Developing Your Villain

Caricature by J.J., SVG file by Gustavb, Re-png’d by VirtualRash  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

Ciao, SEers! I’ve been talking to you about some of my favorite character types the last couple of times I was with you. We’ve already gone over sidekicks and red herrings (if you missed them). Today, I’m sure it’s no surprise that I, the writer who delights in killing so many of her characters in so many different ways, is talking to you about the villain.

I feel like I could write a book on the subject. Many writers already have. Today, however, I want to focus on three points: power, motivation, and success.

Power

A villain needs to be a worth adversary for your hero. By worthy, I mean he needs to be slightly more powerful. Yes, more powerful. Not equal, not less. More.

If he’s too strong, he’ll never be beaten. Too weak, it’s no challenge for the hero. Equal in every way doesn’t make the stakes feel high enough. To make the conflict worthy of your reader’s time and the stakes high enough for their attention, the villain needs to be slightly more powerful than the hero.

And by power, I don’t mean he has more troops or more strength or more magic, though those are all possibilities. In 300, the Spartans are outnumbered 1000 to 1, but their fight is so epic, they inspire Greece to rise up against the Persians. In Rocky IV, Drago is clearly stronger, but Rocky still manages to beat him. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort is the most feared wizard alive. He obviously knows more magic than Harry. Yet he loses to him. These villains all have more power. But to be truly epic villains, they also have to be smarter. Elevating physical misdeeds with mental villainy will take your antagonist to the next level.

Motivation

Giving your villain a goal beyond “power” is another way to elevate him. Sure, wanting to rule the world is a lofty goal. And it’s pretty egotistical. But it’s also stereotypical.

Think about the villains that we’ve come to really love… for example, Loki. Yes, he craves power. But look deeper. It’s not that he wants to rule. What he really wants is his father’s approval, especially over Thor. That extra level to his obsession with Earth—because he can hurt his brother and look good to Odin, all while ruling a planet—elevates him from a run-of-the-mill power-hungry villain to something more. And it’s because of his motivation.

Success

The last two points I think we all agree with and probably do, at least to some degree, fairly naturally. This last point, however, is one many authors either forget or never consider. Sometimes the villain needs to win.

I know, I know. It goes against your grain. But he does.

If your villain’s plans are always foiled, the readers are lulled into a sense of complacency. The stakes never feel dire. They never fear for the hero’s life.

But if the villain wins once in a while? Then all bets are off.

Look at The Empire Strikes Back. Would the Star Wars franchise ever have been what it is today if Darth Vader didn’t take Luke Skywalker’s hand and freeze Han Solo in carbonite at the end of the second movie? Our heroes were beaten and separated and had barely gotten away at the end of that film. If they had beaten the empire again and were sitting pretty going into film three, I suspect the franchise wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is today. It’s because the stakes were so high that the trilogy was so strong and has grown into the franchise it is today.


A lot of actors say they’d rather play villains because they’re a lot more fun than heroes. I think that’s only the case if they’re well written. Do you have any tips for how to craft a good one? Let’s talk about it.

Staci Troilo Bio

66 thoughts on “Developing Your Villain

  1. HI Staci, this is a great post. Your comments about a villain’s motives are important. Ruling the world as a motive is more for superhero style stories like Superman. Villains that want to make money out of a situation are much more interesting. We have a spate of villains in the world right now who are exploiting the pandemic to make money from masks, PPE, and vaccinations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Money is a great motivator, Robbie. It’s far more likely someone will commit a crime for riches, love, jealousy, or revenge than they will for global domination. That’s a whole different level of villainy. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  2. Villains are some of my favorite characters to write. They have something that the hero doesn’t have. Some have morals, some don’t. But their stories seem to flow. They have that one thing that makes them bad, but the best written villains have that human factor. They hurt, they fall in love, they have feelings. Those things make them easy to root for (in some small ways).

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  3. You covered nearly all aspects of the “good villain”, but I also like mine to be sinister, unpredictable, and as in real life they never really lose or disappear. Nowadays those characters seem to be multiply, as we can observe tragically in the corporate world. Consequently, my hero’s are the Robin Hood types, only able to irritate the beast but never strong enough to kill it.

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  4. Great post, Staci. I love villains who are multi-faceted with a strong motivation that’s relatable on some level. Their goals need to matter as much as the hero’s, and the power differential raises the stakes. 🙂 Happy Writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You had me at Loki. Actually you had me with the Dastardly Dan image 🙂

    What an excellent post, and so perfectly presented. I loved the examples you used, especially Star Wars and that of my favorite son of Odin. I don’t consciously plan much about my villains when I start writing because I’m so bad at plotting. Their motives usually develop as I write and occasionally they surprise me when it comes to what drives them. Sometimes I even end up having sympathy for them (as in the case of Cusp of Night).

    I agree that a strong villain keeps a story interesting and a reader flipping pages. This was a wonderful addition to your character series!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great post! Since I write mostly mysteries, it’s fun to keep the villain a step ahead of the protagonist until the end of the book. The better the reason for why he murdered someone, the better the story. Random killings aren’t very interesting. I like your list for villains–made me think of Sherlock and Moriarty.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a fun post today, Staci. I love it when the “reasons” behind the villain are exposed. For instance, the example you used of Loki. He wanted his father’s approval. I think oftentimes, the villain wants more than power, or even to win. He wants to be accepted, and like a two-year-old hasn’t figured a better way to get what he/she wants other than to be bad. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your thoughts today and I love the caricature of Dastardly Dan!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post, Staci! I have a soft spot for villains. I like to make them multi-dimensional and show them with a (deeply buried) heart. Lol! And I agree, the villain needs to win at times through the story. It makes the reader root for the hero even more. 😊

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  9. Terrific post, Staci. I liked your reference to the Star Wars trilogy. I had not thought of it before, but my John Cannon Trilogy was in the same vein. The hero John Cannon was up against the wall in book two (His Revenge) and then made a comeback in book three (Our Justice). I think having strong villains always makes the story more interesting. Thanks again for an excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: #Reblog Alert – This Week on Story Empire | The Write Stuff

  11. Staci, great post! I love writing villains, and you have highlighted some aspects that I hadn’t thought of. Motivation (beyond the obvious) surely adds that extra layer that would bring a villain to life. Thanks for the food for thought with my coffee!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I have some great tips on creating villains, Staci — now! I just learned them from reading your wonderful post! Thank you very much for explaining this process so clearly. I can see exactly what you mean in each example, and am definitely going to be using your points as a guide going forward. I definitely have characters in some of my books who are up to no good and would fall into the villain category in that they really need to be stopped. And thanks to you, I now have a clearer understanding of how to write them better! Really loved this one! Sharing!! 😀👍

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post, Staci! Typically, my books don’t contain villains. I did have a stalker ex-wife in a past story. She didn’t have a chance to redeem herself. I killed her off. LOL! Thanks for giving me a lot to think about. Have a great 4th!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I recently wrote a series (that’s no longer in print) where I killed A LOT of people. I mean, A LOT. Few had a chance a redemption. Sometimes, that happens. Real life is the same way. Not everyone lives long enough to right their wrongs.

      If I’m not mistaken, you write clean (maybe Christian?) romances. That’s kind of a different genre. Often the “villain” in that genre is the force keeping the couple apart and isn’t an actual person at all. That changes the game. But if it is a person, it’s a strict parent or an existing, super nice fiancé(e). You can still make those people fully developed and very strong forces in the hero’s life. They just won’t be evil. Probably won’t even have nefarious intent. They’ll just have opposing goals.

      Honestly, I think I might find that more challenging than an actual evil villain. Best wishes!

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  14. What a great post, Staci. You’ve helped me see the value and complexity of the villain in ways I’ve not thought of before. Wow…my mind is racing. Thank you for the extra caffeinated nudge this morning! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Outstanding post. I wrote here once about “low hanging fruit.” Villains are a good way to think about that. I’ve seen too many that are evil because the book needs them to be, but there’s no motivation behind that position. I really believe authors should look to the higher branches when crafting a villain.

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  16. Great post, Staci. I’ve never consciously thought of the villain as having more power and being smarter than the hero. But you are right, it would make a boring book not to have them that way. I loved the image of Dick Dastardly. I can just hear Muttley now. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Loved this, Staci! My favourite books are those like television serials where the villain has the upper hand for most of the time and it’s hard to see what will bring him/her down. Often it’s a fatal flaw in the character that initially provides the upper hand but later can be exploited. It’s been a successful format that must pre-date David and Goliath! Many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Great post, Staci. Thanks for sharing. I love a well written villain, where the writer has done it so well I hate the anti-hero while rooting for the heroes. I don’t like it when the villain is over-written into something of a literary caricature of a person. Good or evil, they need to be believable 🙂

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  19. Great post, Staci 🙂 I do have fun when writing the villains. I especially love when there’s a possibility of them changing, or at least think about it. There have been times when I’ve rooted for the villain as well. It’s nice to at least see why they are the way they are or the motivation. I agree they have to be slightly more powerful to make it all the sweeter if the hero wins. It is good to wonder if they will win.

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