How to Write a Villain Readers Love to Hate
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Writing villains can be one of the toughest parts of the gig. You need them to be believable but terrible. Frightening, or at least intimidating. You want your readers to fear and hate them. After all, the saying goes "the protagonist is only as good as the antagonist."
Come forth, ye devious minds, and we shall explore what makes a good villain.
1) Find Your Villain's Motivation
The first step to any good character, as writers know, is fleshing out and getting into the character's head. Though readers won't get to see through your villain's eyes (unless you're writing that kind of story), you should know your villain's backstory, how the villain thinks, and what's motivating your villain to do what they do.
Motivation, for a lot of people, can be difficult. Perhaps they don't understand what makes a person do horrible things, so the only clear motivator is a flimsy "well, they're evil."
Truth is, no one thinks of themselves as "evil." Even if they consider what they're doing a "necessary evil," they themselves are not evil. To them, their motivation is a result of a truth or a fantasy twisted out of hand.
Consider revenge: how many protagonists and antiheroes are motivated by a wrong that was done to them? At what point do their actions, those "necessary evils," make them a villain? If they were seen through someone else's eyes, would they be the antagonist?
Or consider altruism, or justice. At what point does making the world a better place translate to destroying everything they think is wrong with it? When does deciding justice go too far?
The most terrifying villains are the logical ones who can trace their motivations back to something "good," "justified," or "necessary." Don't be afraid to dive into those gray areas and find what makes your villain tick.
2) Imagine What Your Villain's Doing
Figuring out your villain's motivation is only part of the equation. Another pitfall is that writers only consider what a villain should be doing on-screen. They have all the villain appearances mapped out, how viciously they shall taunt the protagonist . . .
Speaking from experience, this puts you in a cycle of random encounters that don't do your villain justice or create all those necessary threats that should be felt throughout the book.
Again, though your readers won't be privy to all this background work (don't worry, you can tell them in the interviews), you should know what your villain is doing behind the scenes. You always know where your protagonist is and what they're doing to drive the plot forward. What's the villain doing in the meantime? Certainly not twiddling their thumbs!
Map out every move the villain makes, even if readers don't see all the details. Once you have that figured out, it'll be a snap to see what causes ripple effects and the ever-present aura of danger for your protagonist.
3) Give Your Villain a Solid Plan
No one plans for failure, so don't set your villain up for it. Assuming they're a relatively intelligent individual (and surely they are to cause such a threat), they'll have a solid, well-thought plan with backups.
There shouldn't be a million holes the heroes can easily poke through or escape with. Besting the villain needs to be a challenge—a multi-layered endeavor with some failure along the way, because the villain won't always lose. Sometimes the villain will win because they planned well, or they have a strength the protagonist does not.
Don't use too many contingencies in your villain's plan, either. Just like your protagonist can't predict what the villain will do, the villain shouldn't hinge all their success on predicting what the protagonist will do. Let their plan allow for every possibility you can think of, and then struggle with the protagonist to find a way to beat it.
4) Evil Henchmen Need a Motivator
In many cases, the official villain may not be present, but their henchmen are. To avoid the tedious pitfall of "evil just to be evil" henchmen, writers should give even the lackeys a motivator.
What drives the henchmen to follow the villain? Is it fear of what the villain will do to them or their families? Respect for the villain's strengths? Cowardice, because they'd rather be on the winning side? Did the villain promise them something the heroes can't? Do they believe in the villain's cause so much that they're willing to risk their lives for it? Or have they been manipulated by the villain's charm and logical solutions?
The driving motivation for your henchmen is paramount in not only making sure your evil cronies don't come across as useless, but in creating another layer of believability for your villain. People don't follow someone "just because." What does the villain have over the henchmen that they're willing to do horrible things in the villain's name?
In addition, henchmen can serve as a useful way to contribute details to your villain without the dreaded evil monologue. Protagonists can gradually pick up information about the villain by listening to or, ahem, making the henchmen talk.
5) Give Your Villain Limitations and Boundaries
While it's imperative to make your villain strong enough to stand against your protagonist (and occasionally best them), they won't be invincible. Like everyone, they will have weaknesses, limitations, or even boundaries they won't cross.
What those are is completely up to the writer, but any limitations should make sense for the villain as a character. Think about your protagonist's weaknesses: maybe they aren't the best fighter but make up for it in intelligence. Maybe they're not the most charming and can't win people to their side. Even a noble trait, like loyalty or love, can be a weakness if exploited.
You know what motivates your villain; now what draws them back? What weaknesses have they had to overcome or make up for? What lines do they refuse to cross in spite of everything else they've done? What do they consider sacred enough to never touch? Think about it: even a murderer can love nature and might never kick a puppy. All of this will serve to make your villain a well-rounded and more believable character.
To crank things up a notch, letting your villain cross that final line to achieve their ultimate goal can make them doubly terrifying. If they would never sacrifice their family, but do so in the end because family got in the way of the master plan . . . yikes.
Enjoy these tips? Feel free to share this with your friends on social media and let us know in the comments what you think makes a great villain!