Roundtable: Writing Villains
We invited Amelinda Bérubé, Annie Sullivan, Christopher Healy, Diane Magras, Marissa Kennerson, Olivia Cole, Pintip Dunn, and Ryan Dalton to answer a series of questions about their experiences and opinions regarding writing villains. Each question below is followed by the participants’ answers. As you read through them, note where there are similarities and repeated beats within the answers, and also where the authors diverge in their opinion. Use this collection of views to help you think critically about the subject as you develop your next villain or prepare to revise.
1. How do you figure out who the villain of your story is?
Amelinda – For me this is usually pretty clear-cut: they’re part of the central premise, the spine of the book, from the first seed of an idea. Whose will is set against justice? Whose will is set against the main character’s? Who wants to see them fail?
Annie – First, I have to figure out who the protagonist is and what they want. Once I know that, I can start formulating the person who most wants to prevent the protagonist from getting what they desire. Then, I build out from there. Does this villain need henchmen to help him? If so, who are they? I look at what’s involved — magic, political intrigue, a mystery — to figure out who the villain will be. Sometimes it will be obvious, and sometimes I want the reader to be unsure who the true villain is.
Christopher – For me, it’s usually based on the heroes. I tend to come up with my heroes first. Then I ask myself what kind of person would make the perfect foil for these heroes. What are the heroes’ fears, foibles, or neuroses? Make the villain someone who could trigger those things. It doesn’t have to be overly blatant or obvious, like a hero with arachnophobia who faces a giant spider (although J.K. Rowling made that work quite well). It can be subtler, like a hero who can’t deal with authority figures facing an opponent with a dictatorial streak. But when the villain can truly get under your hero’s skin, there’s more opportunity for drama.
Diane – In my work, the villain always depends on whose perspective is leading the story, and it’s the character or characters who are trying to hurt or stop my protagonists. Yet I often say that for my first book, The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, the villains *are* my protagonist and her family, due to their reputations, their actions, and how the people in charge of the region view them. But in their own minds, they’re just doing what any good war-band does. (And taking some sweet revenge for past wrongs committed by the other side.) They’re also a close-knit family who loves and supports each other, and even follows their own code of ethics. (So do the people who are trying to kill them, by the way.)
Marissa – For me the villain is the person standing between my protagonist and what they want. In the case of Anna in Tarot and Twig in The Family, what both young women want is freedom. The Hierophant King blocks Anna, and Adam the cult leader stands in [Twig’s] way.
Olivia – The villain usually emerges naturally as I start figuring out the world I’m building. What are its resources? What political moment is happening in the world? What does the protagonist or her family stand to lose or gain in this world? These are questions I ask myself as the story begins to unfold and suddenly…there’s my villain. Villains never appear out of nowhere; there is a context that creates them.
Pintip – There are two types of villains, depending on the story that you are telling: villains whose identity the readers know from the beginning, and villains whose identity the readers don’t know. For both types, I try to choose a villain who is unexpected or surprising. They are usually someone who has played an important role in the story, and they go beyond the two-dimensional evil mastermind. In other words, they should have a compelling motive for their actions.
Ryan – For my sci-fi books, I usually start with figuring out the nature of the threat against the protagonists and the world they live in. Once I know that, I explore the kind of person it would take to make that threat a reality. Who are they as a person, and what has led to them becoming the villain of this story? What traits do they have that make them a particularly tough challenge for the heroes? I especially like to think about ways they’re better than the heroes. A good villain is competent enough to provide a believable threat, and it creates good narrative tension when we see plainly that they are fully capable of winning.
2. How do you avoid falling into villain clichés or stereotypes? What clichés can you get away with? What stereotypes should be avoided at all costs?
Amelinda – I think a good first step is probably just knowing what’s out there. Read voraciously and critically. Seek out other perspectives. Tune into the many smart people talking about harmful media tropes from every angle. You can’t avoid what you don’t know about.
If it’s not actively hurtful, you can breathe life into a well-tread trope by giving it fresh emotional resonance. I think what you’re looking for is for people to recognize something in your villain: something about themselves, something they’ve brushed up against in the world, not just a particular combination of storytelling chess moves.
Annie – Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in The Avengers movies, is quoted as saying, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” You really have to keep that in mind when forming your villain because your villain needs a good reason to do what he/she is doing. The villain also needs a few redeeming qualities; otherwise, they come across as your stereotypical mustache-twirling villain. Also, be careful to avoid having your villain monologue too much at the end, explaining why they did what they did earlier. There may need to be some, but don’t use this monologuing as a time for your protagonist to conveniently escape if they’re tied up. That’s way overdone and makes your villain appear not as cutthroat because they’re just standing around chatting.
Christopher – In my Hero’s Guide series, I kind of cheated on this one, because there’s a satirical element to the books, and I purposely used a lot of villain clichés in order to mock them. In general, though, the reason clichés should be avoided is because they remove any element of surprise, telegraphing to the reader exactly what to expect. And half the fun of writing a story is trying to surprise the readers. To that end, I actually like to use clichés as red herrings, to fool readers into thinking they know what to expect from a character and then twisting it on them at the last moment.
Diane – To me, the worst villain cliché is a villain without any depth. This kind of villain is just plain evil, with motivations most readers can’t relate to (taking over the world just for the sake of being [in] charge, for instance; or murdering people just because they’re a different ethnic group). The best way of writing a truly good villain (and not just a hideously nasty one whom the reader will want to scrape off the bottom of their shoe) is to create a character whom the reader can understand, one with whom the reader can even empathize, at least a little. There’s also a “charming villain” cliché, which can be used powerfully if the villain loves, or is loved, or ideally both (for instance, is part of a loving family). That can be a lot of fun to write.
Marissa – For me, the villain has to have some very likable characteristics. He/she has to be complex. I want my reader to feel my character’s ambivalence toward their foe. Twig is completely taken with Adam. She’s been brainwashed since she was a child, but you can see why. He has some very progressive and exciting ideas about the problems with mainstream society. Unfortunately, he’s perverted them with his power.
The Hierophant King is very ambivalent about his treatment of Anna. A huge part of him wants to let her go, let her be raised as his daughter. But he’s terrified of her power, and he’s got some folks whispering in his ear giving strength to his greatest fears.
I would say avoid villains or any characters that are too black and white. Think shades of grey, delicious layers of complexity. What’s more exciting than watching the goodie-goodie housewife or head cheerleader swipe some lipstick into her purse during a trip to the market or pouring a little whisky into their morning coffee. What’s that all about? Conversely, if we [see] some kindness, or deep understanding in a villain, that makes them a hell of a lot more interesting.
Olivia – In many ways, villains in real life are cliché: they’re generally selfish or have tricked themselves into believing what they’re doing is for the greater good. So I don’t mind leaning on those kinds of character elements, because they mostly ring true when layered with nuance. But I think it’s lazy writing to not imagine the humanity of your villain. Evil or whatever or not, they are human (or maybe not, depending on what you’re writing!) and should still have a character arc.
Pintip – The best way to make your villain avoid clichés or stereotypes is to make them sympathetic and/or to give them a compelling motive. Both, if you can manage it! If you can get your reader to empathize with your villain, you do two things: 1) they’re less likely to suspect the villain, and 2) you’ve added a whole lot of depth and nuance to your story. The fact is, the lines in life are rarely clear and precise. People are rarely purely good or purely evil. Our stories should reflect these blurry shades, as well.
Along this same idea, I would avoid any stereotype that is too flat — the mustache-twirling bad guy, for example, or the mean-girl cheerleader. These characters have been written a million times, and they aren’t fresh and interesting to read.
Ryan – Many will say that you need to avoid the mustache-twirling type of villain, the kind that’s just evil because that’s what they are. While I agree with this to a point, for most stories, I will also say that not every villain needs a relatable reason for what they’re doing. For instance, in The Dark Knight, the Joker is a classic example of a truly evil villain that still works. We don’t get any clues about his backstory (in fact, he purposely subverts people’s attempts to learn about him), so he feels more like a force of nature than an actual human. We do get one scene where he explains his own reasons for causing so much chaos, but are those reasons relatable? No. Any normal person would not look at his reasons and reach the same conclusions that murder and mayhem are necessary. But are those reasons understandable? Yes. Even though we as an audience do not agree, we can follow the Joker’s twisted logic enough to believe that HE believes what he’s doing.
On the other hand, what you absolutely must avoid are logical gaps — both in plot and characterization — that make the reader stop and scratch their heads and say, “Wait a minute, why would they do that? Why did that happen? It doesn’t make sense.” Even if you’re writing something that seems nonsensical but will be explained later with a twist or with new information, you must subtly signal to the reader that all of this, even the misdirection, is for a purpose. If you’ve demonstrated storytelling competence and convinced the reader to come along with you, they’ll trust that you are going to deliver. So you must deliver.
3. In your opinion, what are the most believable and understandable motivations for a villain?
Amelinda – Personally, I think the best source of villainous motivations is your own head. If you go digging up thoughts you’re ashamed of, ugly feelings, bad impulses, and let a villain run amok with them, you’re giving them a grain of truth that people will recognize. The scariest monsters are the ones we risk becoming ourselves.
Annie – Survival. Everyone wants to survive. Power is another one. Humans can have a very greedy side, so that’s another motivation that drives people. Revenge is another motivation people understand.
Christopher – The best villains have motivations that are almost justifiable. Or even ones that can be seen as genuinely noble, but which the villain is trying to achieve through the wrong means and methods. Killmonger from Black Panther comes to mind. Basically, I think a good test of your villain’s motivation is to ask yourself if you can imagine an alternate version of your story being written from the villain’s point of view — something along the lines of Wicked or Maleficent. You don’t have to write a version like that, of course, but can you at least imagine one existing? If you can’t, then maybe your villain’s motivation isn’t strong enough. And remember, the villain doesn’t have to be right, but they have to believe they’re right.
Diane – Most people can empathize with a villain if the villain’s motivations are to help, save, or protect someone or something they love. Show emotion in your villain, beyond just hatred for others.
Marissa – *Blows air out of cheeks.* I bet every writer will answer that differently, but for me the answer is pain. The Hierophant King was betrayed by his best friend and his wife, and that wound changed the chemistry of his being. His pain hardened in his veins, and it changed how he ruled his entire kingdom. He became closed off and half-dead.
Adam had unresolved childhood abandonment trauma, inferiority issues coupled with a magnificent intelligence and gobsmacking natural charisma. Just add water, and you’ve got the makings of a cult leader.
Unresolved issues of pain = anger = the makings of some interesting villainous business.
Olivia – Trying to protect someone, or many someones. I think terrible things have been done in the name of this.
Pintip – My favorite motivation is when a villain has to take bad actions because they have a higher purpose of saving the world (or some similarly huge stakes). They might be misguided in their reasons for doing the bad things, but it is for a moral, ultimately good purpose.
Of course, this motivation is not always possible, given the nature of the story. Another motivation I like is a selfish but completely human motive, such as saving a child. I think so long as the motive is something that the reader can empathize with, it is believable. Examples of these motives include seeking a parent’s approval or the desire to be loved/to fit in.
Ryan – This depends on the villain. In my Time Shift Trilogy, some villains truly believe they’re doing the right thing and that the world will be better if they win. In contrast, one of them just enjoys inflicting pain. Another one feels that power and control are their birthright, so anything they do to get it is justified. All three types of people exist in the real world. So, whatever their goals and motivations, even if they are in no way relatable, that villain must feel like a real person and not a cardboard cutout. Even if the real person they are is horrible.
Their actions must also have internal logic. What they do should spring from who they are. If a villain is lawful evil and has a twisted code they live by, show them acting within that code. If they’re going to break or step outside that code, you must give the reader enough information to believe the reasons and go along with them.
4. How do you make a villain complex and layered when they don’t have a POV in the book?
Amelinda – [A] complex villain is one that’s not monolithic, that’s not just one thing, that’s not fixed forever. So let them show moments of vulnerability: doubt, or fear, or regret, or sadness. Show them struggling; show them hurting. Even if they don’t have a POV, their actions and reactions can still betray flashes of what’s going on beneath the surface.
Annie – Your villain can (and probably should) have backstory in the book. This can come across as tales/legends about the villain. Or, it can come through seeing their handiwork. Did they leave someone dead? Did they steal the protagonist’s homework? Everything we learn about them affects their character. People can hear whispered rumors. The protagonist can spy them doing something bad. You also learn about a villain by the company they keep. Do they have an adoring fan club of mean teenagers? Are they a wizard with an army of ravens? Just remember that a villain is only as good as their henchmen. If they pick stupid henchmen who can’t accomplish anything, it makes the villain appear weaker.
Christopher – The villain must reveal themselves in their interactions with the protagonists or other characters. Don’t make the villain’s attacks on the heroes random mayhem and violence. Give them all meaning — at least to the villain. Why does the villain set a particular type of trap for [the] hero or attack in a particular way? Think about the Riddler from Batman. The fact that he leaves riddles at his crime scenes says so much about his psychology. It suggests that his crimes are less about stealing things than they are about taunting law enforcement. It even hints at a self-loathing, because maybe, on a subconscious level, he wants to be caught.
Diane – The villain’s actions can help a writer layer the character — for instance, through examples of mercy, tenderness to another character (it could be another villain), as well as conversation (telling stories of the past, or of hopes and dreams). Show your villain’s vulnerabilities. Show your protagonist’s sympathy for the villain, even if it’s temporary.
Marissa – Dialogue and actions. So much is conveyed by what people DO and SAY. It’s the old show don’t tell.
Adam gives these great speeches, pretty compelling stuff, but then he beats people and makes them do hideous labor tasks. Those are some contradictions right there, and we didn’t get into his mind to see that. We heard his lovely words and then witnessed his harrowing actions.
The Hierophant King articulates his ambivalence to his Senator through dialogue. We hear him working out his thoughts through a conversation. Should he let her go? Execute her? We also watch him witness his wife and his best friend courting one another. He has his reactions there, but so much comes from the reader’s reaction. How would they feel in the same situation? Do they feel in that moment for the king? Can we let them have their own reaction and let that help build who the king is for them?
Olivia – Do they have a dog? A nervous tic? As I said elsewhere, villains are human. Even if they don’t have a POV in the book, you can register their humanity for the reader.
Pintip – The same way you make any non-POV character complex and layered: dialogue, actions, backstory! I write (mostly) first-person perspective, so I’ve always faced this challenge when writing non-POV characters. The key is to be really clear in your own mind what that character’s backstory and motivations are. That way, you can tailor their actions and responses based on their character.
When you think about it, we are the first-person narrators in our own lives…and yet, we still know plenty about other people’s thoughts and perspectives. The same tools of observation you use in real life can be employed as a technique in writing.
Ryan – I’ll combine this with my answer for Question 5. See that one.
5. How do you share the backstory and motivations of a villain without having them monologue?
Amelinda – A few possibilities:
- Introduce characters who share history with the villain.
- Have the villain’s history be uncertain or a point of controversy, so as people argue about it you can introduce multiple theories, some of which might prove to be correct.
- Hint at backstory, but leave it mostly unspoken or uncertain — a tricky balance, but riveting when you get it right!
Annie – There should be tiny hints throughout the story that finally come together in the end so the reader isn’t too lost as to who the villain is if it’s a big surprise/reveal at the end. However, if that’s the case, the villain might have to do a tiny bit of monologuing. But, that can be lessened by having a protagonist who’s smart enough to put it together in their head. They can fill in details (related to those little hints) that have now fallen into place after the big reveal so that the villain doesn’t have to stand there and explain it all. But remember — don’t use the monologuing to suddenly have your protagonist have time to escape or have his/her friends show up to save them.
Christopher – In Hero’s Guide, I used flashbacks to relay the villains’ backstories. But that only really works if you’re writing from a wide third-person perspective. My new series, A Perilous Journey of Danger & Mayhem, is a close third-person (not first-person, but still only from one character’s perspective). Since that format doesn’t allow for flashbacks that the POV character wasn’t part of, I had to find a new way to fill in readers on the villain’s backstory. I did it by having the protagonist find things out about the villain in dribs and drabs along the way. One character tells her about his past association with the villain, she finds a message from the villain in which he mentions a pivotal moment in his life, and so on. I think it can be fun for readers to learn about the villain in real time with the protagonist, discovering gradually that this mysterious person who just seems evil at first actually has more going on. If you can make the hero become conflicted about the villain, or start thinking differently about the villain, then you can probably do the same for readers.
Diane – Other characters can share a villain’s backstory bit by bit, and they can share it in conversation, or in your protagonist’s memory (stories of the past, for example). A villain’s motivations can make for a wonderful mystery for a protagonist to discover (and there are many ways to do that: finding an object, hearing a story, making a connection, or hearing something brief from the villain themselves, which could not just be an admission, but take the form of a taunt or an insult).
Marissa – Adam’s story comes out through conversations Twig has with her mom. Avery, Twig’s mom, finally tells Twig how she came to be a member of the Family. In that story, we learn quite a bit about Adam.
In a big reveal toward the end, we learn a lot about Adam. It’s through action, and you’ll have to read it or I’ll be giving too much away.
There’s dialogue and conversations. There’s dropping crumbs. A character can pick up an object and talk about how that came into their life. Did they live in NYC and pick it up at the flea market where they shopped every Sunday? Maybe they hate apple pie because their mother used to bake it for them every Christmas morning, with homemade ice cream, and it’s too painful for them to eat it. Just the taste reminds them that their mother is gone. (Did she leave? Die?) You get the picture. Crumbs…hints. Here and there. A gradual story that unfolds.
Olivia – Breadcrumbs. We need to see pieces of the backstory and motivations sprinkled throughout the story, flashes of insight either from the villain themselves or from those who might be close to them. Depending on your story there are a million ways to do this. The path of the heroine and the path of the villain must cross even before they physically cross paths.
Pintip – I would have the villain interact with the protagonist and provide a compelling reason for the conversation to happen. The more the “confession” can be integrated into the plot and action, the less forced it appears.
You can also build up the motivation throughout the story instead of in one scene. The villain can sprinkle “clues” as to their backstory or motivation throughout the book, which the protagonist only manages to connect at the end.
Ryan – Subtlety is good. Very few real people, good or bad, stop in a given situation to explain all of their background and their motivation and everything leading up to what’s happening now. We share ourselves in pieces, a little bit at a time. A statement or an action here and there that reveals who we are and why we’re doing something. If you’ve done the work to develop the villain and if you truly know them, you can reveal their hidden depths with one sentence and one action at a time. Even something as simple as a facial expression at the right moment can reveal character. You can also have the protagonists do their own work to figure things out about the villain without them being in the same room, and as they broaden their own understanding, that can be imparted to the reader. I enjoy leading the protagonists to revelations and conclusions about the villain that turn out to be wrong at key moments. Not only is it a fun way to twist the story back on itself and give the reader a shocking surprise, but it adds to the overall picture of the villain.
The choices a villain makes should also reveal the type of person they are at their core. For example, think of Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. *Spoilers to follow* After Infinity War, I read a number of people criticizing the logic of his plan. “If his goal was making sure there were enough resources for everyone, why kill half the people? Why not double the resources? That makes more sense.” Let’s examine that. Could Thanos have made that choice? Absolutely. He had control over reality across the entire universe. So, why didn’t he do that instead? Because that seems like the best, most logical choice to us, but not to HIM. Instead of seeing that as a plot hole, look at what it reveals about his character. Given the choice between increasing resources or taking lives, Thanos chose the path that resulted in genocide, not because he didn’t think of other options, but because it was the choice that felt right to him. Doesn’t that one choice tell us so much about the person he is? Choosing one path means leaving another behind, and those actions inform character when we show them to the reader.
6. Some villains have popular followings, such as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or Leigh Bardugo’s The Darkling. What can make readers actually root for the villain?
Amelinda – Oh, that magical combination of snark, smooth-talking, a compelling point, and hotness…
Annie – Giving your villains a very human reason for “going to the dark side” can make people want to root for them. Loki was lied to about his past and his place in his family. He felt betrayed, and viewers felt that. Plus, it helps if the villain is attractive and still might have a good side hidden underneath.
Christopher – Make the villain entertaining. Fun villains are the best. If you can make readers enjoy their time spent with your villain to the point where they feel personally betrayed when the villain then attacks or betrays the heroes, you’ve nailed it.
Diane – Charm! Give your villains great dialogue. Show your protagonist sympathizing with them, or understanding them, or caring about them. You can also make your villains completely apart from the rest of the characters’ motivations, following their own interests, perhaps even seeking more or less the same end, but through very different means. Villains who are charming outcasts who aren’t ashamed of themselves will gain audience love.
Marissa – Ah. The antihero. I haven’t created an antihero, but I have to guess there’s an anti-establishment, misunderstood thing happening? I’m no expert on this, but that’s my guess. I look forward to hearing others answer this question.
Olivia – Vulnerability, a peek behind the mask. We like Loki because we believe that behind his bullshit, he actually cares about his brother and something greater than himself, even when he contradicts it in the very next scene. Giving readers that peek is enough to draw them to the villain, if not as the one they root for, at least one they empathize with.
Pintip – Again, I think this has to do with the “human” side of the villain. If we can empathize with the villain’s motivations, then we can excuse the bad actions they may have to do along the way to reaching their ultimate goal. The key is that these villains are not purely evil. They have qualities that we can identify with and root for.
Ryan – Readers — audiences in general, really — like watching people who are good at what they do. Competence and skill are interesting and compelling. Even if a character is bad, when we see that they’re especially good at something, we can’t help but admire that and want to watch it.
Also, it helps to show one glimmer of light among the character’s darkness. Even if that light turns out to be an illusion, the hint of something that may be redeemable can be very compelling. It introduces a kind of uncertainty that creates narrative tension. If we get the sense that a villain isn’t wholly evil, then it suggests the possibility of redemption. Or, if not redemption, at least a struggle between evil and good.
While we can often predict what a fully evil villain might do, a more balanced villain is less predictable. They can surprise us by doing something altruistic, even in the midst of doing something evil. Or they can shock us by doing something darker and more destructive than we thought they were capable of. Either way, it gives us the chance to write a character that subverts expectations and gives the reader something new.
7. Is it possible to write a villain who’s the love interest without it tarnishing the protagonist if they end up together?
Annie – I think it’s totally possible. It’s all about how it’s presented. There’s an entire trope that’s basically “enemies to lovers,” meaning characters go from enemies to lovers. Granted, there might also be another villain in that scenario that they then might have to face. But, fairy tales like “Beauty and the Beast” start out with the Beast in a sort of villain role. Stockholm syndrome aside, there can be times when a villain changes, but the audience will need to discover that maybe something we thought was true about the villain isn’t really true or that they’re not as bad as they’re rumored to be.
Christopher – As a middle-grade author, I can’t answer this one from experience. But I think it would depend on how pure the protagonist is (and do we really want totally untarnished protagonists, anyway?) and how immoral the villain is. If your protagonist leans toward the antihero side and your villain has a reasonably noble motivation, their love connection could be totally believable.
Diane – This is hard if you write your villain as truly evil, but if your fictional world is complex enough, your villain could be a hero in their own way (in their own world, at least), and your protagonist would need to expand their perspective to be with them.
Marissa – I think that would be a very brave and honest thing to do. A very interesting thing to do. I think the reaction would depend upon the reader. In Tarot, James has some messiness with Ivy, and I thought that was VERY realistic. I’ve had some people not like him because of it. Or they didn’t know how to feel about James and Anna because of it. A lot of times I use my own experience, and when I was 16, 17, 22, etc., dating was complicated. People were messy. So I wrote that for a reason. How do we love people with their flaws? What are our lines? Like I said, teenage boys and girls are complicated. Adults even more so. How do we grow? What is acceptable to us changes. All of this excites me.
Olivia – Oof. I don’t know the answer to this. I think if we have sufficiently humanized the villain and provided that peek behind the mask, we can forgive both villain and protagonist for their flaws. Unless…the villain is a mass murderer?
Pintip – Sure! Why not? I think you can do anything, so long as it’s written skillfully enough. There are many storylines that are written that include the redemption of the villain, which may extend over the course of one book or several books. Personally, I’ve never done this myself, but I have written villains that are potential love interests, so that the reader doesn’t suspect them. My heroines have never ended up with said villains, but if they did, it would be because these characters also have a side that is endearing and lovable.
Ryan – Tarnishing the protagonist a bit can be fun, actually. 🙂
This is another question that largely depends on the themes and the tone of your story. Is the protagonist helping to lead the villain to redemption? Is the villain contributing to the protagonist’s downfall? Will they meet in the middle, one rising toward the light while the other embraces an internal darkness that they had denied before? Is this a hero’s journey, a tragedy, or an action-comedy with a type of villainy that’s more fun than it is truly evil?
You have to know what kind of story you’re telling before you can know how this type of romance will affect the characters and impact the progression of events.
8. Can a book have multiple, separate villains? How do you ensure each is fully realized and important to the story? How do you figure out how to balance them in the plotting?
Annie – A book can definitely have multiple, separate villains. For example, a story like The Hunger Games can have a central villain and then smaller villains (like the other tributes in the arena) who the protagonist has to face. In this case, the villains aren’t necessarily working together, but they’re all against our protagonist. So having people compete for the same thing can create multiple villains. And again, their actions may speak louder than they do in the story, so use every moment to make sure they’re being fully realized on the page.
Christopher – I put a ton of villains into the Hero’s Guide series, but they’re not all of equal weight to the story. I think it would be really difficult to have multiple “main” villains, though. I tend to populate my books with antagonists the way a video game designer creates game levels — with a big boss at the end and multiple mini-bosses along the way. How the sub-bosses react to or think about the Big Bad can also go a long way toward fleshing out that main villain.
Diane – This is when a character outline is crucial. Map out your villains’ personalities and connections, their motivations, their goals, and their conflicts and stakes. And be able to see your story from each of your villains’ perspectives. Then determine how you’ll use your villains. (If you’re a pantser, just write with this in mind, and then work on heightening it during your revisions.) If you can see the story from each villain’s perspective, you’ll have an incredibly rich tale.
Marissa – My husband went to UCLA film school, and maybe [the] main question you had to know the answer to was: WHOSE STORY IS IT?
So, that said, I think you could have different forces of evil working against your protagonist, but you better be damn sure who your MAIN character is. Otherwise that sounds like a convoluted mess. If you’re spinning an axis of evil, which could be very interesting, make sure there’s a center grounding that axis.
Olivia – Sure! Sometimes the protagonist is the villain too! Especially from the villain’s perspective. I map out both arcs fully to see where they clash and where they might have a meeting of minds. The whole “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing can get interesting when plotting these dynamics.
Pintip – Yes, of course! In fact, one technique for throwing off the reader is to have multiple villains instead of one. The villains can be working together, one can work for the other, or one can unknowingly or knowingly aid the other. The important thing is to give each villain their own motivations and their own agenda. I think, so long as this is the case, it is less important for the separate villains to have equal page time.
Ryan – Yes, it’s definitely possible, as long as each villain has a clear and distinct purpose. One way to do this is to categorize each villain’s threat level. Primary, secondary, supporting, etc. This can help you decide how much word count each villain gets, including the development of their character, the size and importance of their plan, and the effort it will take to resolve it. Some stories will have different villains that threaten very different things. For instance, you might have an arch-nemesis that brings the real life-altering threat, and you might have a secondary villain that’s a classmate/workmate who makes the hero’s school/work/social life miserable.
If you have multiple villains trying to do similar things, you may want to consider combining them. But if you have very clear reasons why the story must have multiple villains, go for it! You can make it work if you put in the work. Once your first draft is finished, beta readers can be a big help in giving you perspective and helping you see which characters need more or less attention.
9. What are your number one DO and DON’T advice for writers crafting villains?
Amelinda – DO work with your own ugly side.
DON’T be satisfied with “just so” stories or “that’s their nature.”
Annie – DO put in red herrings that suggest other people might be the villain. This will keep your reader on their toes.
DO make your villain strong/formidable enough that the protagonist might lose if they face them.
DON’T give your villains weak henchmen. It makes them look weaker by comparison.
Christopher – DO allow your readers to sympathize with your villain. Some of the best villains are the ones you wish would change sides.
DON’T make your villain invincible. Readers can tire of a story in which the heroes suffer one relentless defeat after another. Pepper the villain’s successes with a few missteps and foul-ups, because if your heroes don’t have hope, neither will your readers.
Diane – Know your villains. Be able to see them as heroes in their own stories. Don’t make them simply evil. Even if they are monsters (or monstrous human beings), make sure you understand where they’re coming from.
Marissa – DO make your villains complicated and full of contradictions. I like to give mine very likable traits.
DON’T think I have all the answers or anyone does for that matter. If you sense something about your villain that goes against everything I’ve said here — do it! This is just one woman’s POV.
Olivia – DO: Make sure that the villain has some vulnerability. Their dog. Their mom. Their love of trees. Whatever. There is something they love and that matters.
DON’T: Don’t rely on evil for the sake of evil. That’s rarely how this works.
Pintip – DO create nuance by giving your villains compelling motives and backstories with which readers can empathize.
DO NOT write two-dimensional villains without any depth or nuance. No one is purely evil all the time.
Ryan – Whatever you’re writing, DO respect the readers enough to give them your absolute best.
DON’T ever believe you’re at the point where your craft can stop growing.