Wicked Wednesday: How to Create a Villain

We talked about antagonists last week. How about a true villain, the actual bad guy? Let’s again distinguish antagonists from villains, because the former doesn’t necessarily

By King-Bee Films Corporation, via Wikimedia Commons

include the latter. The Writer and Proud blog talks about villains who aren’t antagonists, but they are rare; some of them are villainous and then come back to redeem themselves. I’d ask who the villains are in your books, but that would raise the spoiler alert flag, so I won’t. 

So, Wickeds, let’s talk about the elements of a good villain. We obviously need bad guys (which includes gals, of course). What makes him or her somebody our readers want to keep reading about, even if reluctantly? How does the villain play off the protagonist, and how do we make them real people, not just cardboard cutouts? Do you create villains who are not also antagonists? Go!

Barb: I’m not crazy about traditional villains and don’t tend to include them in my books. The motives for my murders have been (in no particular order) fear, jealousy, madness, obsession, resentment, greed, desperation, and not-very-bright-people-making-terrible-decisions. It took six published books for me to create a truly psychopathic character. I don’t think any of my villains (so far) have been antagonists. Aside from the fact that it’s way too obvious as a puzzle if a character who opposes the sleuth at every turn is the killer, I’m much more interested in what moves ordinary people to murder.

Edith: That’s what interests me, too, Barb. I just wrote a reflective scene between Robbie Jordan and her Aunt Adele (in Country Store Mystery #4), at about a fifth of the way through the book, where they are musing on just that. What pushes people over that line that most of us would never cross, no matter how mad we are at someone, to actually kill them? And at a library talk on Saturday I mentioned making sure the villain is a real person, who not only kills but also likes cats and folk dancing. That’s a toss-off comment, of course, and it got a laugh, but I meant that almost nobody is simply a bad guy. So the intriguing part is what got them there.

Sherry: Creating a villain that is a full character that as an author you play fair with is a challenge. And by play fair, I mean it isn’t some who strolls onto the page at the end of the book and confesses. I always seem to write one line in my book that to me screams, “That’s who did it.” I also try to mix it up by having Sarah sometimes figure out correctly who did it but then has to convince others and other time allow her to be wrong. Studying people and reading about criminals helps me to create rounded villains.

Liz: I’ve always been afraid of creating cardboard villains, so I work extra hard at coming up with a motive that humanizes them in a way. Like Barb, my villains have run the gamut of grief-stricken, greedy, fearful, proud, and broken. If they’re just crazy, what’s the fun in that? And if my characters (and reader!) can find a tiny bit of empathy for that person despite what they’ve done, then I’ll be satisfied.

Jessie: I agree with Liz that building empathy is key to making villains more complex. I find that I prefer to write villains I feel that for myself or at least write ones that I can find reasons to respect in some way. I like to think about how I would appeal to a jury if I were the villain’s defense attorney. What evidence could I present to give them pause when hearing my client’s case?

Julie: Actor friends of mine talk about playing the role of a villain. They can’t think of them as a villain–they need to believe that they are completely normal human beings. I think about that when I create my villains. They don’t think they are terrible people, they are just doing what needs to be done. I also try and make my villains blend in, as they frequently do in life.

Readers: Who is your favorite fully drawn villain? Writers: how do you come up with the bad guy?

16 Thoughts

  1. Any Downton Abbey fans? When I read this I immediately thought of Thomas Barrow of Downton Abbey. He was the ultimate villain, and at times you hated him for his cruel, malicious and obtuse ways. But he also had a compassionate, vulnerable side that made you want to cry and root for him. He frustrated me to no end, and I loved his character.

  2. Someone -I can’t remember who – said, “No one is the villain in the story of his own life.” I think that is helpful to keep in mind.

  3. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a villain who was simply evil–because people aren’t simple. There’s almost always a backstory to the person. Most of my villains believe they are justified in committing crimes. These are people without conscience, who act to serve themselves only, and that runs counter to the underlying nature of a fictional cozy community. (BTW, only one of my villains was based on anyone real–an employer who fired me, years ago. I gave him a very nasty ending in the book, which was never published.)

  4. There are two things I try to keep in mind as I write villains:

    “Everyone is the hero of his/her own story.”

    “The villain may share the same values as your hero, but the two characters act on them in mirror-opposite ways.”

  5. Especially in a puzzle mystery like this, the villain needs to be complex and have what they think is a good reason for what they do, or they will be too obvious to us readers. But if you watch the news, as depressing as it is, most of the murderers they talk about on a daily basis are people who would appear normal. And even the psychos often had those closest to them fooled about who/what they really are. That makes the book much more believable.

  6. I love a wonderful villian and many times even tend to root for them (I’m not ashamed to admit.) The question was “who is your fully drawn villian?” My answer is (also the man of my dreams) Darth Vader (and don’t laugh.) Tall, dark, menacing killing machine and very complex. Although I would never call myself a Star Wars or a SciFi fan, I saw the first movie when I was 12 and became an instant Vader fan. George Lucas can definitly tell a story, not so sure about the version the evil empire has devoloped, tho (and by evil empire I mean Disney.)

  7. The villain in my werewolf romance just showed up…he was standing there with his hands on his hips and said, “My name is Yeote. Tell my story.” So I did. I liked him more than the hero….I finally admitted it.

    The villain in my new paranormal mystery (cozy) is a dead man and then there’s his little, feisty Italian mamma who causes problems. I love thinking outside the box. I agree with all the comments.

    Great information.


  8. When I once went to a writing panel, the speaker talked about villains being ordinary folks with an extraordinary ambition or self righteousness. The villain should have a similar motivation to the hero, just with a totally twisted way of accomplishing his goal. Like the Villain in the TV series Heroes. He’s a healer that wants to improve the world and heal its faults….by totally amputating the unnecessary people in the world! 😆

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