The Art of the Villain: 12 Tips for Crafting the Ultimate Bad Guy

Villain, anti-hero, scoundrel, lowlife, brute, criminal. Villains have a host of words to describe their nefarious natures. Though they are known for their malevolence, villains are a great catalyst and they can also be one of my favorite characters to create. Here’s a list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature according to The Telegraph.

Villains drive the story forward, they incite conflict and they are just as important as the hero. In a lot of ways, they are way more fun to write about than the hero. You can embellish to the point of excess, depending on the genre, and usually get away with it.

If you look at the history of villains in literature, it’s interesting to see how they have changed over time. In our literary past, villains were ugly because their physical features were used to mimic their inner ugliness. This is very heavy-handed symbolism and was especially common during the Victorian and Romantic periods. Think Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Today, villains are often, though certainly not always, very attractive. We could go into all the reasons why this shift has occurred, but that’s not the point of today’s writing I’ll save that for a future post. To counteract that attractiveness, today’s bad guys are often wickedly villainous and their actions are chill-inducing. Their beauty is deceptive which makes them appear all the more dangerous.

As writers, we of course do not have to stick with one or the other. A lot of characters today are pretty average looking, despite the way Hollywood chooses to interpret them. Here is a list of characteristics/concepts to keep in mind when creating your villains.

  1. What is evil? How do you define evil and separate it from good? How does the world you are creating measure those two qualities. This is an easy place to start. Then you can begin shaking things up!
  2. Consider showing your villain justifying their acts to themselves. Their twisted logic will make them all the more creepy in the eyes of the reader.
  3. What about this person makes him or her a villain? Did something happen to them in their past which brought about their villainous behavior? Do they have a psychological condition? Or are they simply the odd man out because, as we all know, history is written by the winners.
  4. Does your villain have any forgivable qualities? Or are they completely villain through and through? Real people are typically much more multifaceted. Though they may be evil, they likely have some sort of humanizing quality that marks them as normal or every day.
  5. What does your villain hope to achieve through his/her villainy? Do their actions fit with their personality?
  6. Is the threat that the villain represents believable? Is his or her conflict with the hero believable?
  7. Is there anything justifiable about the villain’s goals/desires? If there is, this can create an intriguing point of contention in your story.
  8. Avoid clichĂ©s. The evil step-mother, the evil other woman. It’s all been done. Find a new avenue for your wicked bad guy or girl.
  9. Avoid creating villains who have unbelievable motivations. Vengeance for small acts of injustice may be difficult to justify in the mind of your reader.
  10. There is a fine line between the all-powerful indestructible villain and the villain who is too weak and too easily defeated. The hero must struggle to win in the end, but he must be able to overcome the odds. Well…unless the point of your story is for the villain to win.
  11. Avoid creating a comic book villain (unless you’re creating a comic book.) These villains are pretty flat characters. There’s no in between and it’s so much more interesting when your villain lies somewhere in that “in between” space.
  12. Do the villain and the hero share something in common? This often creates interesting conflict. Harry Potter was always afraid that he had too much in common with Voldemort and this fact created a really interesting point of contention in the story.

And just for fun, here’s a cool article from Smithsonian Magazine: The Scientific Reason Super-Villains Always Lose.