Tips To Create & Write More Interesting & Believable Villains
The question of how to make villains more interesting and believable is asked by many, so here are some ways you can spice up and flesh out your own villains a bit.
Table of Contents
- Give your villains some of your own flaws and failings.
- Know your villains' goals and desires inside and out.
- Know how your villains perceive themselves.
- Ask yourself if your villains' words and actions match their goals, desires, and self-perceptions.
- Make realistic consequences a very real possibility for your villains.
- Handle archetypes with care.
- If your villains are in a large group, make sure you understand how large groups tend (and need) to work.
- And a few final tips!
- In summary!
Give your villains some of your own flaws and failings.
Can you think of a time when you acted selfishly? Can you think of a time when you chose to be cruel or spiteful to someone? Can you think of a time when you chose apathy over compassion? Can you remember the situation that lead up to it? Can you remember what you were thinking and feeling then, and why your actions seemed like a good idea at the time? You might take some of that and apply it to your villains. You might ramp it up for them, or apply it to situations where the consequences of their actions are dire.
Likewise, is there anything you struggle to control and keep down, so that you don't hurt someone else with it? You might give these same traits to your villains - only, they don't care enough about others to try and restrain themselves, or they think that others actually deserve to be treated like this.
Can you remember a time when you were wrong about something, but believed yourself to be correct? Do you remember why you believed the way you did? That right there could be why one of your villains believes and does such awful things.
By giving your villains flaws and shortcomings that you're already familiar with, you can write them with much more authentic motivations and behaviors than otherwise.
Know your villains' goals and desires inside and out.
Consistency is a major aspect of believability, and it's hard to write a consistent villain if you don't actually know what that villain wants. So take some time and think about what your villain is really after, whether it's a high and lofty goal, the next cheap thrill, a little of both, or somewhere between.
You can also add complexity by giving the villain multiple goals. These goals don't all need to complement each other, either. Giving a character conflicting goals can lead to a dramatic situation where we see the character having to make a choice, or the conflict can be a reason for the character's downfall (for example, perhaps the villain's addiction to cheap thrills creates complications or setbacks that undermine the grand plan).
Once you've gotten your villain's goals and desires worked out, put some thought into why your villain wants these things, bearing in mind that as the complexity of the goal goes up, so should the reasons behind them. Wanting to get cheap thrills at other people's expense doesn't necessarily need much beyond "I get bored and this entertains me" (stacked on top a general callous disregard or apathy for the feelings of others, of course), but something as difficult and time-consuming as trying to stage a coup needs something a little more complex. Three well-defined and distinct reasons would not be amiss. For example:
Reason 1: "This place is run by complete idiots. The only clear-thinking people here are me and my supporters Nothing's going to get better if we don't step in and do something. In fact, it'll probably get worse."
Reason 2: "I was brought up not to be a coward. If I didn't do anything about this problem, I would be a coward - and that would be wrong. I would be worse than worthless."
Reason 3: "Once we take over, I'll feel so much better. I'll have the satisfaction of wiping the smug grins off their faces."
You can check out Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy and Core Drives: What They Are, And Why Your Characters Need Them for more ideas. And if you haven't done so already, you need to figure out why your villain has these reasons. What sorts of personality traits does your villain have that lends to them? What sort of upbringing or life experiences did your villain have that formed and cemented them?
Know how your villains perceive themselves.
It's been said that all villains see themselves as the heroes of their own story, but this is pretty oversimplified and not entirely correct. There are many, many ways that villains can view themselves, and not all of them are positive.
Some villains might see themselves as victims who are simply avenging themselves on those they believe have wronged them. They might feel that because nobody else is willing or able to stand up for them and give them justice, they have to do it themselves.
Some villains might see themselves as taking something they are entitled to. They may believe that they were deprived of something and thus ought to just take it for themselves, or they might just see it as a basic necessity they can help themselves to however and wherever they feel like.
Some might see themselves as people who are just doing what needs to be done. They might see abusive behavior as "tough love," or believe that if they don't do what they're doing, there will be undesirable - and perhaps catastrophic - consequences. They might see tyranny as the only way to keep peace and order. They might see it as necessary to educate people in the "wisdom" of their beliefs and ways for their own good. These people might not see themselves as heroes so much as people who are just trying to keep everything from falling into chaos, immorality, etc.
Some might see themselves as messiahs. Whether they feel they were simply a natural fit for the job or feel that they were personally chosen by a higher power, destiny, etc, they feel that it's on them to make a better world or to get some task done.
Some might also see themselves as simply trying to get by and survive, and as such, they might not really consider themselves "heroes." It's not impossible, though, especially, if they believe that they are helping others to survive. (Think a Robin Hood mentality gone bad.)
It's also possible for people to do awful things because they hate themselves. Such people might see their actions as furthering a noble or heroic cause, but see themselves as complete garbage whose continued existence can only be justified through actions that further their causes. Or they might see people whose flaws and perceived faults remind them of what they hate in themselves, and act aggressively toward them out of the belief that they're somewhat better people for fighting these flaws in other people.
Some might see themselves as nothing. The closest thing they have to an actual sense of identity or self is how others perceive them. They might be willing to go to almost any length to have themselves perceived a certain way - no matter what the reality actually is. This can be the type of person who goes to every effort to be perceived as a perfect parent and pillar of the community by the neighbors, but behind closed doors is drinking heavily and beating the children (especially when the children seem to be threatening the 'perfect parent' image in some way).
So put some thought into how your villains perceive themselves, and remember that more than one perception can apply to the same character. (It's even possible for a self-loathing person to have a messiah complex.)
Ask yourself if your villains' words and actions match their goals, desires, and self-perceptions.
Another reason villains might seem unbelievable is that their words and actions seem to conflict with their goals and desires, or with how they perceive themselves.
One all-too-common example is the villain who has plenty of reasons to kill the hero, no compunction or moral code against killing enemies, and could in fact get the job done pretty quickly with little to no risk. But instead, the villain just inconveniences or harasses the hero, despite the fact that the hero is making enough headway to be a pretty serious threat before long. The only real reason the hero lives is because the plot demands it.
Something needs to change somewhere to give this scenario some plausibility. Maybe it's too hard to kill the hero right now, or maybe doing so would have unwanted consequences. Maybe the villain believes there is something to gain from letting the hero go (for example, Darth Vader allowing Luke Skywalker to escape the Death Star so he could track him to the rebel base). Maybe your villain has an internal conflict going on. So if you find yourself with a scenario where a villain is being inexplicably lax or lenient in some way, stop and think about what all you could possibly change to to end up with a more plausible one.
For another kind of example, let's say we have a villain who is a stalker who believes it's possible and acceptable to harass and bully someone into a relationship. Said villain labors under the delusion that persisting at this will make the victim one day realize how "true" the villain's love, because surely it's proof of the villain's undying care and devotion - and if it doesn't work, then the victim is a frigid ingrate. When this behavior gets the villain into trouble with authority, the villain proceeds to try and get out of it by claiming that there are two sides to every story and that the victim is the real victim here. All right so far. But then the villain doesn't put even the smallest effort (however skillful or inept) into trying to make this claim convincing (EG, with lies, exaggerations, crocodile tears, etc.) into making this claim convincing, and instead jumps to trying to needle and taunt the authority figure.
Huh? Why do that if the idea is to elicit enough sympathy to get out of trouble? Sure, it could make sense for the villain to resort to insults after trying to gain sympathy proves fruitless, but that's not what's happening here. As a result, the character comes off more like a robot using an abusive behavior checklist as a script rather than a (very messed up) human being.
For an example similar to this, let's say we have a villain whose identity and self-perception is that of a loyal citizen and defender of the country, and has always acted accordingly. But suddenly, this villain sides with a foreign army that has every intention of destroying this country and helps them do just that.
Again, how does this make sense? How does this jive with who this villain is? In a well-written story, this bizarre choice of allegiance could be a clue that the villain is not acting under free will, or is deceiving the army with the plan of destroying them later. It could also make sense if the villain had rationalized that the only way to save the country at this point was to destroy it and start over. (Though this does raise the question of what the villain plans to do about the foreign invaders later on.) But if there's no plausible explanation for why the villain would suddenly do something that clashes with everything the villain believed in and worked for, then that's bad writing.
(And while we're here, "went insane" is not an explanation. It's an excuse. Even if we grant that your character has some sort of mental imbalance going on, there still needs to be some fitting, if delusional thought process behind this character's behavior. Otherwise, your character might as well be a robot that selects from a list of evil actions at random.)
To avoid the "robot picking from a list of evil actions" effect, ask yourself what your villain is trying to accomplish or prove. Then ask yourself how the villain's words and actions fit into that, or whether there's actually anything going on that could explain your character's seemingly-discordant behavior. ( For example, could the uncharacteristic behavior possibly be explained by your villain being under a lot of stress? If so, can the audience see that this is what's going on?)
Make realistic consequences a very real possibility for your villains.
Villains constantly getting away with things that should realistically have consequences harms their credibility. Sure, there are a lot of ways to get away with a lot of things in real life, but there are always limits. As explored in articles like Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover-Ups, Things Writers Need To Know About Security & Concealment, and Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon, there's only so much skulduggery one can get up to before it starts creating more problems than it solves.
There are two ways to add some realism here. One is to have your villains acknowledge that the risk is too great and choose to take another course of action. (This route is particularly good for villains who are supposed to be competent strategists, whether in combat, business, politics, etc.) Showing that your villains actually assess risks, and that they choose their actions based on which options have the best risk-to-reward ratio, is a great way to show that your villains are intelligent and clever.
The other route is to have your villains actually face consequences and have to deal with them. This option can be a great way to make your story and your villains more interesting, as there's now an element of suspense - is this where they're defeated, or will they find a way to carry on? If so, how will they carry on? What are they going to try next?
Of course, it's possible for a single villain to acknowledge risks some of the time, and overlook them some of the time. The most plausible time for people to overlook risks is when they're out of their depth in some way (someone with no familiarity with how police investigations work might underestimate the possibility of a body being found, for example), or when they're stressed or panicked enough that their judgment is impaired. (Though in the latter case, bear in mind that keeping a cool head is practically a requirement for some jobs, so it might realistically take something pretty severe or unusual to really impact someone in them.)
Handle archetypes with care.
Archetypes should be considered templates to build from and customize as needed, not as characters in an of themselves. The last thing you want to end up with is a villain who is little more than a walking template - and especially a template that doesn't actually fit the setting very well. So if you're planning to base your villain on an archetype of some kind, ask yourself a few questions:
- "Is there anything this archetype typically does or believes, that doesn't actually make that much sense in this plot/setting? If so, what can I change or remove to make my villain make more sense?"
- "Am I carrying over any fairly superficial traits associated with this archetype (EG, vocabulary choice, clothing preferences, general acts of evil that don't progress the plot) for no good reason?"
- "What traits or elements can I use to make this villain feel like a natural product of this world/setting?"
- "What can my villain do or believe that's different from what characters of this archetype usually do or believe, that makes sense here and isn't simply the opposite or absence of what the others do?"
- "How do my villain's actions connect to environments and influences found within my setting? What happened to mold my villain into this, or put my villain on this path?"
You can also work out a few core drives or mindsets that explain the behavior of the archetype you want, then build up a character around them that is otherwise fully customized. (The mindsets and cores might need tweaked a little to fit your setting better, of course.) If you do this well, you'll end up with a villain that takes what's compelling from an archetype and makes it into something new and interesting.
If your villains are in a large group, make sure you understand how large groups tend (and need) to work.
It sometimes happens that writers are perfectly good at writing villains who are believable enough as individuals. But when villains are in groups enough that most of the members are faceless to the audience, the mistaken assumption that large groups (especially sinister ones) are almighty monoliths or well-oiled precision machines takes over.
The result is that things start getting a little weird. There might be just too much unity and compliance among the members. They might end up having limitless resources and bottomless pockets. There might be a lack of a functional and coherent command/organizational structure. It might be that too many whys and hows end up handwaved away with explanations that don't really add up.
Articles that address this problem, and the topic of writing large groups in general, include:
- Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
- Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses
- How To Create Fictional Structured Religions
- Things About Cults Writers Need To Know
- Creating & Writing Fantasy Armies - Things To Keep In Mind & Consider
- Villain Tips: Of Conquest, Minions, Progress, & Planning
And a few final tips!
Challenge them. You know how protagonists who are never challenged are usually boring? Same goes for villains. Aim to avoid the invincible villain who remains untouchable until the very last minute. To keep things interesting, throw your villains curves and setbacks. These problems can come from protagonists, rivals, associates, subordinates, superiors, or just plain bad luck.
Show the audience how and why they're bad. The more convinced your audience is that your villain is awful, the more they'll be interested in seeing your villain fall. The best way to really drive this in is to show your villain being awful in a meaningful way - IE, in a way that makes undeserving people's lives significantly worse.
Let them grow and change. Character development for villains is overlooked so often! Even if they're ultimately going to fall, giving them development along the way can make the journey there so much more engaging.
Humanize them. Even if what they are is truly horrible human beings, showing that they are in fact human can go a long way to making them feel more real. Check out Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character for ideas that you might apply to your villains as befit the kind of people they're supposed to be.
Have all that they are come out in little ways here and there. Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story has more information on how to do this.
- Give your villains some of your own flaws and failings so as to make it easier to write a villain who behaves authentically.
- Figure out what your villains' goals and desires are. Figure out the reasons behind them.
- Know how your villains perceive themselves - whether their perceptions are positive, negative, or neutral.
- Make sure your villains' actions match up with their goals and self-perceptions - or that if they don't, there's actually a good reason for it.
- Make it possible for things to go wrong for your villains. Make them have to face realistic consequences for their actions sometimes.
- Use archetypes as templates to build from and modify, not as characters in and of themselves.
- If your villains work in large groups, make sure you understand how large groups usually function so as to maintain realism when you scale your villains up.
- Challenge your villains now and then - throw them curveballs now and then that give them some real trouble.
- Show the audience how and why your villains are bad - don't make the audience just take somebody's word for it.
- Give them character development throughout the story - even if they're ultimately going to fail. It still makes them more interesting to watch.
- Humanize them to some degree, even if what they are is wholly detestable excuses for human beings.
- Let who they are come out in little ways.
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