How To Write Better Villains
A collection of tips to improve your villains.
Make sure you show your villain personally doing something despicable.
A villain that does nothing but sit on a throne (or peer down from the top of a giant tower) is hardly a villain at all. It's hard to feel even remotely intimidated by a guy or gal who just sits around giving scary orders all day. A perfect example of this is Galbatorix in the first book of The Inheiritance Cycle, whose most villainous acts are ordering the destruction and torture of some terrorists (because yes, that's what the Varden are), taxing the people, and destroying some villages we didn't even care about.
Don't make the same mistake. Put some grime on your villains' hands. If they don't personally torture someone, at least have them watching in approval - or better yet, interrogate the protagonist.
Have the villain get personal with the heroes.
The most despicable villains are the ones who personally make the heroes lives' miserable. Voldemort may have been Harry Potter's big bad (and there's no denying that he was about as bad as they come) but Voldemort loses the anti-popularity contest to Dolores Umbridge, who tried to expel Harry from Hogwarts, banned him from the Quidditch team, and tortured him in detention. Sauron in The Lord of the Rings fails to scare anyone because he's just a giant eye on top of a tower - it's the ring you come to loathe because it constantly puts Frodo into life-threatening danger and threatens to corrupt him and those around him, coupled with the agony and torture Frodo has to endure just to destroy it. When Loki killed eighty faceless people in two days in The Avengers, most people didn't care too much - but when he killed off a major character, then they cared.
Make sure they have a believable motive or agenda.
First of all, unless you don't intend your work to be taken seriously, you should never write a villain who does anything Just Because It's Evil. Nobody actually works that way.
Check your villain's priorities. While there's nothing unrealistic about someone whose priorities would seem really messed up to other people (such as putting higher priority on settling an old grudge than saving the life of a family member), you should generally always ask yourself if the villain could realistically be making better use of xir time/money/effort to reach xir goals, and if so, then why isn't xe?
Upon occasion, I see villains who do things with pretty much no motive at all. I don't mean characters like the Joker in The Dark Knight, who are clearly in it for the trolololz. I mean villains like Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye's shadowy Luciferians in Left Behind. For whatever reason, the evil shadowy Luciferian group spends billions funding the construction of a new Babylon in Iraq - and they actually call it New Babylon. Realistically, the whole project would be a colossal waste of time and money. Aside from there being no real need to build a new city, New Babylon's desert location is a completely impractical place to put a city. Plus, the city of Babylon has pretty much no cultural or religious significance to the vast majority of people alive today (including Luciferians), so why try to revive it at all? Long story short, the only reason this is done is because LaHaye and Jenkins believe the Tribulation needs a literal Babylon. Don't be these guys. Don't have your villains do something for no other reason than it just "has" to happen.
Also, mental illness should never be substituted for a real motive. Aside from the fact that it can be very offensive, it's just lazy. Even people who do villainous things under the influence of a mental illness have a motive - for example, Jared Lee Loughner, who was declared mentally unfit to stand trial after shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had a motive - he hated the government, and he especially hated Giffords after he felt she had evaded a question he once asked her.
Either have your villains learn from their mistakes or the mistakes of their peers, or dispose of them quickly.
The Sailor Moon anime was a pretty bad offender here. All of the villains used pretty much the same strategy throughout the show's run: send out exactly one person and one monster to try to collect the MacGuffin of the season. Despite the fact that many of these villains were in bitter competition with each other, none of them ever really tried to do anything to improve their odds against the senshi aside from trying a different monster. Anyone with half a brain would have noticed that one monster, no matter what it was, was no match against the sailor senshi.
Plus, the villains using the same tricks over and over (even with different gimmicks) gets rather old.
Don't make your villains Nazis with the serial numbers filed off.
Seriously, that's cheating. There's nothing wrong with taking some inspiration from Nazis, but we've had enough villains who were Nazis in all but name already.
Remove the following words and phrases from your villain's regular vocabulary.
- Most (adverb, eg, "that is most interesting...")
- My dear (when addressing a female adversary)
- My friend (when addressing a male adversary)
- So (interjection, eg, "so, we meet again...")
- Well (interjection, eg, "Well, well, well...")
Note that I'm not saying that your villain can't ever use these words, but they shouldn't be part of xir regular vocabulary. If your villain ever says anything along the lines of "so, this is a most interesting development, my meddlesome friend," or "your meddlesome antics are so amusing, my dear, but you are still doomed," you should probably consider getting a new villain.
Wipe that smirk off your villain's face.
There's technically nothing wrong with a smug smirk now and then, but novice writers and roleplayers abuse it relentlessly. What's wrong with a "devilish grin" or a "wicked smile?" Or how about any number of other facial expressions?
And for the record - while you might think a smirk says that your character is cool and confident and has everything under control, I see it as a sign that the character has an over-inflated ego. Every smirky character I've run into as of late has been a pompous ass.