Writing believable bad guys

Villain. One of my biggest pet peeves in books and movies is the stock villain. You know the type — evil just for the sake of being evil, because something has to get in the hero’s way. To make sure my own villains are three-dimensional, I follow five rules for writing believable villains:

  1. Every villain has a story

Even if your antagonist is a loner, she had to come from somewhere. Most likely she had parents, or foster parents, or even just people who helped her get by on the streets. Did she join a gang to survive? Was she bullied? Was she the bully? Did she have siblings? Has she ever been in love? What was it like?

Exercise: Write a scene or journal entry where your villain reflects on her earliest caregiver(s). Did she grow up in a nurturing home? With an abusive foster parent? Raised by siblings, or a whole community?

  1. Every villain is the hero of his/her story

Why does your villain want what he wants? How does your hero get in the way of that?

Exercise: Tell the story from your villain’s point of view. How do his confrontations with the hero (especially the final showdown) differ?

  1. Just as all heroes have a moment when they must decide to be a hero (e.g., Luke decides to go with Obi wan Kenobi to Aderlaan), all villains have a moment when they decide to be a villain (e.g., Anakin joins the Dark Side).

As Dumbledore says, “It is our choices that define us, far more than our abilities.” Good villains are not evil simply because they were born that way. They decided to do evil. They probably thought they were doing the right thing, or else found ways to justify it to themselves (“sure, stealing is wrong, but if I don’t steal this bread my little brother will starve”). You don’t have to put your villain’s origins into your story, but you should know what they are, and when your villain passed that point of no return.

Exercise: Write your villain’s defining moment. What brought her to this point? How does she feel about what she’s doing?

  1. Remember that bad guys/gals are people, too

Your villain is still human (or at least has human emotions that readers can empathize with). There are things that will make him laugh, or cry, or fly into a rage – and not all of them have to be related to the hero and his/her journey. Does your villain have a soft spot for dogs? Would he be in awe of a skyscraper, or the Sistine Chapel, or a mountain vista?

Exercise: Write a scene featuring your villain that has nothing to do with the main plot. If he’s grocery shopping, what items does he buy? Does he make a snarky comment about how expensive organic carrots are? Does he have a relationship with the person at the meat counter, or the bakery? Does he refuse to buy generic brands on principle?

  1. Everyone has quirks

We all have things we like, things we hate, things that drive us crazy, things we do that drive other people crazy. Your villain is no exception. Does she hate candies with nuts in them? Is she allergic to pineapple? Does she bite her nails? Is her bedroom/lab/lair meticulously ordered or a complete mess?

Exercise: Spice up a scene with your villain by adding a quirk or habit that annoys another character. Is the hero distracted by the villain’s constant pencil tapping? Does the villain’s assistant hate her evil laugh?

Those are my rules for writing believable bad guys. Do you have any you would add? What really good (or really bad) villains have you come across recently?


2 thoughts on “Writing believable bad guys

  1. iggy23

    I’ve been waiting for a post like that! I find it very interesting to write from the point of a villain and I’ve been waiting to write such a story. Unfortunately I don’t have any inspiration now but I’ll definitely write one in the future 🙂 Your tips are very useful and I think someone who’s about to write a villain-focused story should give this post a visit!


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