You have an amazing idea for a protagonist, but for some reason, your story idea doesn't excite you in the way you hoped. You're lacking a fearsome villain, and you're stumped about how to write a villain that feels real. That really raises the stakes. But how do you write a good villain?
Villains make our heroes.
Without Voldemort, Harry Potter is just another young wizard. Without Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes is just a know-it-all in a weird hat. Without the Joker, Batman is just a rich dude with anger issues and too much time on his hands.
Villains are essential. Without them, our heroes can’t shine. That's why it's important to give our villains scenes where they can wow us with their quirks and scare us with their ferocity. Writing a good villain is about more than making a character a bad person.
But what makes a great villain? In this post, you'll learn how to write a villain—one who is equally memorable to the protagonist—with six scenes that make a significant difference from books where the villain is just, eh.
6 Key Scenes to Write a Good Villain
In general, heroes are predictable and sometimes boring. It’s only when a great villain creates chaos that the good guy has a chance to show us what they are made of.
Yet it isn’t enough to simply point to a character and say, “That’s the bad guy.” You’ve got to let the reader get to know them. Your reader needs to understand what makes them tick.
And most of all, your reader needs to believe that the bad guy can beat the hero and win the day.
Here are six scenes you can use to highlight the villainy, character story arc, dark side, and everything else bad guys.
Scene #1: The Backstory
Every baddie starts somewhere.
The origin story is a wonderful moment in which you can help the reader relate to your villain. In this moment, villain's backstory is brought to the front and center of the scene. Here, their humanity shines through, and you can pull at your readers' heartstrings in ways that might tempt them to see their own lives and choices through the villain's point of view.
As an example, take Pixar's excellent superhero film, The Incredibles.
When the big bad Syndrome is revealed, we can't help but feel sympathy for him after his reflection about Mr. Incredible rejecting him.
Or how about when we learn why Kylo Ren turns to the Dark Side?
Even in an animated world with super-stretchy stay-at-home mothers, these characters become relateable human beings. They are honest and vulnerable. They have emotions, and all of this comes out with their character motivation at play.
If you can make your villain’s struggle an exaggerated version of something we all battle in real life, your readers will begin to understand them on an even deeper level, even when it's a bit scary to do so.
After all, there's nothing more terrifying than a sympathetic villain that readers can see themselves becoming!
Come up with one tragic story from your villain's childhood that made them the kind of villain they are when your story starts. Consider how they were forced into a dilemma because of this moment in their life, and how they made a decision that led to the dark trajectory of their existence.
Scene #2: The First Look
First impressions are important. The first time we see your villain at work, we need to be wowed. It’s that first crime, that first harsh word, that first evil glance that will set the tone for your villain.
Take the introduction of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. In a truly horrifying scene, Agent Clarice Starling must descend into a literal dungeon where the most severely deranged, sadistic serial killers are kept. Once she passes by several, including a disgusting pervert named Miggs, Starling arrives at the final cell inhabited by Dr. Lecter.
Yet she doesn't find a monster waiting for her—at least not at first. Instead, she sees a man standing calmly in his cell, with a polite smile on his face. His first words to her? “Good morning.”
What a contrast to what has come before! There's something freakishly eerie about this man's unnerved demeanor.
As the story reveals, Hannibal Lecter isn't just an overused trope of a misunderstood villain. Lecter is a criminal mastermind who commits shocking acts of evil, willingly jeopardizing Starling's life in the process.
In many stories, writers can often defend that, in the villain's own mind, they are the hero of their own story. These are the villains who truly believe that what they are doing is right, even if their actions are driven by their egos and misbeliefs (take the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, or really any dictator in history).
Hannibal Lecter may be one of the only exceptions to this trope. He is brilliant, sophisticated—and wildly dangerous. And he owns this.
It's part of what makes him so terrifying. He knows the wrongs he commits, and he's energized by them.
The same goes for the Joker in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series.
The 1989 Batman film introduces the Joker in a memorable way, as does the 2008 The Dark Knight:
In both films, the Joker does very bad things that reveal a twisted dark side of the human psyche. And both scenes are remarkably memorable for just how powerfully and succinctly they capture the bad guy's willingness to harm other human beings.
Nothing and nobody can reason with the Joker. He's out to burn the world.
So plan and write a scene for your antagonist's first look that encapsulates all that they stand for, and sets them apart as a truly evil villain.
First Look Practice
Think about what happens in the scene we first see your story's villain. What progressive complication turns the value in this scene from bad to worse? What action or revelation do we see that shows that surrounding characters shouldn't mess with this Villain?
For instance, in The Dark Knight, following Joker's POV, there's a moment when one of the pawns in Joker's game holds Joker at gunpoint. For a moment we think, here we go—another one down. But then, Joker (then masked) indicates something about a bus driver. This stuns the other bank robber, seconds before being plowed down by a bus.
The Joker has had a plan all along, and when he reveals who he is to the bank teller lying on the ground, we know this isn't like any Batman movie we've seen before.
Because this villain is . . . something else.
Scene #3: The First Confrontation
This scene shows that moment when the two rivals (protagonist and villain) size each other up.
Consider this the coin toss before the football game, the handshake before the political debate. It's when your villain and hero meet face-to-face for the first time, and in these minutes, the protagonist gets a personal look at how dangerous the villain really is.
It's a wonderful opportunity to show your reader why the villain will be a good foil for your hero.
Because of this, the stakes are raised. Significantly.
Consider the scene when Thanos pulverizes Thor and Hulk in the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War.
Or when Cersei and Jamie come to Winterfell for the first time, we immediately see the contrast between them and the Starks.
These crucial confrontations are at their best when the villain reveals a chink in your hero’s armor. Until this point in the story, you’ve led your reader to believe that the hero was strong and good; but when you show that main character can't defeat this bad guy so easily, suspense ripples into the story.
The reader sees that everything isn't perfect, and that the main character is going to have a fierce fight on their hands.
Writing villains isn't all about dreaming up stomach-turning atrocities; it's about conflict between two moral forces. And in that first moment of conflict, your hero must discover that the forces of evil pack a wicked punch.
So cook up a great scene in which the tables turn and power whips back and forth between the two, ending with your protagonist on the ropes.
If you want to craft a memorable villain that readers can't stop talking about, you have to be willing to let your hero lose . . . at least for a while.
First Confrontation Practice
It's time to pin your protagonist against your villain for the first time. Make a list of five progressive complications that your hero faces in this scene while battling your villain. Rank these in intensity from one to five, and use these in your scene as a way to show how matters grow more difficult for your protagonist.
Remember that not all villains are action stories. Let's look at a scene with a stronger psychological focus, Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. What do you think are the progressive complications George Bailey faces when he confronts Mr. Potter?
How could you do something similar in your face-off scene?
Scene #4: The Hero’s Temporary Defeat
This moment is a must for every story.
If your hero gets knocked down after the first confrontation, there needs to be a scene later in which they get knocked the heck out.
No one likes a blow out—at least in a novel or a short story.
If your heroes win for the entire game, or if there's really not a threat to their goals, then your readers are going to be bored stiff. We need to know that the stakes are real. Instead, your readers should always question whether this story is going to end well until the very end.
J.K. Rowling pulled this off masterfully throughout the Harry Potter series, and especially in the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
The final book is a bloodbath for the good guys. Voldemort has his way with everyone and everything in almost every scene. And when the good guys do win, by a hair's breadth and a cost that comes with several beloved lives—the highest price.
This shows how dark and dangerous the series has become since book one. Not only does it feel like everyone is fair game starting with Moody, but each time Harry, Hermione, and Ron try to destroy a horcrux, the risk (that impacts their survival) grows worse.
The battle with Voldemort's forces in the end sees the death of many beloved characters. And even the novel's final confrontation, in which Harry bravely ventures into the Dark Forest to face He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named for (what he thinks is) the final time, he is content to sacrifice himself so his friends can live.
Whoa. That's dire.
But rewind for a moment. Remember that this scene is about a temporary defeat for the protagonist. To best accomplish this, it's useful to show a scene where a protagonist relies on old ways or misbeliefs while fighting the villain, and because of this, they suffer a great loss.
in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this scene is best seen when Voldemort gives his enemies, Harry included, a chance to collect their dead. At the same time, he calls out Harry as a coward and invites him into the forest.
Up to this point, Harry and his friends have fought valiantly, but they can't defeat Voldemort unless, as Harry learns, he sacrifices himself.
Survival for Harry's friends, Harry realizes, can't happen unless he changes his strategy. The very scene that proves this is that which shows Harry's suffered defeat at the villain's hands.
While Voldemort isn't a terribly relatable villain, as most real life people have complicated world views and character development (which Voldemort has, but is also pure evil), he is the type of villain that makes readers clutch the book with white knuckles until the very end.
Pro Tip: These scenes can only be accomplished by strong structure. You have to plan ahead.
You have to plan your hero's defeat in advance so you don't “cheat” with a deus ex machina.
If you write your hero into a corner, you have to know their exit strategy. Somewhere along the journey, the protagonist must have built a relationship, learned a skill, or discovered some secret power or magic that enables them to legitimately escape the fate they find themselves in.
For Harry Potter, as we learn after this scene, it is the scar.
All along, J.K. Rowling knew what it actually was (I won't put it here, just in case you somehow don't already know), and why it would save Harry if he willingly sacrificed himself at just the right moment.
So Harry Potter doesn't cheat, even though Harry technically survives death. He executes a perfect “Resurrection” step in his hero's journey, but this wouldn't exist without Voldemort.
Temporary Defeat Practice
When does your hero rely on their old ways while trying to fight their villain? How do these old ways fail them? Take some time to journal about a scene that keeps the above questions in mind, and then show how your protagonist suffers defeat in this moment—a low moment for them in the book.
Scene #5: The Monologue
The monologue is the moment we all wait for, the moment we love to hate. James Bond is tied to a table as a laser beam is slowly creeps toward him. Feeling that victory is imminent, the villain decides to reveal their master plan.
We, the audience, know it’s a mistake. We know the hero is going to escape, yet still, we eat it up because it’s such an important moment in the story.
It not only raises the stakes of the conflict by giving us a glimpse into what will happen if your hero doesn’t rise to the challenge; it also gives us a clear picture of your villain’s motivation. Does he want money? Power? Or does she just want to watch the world burn?
Who is the maniacal character causing all this chaos? In the monologue, we get to see the world through your villain’s eyes.
Keep in mind that the villain's monologue has become a well-known trope, so be sure to make innovative choices when you write this scene. If you aren't familiar with the way The Incredibles teases this common archetype, make sure you rewatch the film and pay attention when Syndrome reveals his true identity.
What does your villain want to say that really gives it to the protagonist? What is it that your villain wants in your story, and how is this revealed in this scene through a monologue?
Pro Tip: Knowing this scene will help you understand every motive your villain uses in every scene where they appear. So, if you don't know this scene in your book, try writing it before all the others. It might help you figure out how all the other five scenes fall into place!
Scene #6: The Moment of Partial Redemption
Only the very best villains have these scenes.
This is when, for the briefest moment, we are led to believe that the zebra might change its stripes. It may only last a split second, but in this scene your villain convinces us that there might be a chance that they can be redeemed.
It’s Gollum professing his loyalty to Frodo before trying to take to the ring for himself in The Lord of the Rings. It’s Long John Silver earning Jim’s trust before revealing himself to be a treasure-hungry mutineer in Treasure Island. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it’s the White Witch convincing Edmund she just wants to meet his brother and sisters, making us think for a split second that maybe she isn’t a heartless, hope-crushing, Christmas-hating monster.
If your villain can fool us, we will love them for it.
They'll hook us, and hold onto our attention with both hands.
Moment of Partial Redemption Practice
In your book, what could make your villain want partial redemption? How is this opportunity brought to our attention, and why does the villain fool us—or change—even if for a split second? Take some notes on this idea, and let it cook.
Give Your Villain the Stage
In order to write a memorable protagonist, you need a villain that is equally powerful—if not more so.
Think about it: the bigger the protagonist, the bigger the villain.
And because you’ve worked hard to create a villain that will give your hero a chance to show us what they are made of, you need to give your baddie a place to shine.
To do this, use the six scenes covered in this post. Build them a stage and let their performance wow us. And always keep in mind the importance of raising the stakes with each moment. After all, eventually all your scenes build to your story's final showdown between your hero and the villain.
At your story's precipice, we will see what both your protagonist and villain are really made of.
What scenes do you like to use to create great villains? Let me know in the comments.
Need more plot help? After you practice these scenes in the exercise below, check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love. Low price for a limited time!
Think of the hero and villain from your work in progress, or imagine a new hero and villain. Then, take fifteen minutes to write one of the six scenes above. When you're finished, share your scene with us in the Pro Practice Workshop here. And if you share, remember to leave feedback for your fellow writers.
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Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."