple-green armor gleamed in the torchlight. He slowly
    raised his head. A red black aura was visible to all present. The air crackled
    and popped around him. Sparking, electric blue eyes pinned the dark dwarf to
    his seat. “Drago.”

    In all their eons of existence, none present had ever heard a voice filled with such menace and rage. Samhaine rose, bowed, and vanished. The lich rose and lunged at the crouched man. A powerful blow spun her head three hundred sixty degrees. She flopped into a chair, clutching her skull, dizzy.
    Lucien, wings snapping out, flew across the room, claws outstretched. The human caught the Demon King by the throat and slung him through a wall.

    “Who are you?” Drago asked, immediately hating the quaver in his voice.

    The man lifted him from his seat with contemptuous ease, and brought him forward until they were nose-to-nose. “Death.”

    • Katie Hamer

      OMG, how do you write like that? More than a little scared!

    • R.w. Foster

      I’m sorry. I did say it was rough. I’ll put the more polished version up later.

    • Winnie

      I agree. Aren’t there any redeeming features in them?

    • R.w. Foster

      Um with these four? No. Each are irredeemable in their own right. Lucien is the Lord of Hell (or the equivalent in this story), Samhaine is the former ruler, the skeletal woman is a lich, and undead mage, and mate to Lucien. Drago is a magnificent bastard on the surface, and underneath, a depraved killer dedicated to his god who makes Lucien seem like a kitten.

      The guy at the end, on the other hand, is the enraged man who was made to rape his beloved thanks to the Fist of Ra. Hope this helps.

    • Winnie

      Thanks for laying them out. You haver quite a story waiting to be written.

    • R.w. Foster

      It’s currently being written, 😉

  2. Michael Marsh

    “If you come fifty minutes late you might as well not come at all,” Jacob said leaning casually against the door jam, his eyes droopy, so obviously bored.

    “It’s not like I planned to take my sister to the emergency room, Jacob,” I say pushing my way past him into the darkness of the crowded apartment.

    “Look who finally showed up all dragged and bedraggled and whiny,” I hear his tired nasal tones follow me into the living room which is full of mingling guests half of whom are shadows in the gloom.

    “How is she?” Maddy says handing me a drink and resting her hand gently on my shoulder.

    “She’ll be fine when the drugs wear off, but I guess she is never really going to be fine is she?”

    “She is a steaming bitch, and the sooner you let her get herself out of these messes, the sooner you will actually have a life.”

    “Shut the hell up Jacob, you are a grade A asshole, and you are probably going to hell!” Mandy shouts turning to face him.

    I am ready for anything except the phone call that happens to come right now.
    I feel around in my pockets for the vibrating cell phone, spilling my drink down my pants.

    “Oh, crap! I’ve had it with this whole stupid life!”

    “Hey, man, we got more drinks, don’t sweat. Nellie the denihilist will be up and ruining your life again in no time,” Jacob slaps me on the back and grins as I turn and throw the glass through the window.

    • Winnie

      I’d love to see your protagonist put these characters in their place.

    • Michael Marsh

      They are overbearing, but the main villain is only present in the conversation.

  3. Winnie

    It looked so easy then. Dan turned around on
    his side and listened to the early morning sounds – the newspaper boy ringing
    his bell as he cycled by, the early morning bus labouring up the hill.
    “Why so glum, chum?”
    Dan leapt our of his cot, more to shake off William’s presence, something that stuck to him like a shadow and insinuated itself into his being, than to do his early morning exercises.
    “Hup-two-three hup-two-three,” William mockingly sounded a rhythm to keep time to Dan’s fifty press-ups, an exercise that warmed him up and kept him sane.
    I swear I won’t ever turn out like you,” Dan muttered between breaths.
    He felt a foot on his back. “You need more weight to push against. Otherwise you’re not getting anywhere.”
    Dan leapt up and started running on the spot..”You’re not getting anywhere, his hissed.” Shadow-boxing around William, he narrowly missed his face with straight lefts and rIght hooks. “I won’t make the same mistake twice,” he whispered.
    William threw up his hands and withdrew from the line of fire. “I’ve lived my life. Everything I did was worth it,” he sighed as he sank onto his cot.. Kids embarked n high-profile careers, holiday house on the coast waiting for him when he got out.
    When Dan finished he stood, catching his breath. “You know, I’m glad I met up with someone like you.”
    Dan bent down so his face was inches away from his cell-mate’s. “I was caught out right at the beginning with my first attempt, when I saw an easy way to make a living. That’s the difference; my family still has a future.”
    He extended a hand.
    William shook it, a nervous half-smile on his face, at a loss for words.
    You were only caught after a lifetime of embezzlement and fraud Dan wanted to add..You don’t know it, but your sons have embarked on the same life of respectable white-collar crime as you. They’ll replicate your life to a ‘T’. Whither they also land up doing time is neither here nor there. The inheritance you’re leaving your family is one big lie.

  4. Minecraft

    I am definitely bookmarking this page and sharing it with my


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Under the Harvest Moon
- Tracie Provost
Surviving Death
- Sarah Gribble
Share to...