Writing a great book that readers want to pick up and read, or even re-read, usually involves writing amazing characters people can relate to. That includes writing villains who are relatable.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but from what I’ve seen through my own reading and research, villains simply can’t be one-dimensional… readers pick up on that and don’t like it. That brings us to the question: how do you write the perfect villain for your story?
In this article, you will learn:
- How to do research about the perfect villain for your genre
- A few traits that a ‘good’ villain usually has
- The best ways to craft a backstory for your villain
- How to set your villain’s goal
- A few tricks for writing your villain
Just a note, ‘villain’ in this case refers to the antagonist of your story, even if they aren’t totally evil.
Step 1: Research Villains in Your Genre
I’m a big fan of research – when you arm yourself with enough information, you are much less likely to make mistakes. That applies to everything from writing non-fiction, to researching keywords for your ads, to writing the perfect villain in your book.
So, how do you research the villains in your genre? Well, this can be as simple as heading over to Amazon, searching the Kindle store for your chosen genre, and reading the best-selling books. Arguably, this is pretty time-consuming, but if you’re already well-read in your genre, figuring out what type of villain your genre commonly has won’t be too much of a challenge.
Here are some questions you can ask while you do your research:
- What is the villain’s goal?
- What type of villain are they? Are they violent? Non-violent?
- What is their backstory?
- What did you like about the villain?
- Could you relate to the villain? If so, why? What made them relatable?
- What didn’t you like about the villain?
Once you’ve noted the answers down, you’re ready to move on to the next step.
Step 2: Figure Out the Traits of a Good Villain
With a bit of extra research, it was pretty simple to find the traits of a ‘good’ villain. And by that, I don’t mean a villain who necessarily does good things, but one that people will enjoy reading about. Someone they will love to hate.
Now, the traits of your villain might differ from genre to genre, and if they do, you need to note them down as you did in the first step. Here are a few traits of well-crafted villains you can use in your story:
They have a backstory that’s turbulent or dark
As the reader, you can kind of understand why they behave in the terrible way they do, even though it doesn’t make their actions right.
They have likeable character traits
That doesn’t mean they’re likeable overall, but there might be some parts of your villain that are nice. After all, not everyone is all bad. Their qualities don't have to redeem their evils, but the good qualities should be there.
Their goal is opposite to your protagonist’s goal
Usually, a villain and a hero have opposite and equal goals. Emperor Palpatine wants control and the Resistance (with Luke) wants to free everyone.
They are smart
No dumb villains alllowed here, folks. That’s because if they’re not smart but they can outsmart your hero, well… what does that say about your hero?
They have terrible qualities, too
They can be jealous, revenge-seeking, cruel, and selfish. All the nasty things you want to throw into their character can hop on board – there’s room for ‘em!
As I filled up my ereader with books from the genre I was researching, I found these traits were pretty common in some of my favorite novels, and you’ll probably be able to pick them out too now that you know what they are.
Step 3: Craft a Good Backstory for Your Villain
As mentioned above, one of the traits of a really believable villain is having a good backstory. This means, their backstory kind of makes what they’re doing understandable (not totally though). If they want control, there must be a reason for it.
But how do you create a good backstory for your villain? Here’s a checklist of things you can do to craft a backstory for an antagonist that makes sense:
- Try to think of something terrible that could happen to your villain that’s in line with the character traits you wrote down.
- Check your research about what other authors in your genre are doing with their villains’ backstories. Try to create something unique that’s roughly in line with those trends.
- Get to know your villain better by completing a character questionnaire. You can find a good villain questionnaire here.
- Make sure that whatever happened in your villain’s past, it’s painful enough to affect their present actions.
Step 4: Note Your Villain’s Goal
Perhaps the most important part of crafting your villain is knowing what they want to achieve and having a good reason for that. And it probably shouldn’t be that they want it just because the hero wants the opposite.
Usually, a villain’s goal is equal and opposite to the hero’s but is driven by that awful backstory they had. Here are a few examples you can reference when crafting your own villain’s goal:
- Bill Lumbergh, Office Space – his goal was to control everyone and exploit his power as the man in charge
- Inspector Javert, Les Miserables – his goal was to do the right thing, even though he went about it the wrong way
- Jigsaw, Saw – his goal was to teach people the perils of wasting their lives, in a terrible manner
- Khan Noonien Singh, Star Trek – his goal was to save his people from going extinct
- Loki, Thor – his goal was to claim what he saw as his rightful position on the throne, after basically being reared for the position by Odin
Once you have a strong motivation that makes sense and can possibly inspire empathy in the reader, you’re definitely on the path to crafting a great villain!
Step 5: Write Your Villain
Now that you have your villain ready to go, it’s time to write him or her. That might be easier said than done though.
So, here are a few things you can do to get in the mood to write your villain and to ensure you do a good job of it:
Set up a villain playlist
This is one of the most fun things you can do when writing a new book. Set up a playlist of songs that remind you of your villain or invoke a sense of their attitude or personality. Listen to it while you write.
Keep a notebook of quotes from your villain
You can come up with these quotes before you write your story or when you’re in the thick of it. When you get stuck, you can check them out. They might just give you some inspiration.
Free write in your villain’s perspective
If you’re going to tackle a big scene that features your villain, you might want to spend a bit of time before your writing session just writing in your notebook from the villain’s perspective. It might help you get into their head.
Keep your character questionnaires to hand
Those character questionnaires and write-ups you did earlier will be helpful tools. Whenever you’re unsure of how your villain should behave in a given situation, you can check them.
Writing a villain doesn’t have to be evil. With the right motivation and background, you can create a villain that’s believable and easy to write. Start out with these steps and see where they take you.