Creating Believable Villains
What are the trademarks of a villain?
Do they have dark, piercing eyes, a snarly grin, crooked-yellowed teeth, knobby fingers, an evil laugh? Or is there more to it than that? The antagonist can be the hardest character to write but also the most fun. How can we be successful at it? Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way.
Make them appear human – nobody likes a pure evil villain. They need to be likable or they fall flat. Give them a redeeming quality. Maybe we even want to cheer for them. Think Hannibal Lector or the Blacklist’s Raymond Reddington. Yes, they are evil but still have amiable qualities. We find ourselves applauding them.
Give them a clear motivation for their actions – we need to know why they’re doing their evil deeds. Their motives need to feel fair and just in their minds. Start with the basic reasons for their crime. Passion, greed, jealousy, but give it an added kick. Let’s place ourselves in their shoes. What makes them tick? Why do they think the way the do? In one of my stories the antagonist has a daughter who needs constant medical care for her deadly condition, so he justifies his actions to get the money to provide her with the necessary attention. This gives the reader empathy for the antagonist.
Give them flaws – we can’t make the villain’s life too easy. They need to work hard at being bad. Keep them in constant conflict, making things more difficult for them as the plot unfolds. Maybe they’re OCD and that keeps them from getting their hands dirty at a crime scene. Perhaps they’re disabled and struggle with getting around. Whatever the flaw, make it realistic.
Hide them in plain sight – don’t make the villain a klutzy moron. That robs the reader and makes them angry. We want to keep them guessing and surprised at the end of the story. Also, we can’t make the antagonist a minor character. This is cheating and doesn’t satisfy the plot. Give subtle clues as to who the criminal is, but make them the boy next door or the female everyone likes. This will give our stories plausibility.
Give your villain backstory – I like to do a full character sketch on the antagonist just like I do for my protagonist. Don’t cheat them in the development stage of your story. Get to know them. Sit down with them for coffee and ask some poignant questions. What are their dislikes? Loves? What is their deepest fear? What were they doing at the age of fifteen? We need to know them inside and out in order to make them come alive.
Fit their behavior appropriately – plant seeds along the way so when they commit a crime it doesn’t come out in left field. For example, if your villain is about to strangle someone give him big hands. Perhaps he works out to pump up his muscles. Or if he’s building a bomb, give him a military background or one in science. Remember, it needs to be realistic.
Creating villains can be fun. Study your favorite and then design yours to be believable and one that will keep your reader turning the pages!
By Darlene L. Turner
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