Creating a perfect villain
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Creating the Perfect Villian-Author Toolbox

Tips for creating the perfect villain

I’m in love with one of my characters. He’s powerful, driven, and disciplined. He knows exactly what he wants and is willing to make the effort to get it. Whatever it takes. He has risked his position, his influence, his wealth, and even his life for his ideals. He’s not afraid to be unpopular, or even despised because he knows he is working toward something greater, something that will save so many lives. And though many would question his tactics, to him, the ends justify the means. He is deeply devoted to his task, and still more so, to the woman he loves, and the son he is not allowed to acknowledge. He is my perfect creation.

He is my villain.


One of the major pitfalls I see in novice writers is the dead-dull villain. The black coat in the thriller, the overbearing father in the YA, or, from my genre, the dark wizard who does nothing in the book except to sit in a black tower and think evil thoughts.

I recently read a novel whose villain had a vile mind-reading power. Poised as a child psychologist, he delved into the minds of his victims/patients during their therapy sessions. This predation on children by a person in a position of trust sent my spine into an eel-ish coil. I was hooked. Let’s take down this A-hole. How could anyone do this to a child? My mind flew through possibilities. It takes 7-10 years to become a licensed Psychologist. Whatever this guy is up to, he’s devoted a 1/3 of his life to getting it. I needed to know

Turns out he was just evil. I was devastated. All that preparation amounted to nothing.

What a waste.

Beware of cardboard villainsvillain-pinterest

Stock villains are not only cliché, they are dull. They add nothing to the story. Seventy-five years ago villains were expected to be the embodiment of evil. They were separate, other. A war had a clear purpose: defeat the Nazi snake with a single villain at its head. Literature from the time reflected this ideal, but today’s worldview is different. People no longer accept the simplistic reasoning: he just chooses to be bad.

The modern villain must have a fully realized backstory. The writer must know the process by which the villain came to hold his beliefs. She must know what the villain wants, and how far he is willing to go to get it. His motivations must be clear and logical (even if it isn’t the logic you would follow). Villains can no longer be the black cape and the handlebar mustache. Villains must be fully realized characters.

What to do instead?

Treat your villain equally to your MC.

Your villain is half your story. Without Voldemort, Harry Potter’s just another kid with a crappy home life starting a new school. Give your villain the respect he deserves. Start by making a character sketch. If you’ve never done this there are dozens of examples online. Scrivener has one built in. Find something that works for you. This is where you can give him mannerisms, as well as physical descriptors. Find something to make him memorable.

Write your villain’s backstory.

Even if it never makes it into your MS, knowing more about your villain will allow you to breathe some life into him. Delve deep here. Make sure you understand his motivations. Once the motivations are established, make sure they are balanced with the effort the villain is making to accomplish his goals. If your villain is angry at your MC for breaking his toy when they were kids, he won’t spend the next 30 years perfecting a serum to give himself mutant powers so that he can take over the world and exile the MC to the moon. Make sure the motivation and the effort are in balance.

What influenced him to develop his particular set of beliefs?

Villains hold mistaken views. They believe something that isn’t true, but the journey to that belief must be realistic. Why does your villain think sending his brother to the moon will make him happy? Perhaps while he was developing his serum he had to watch your MC continue to get all the attention, fame, fortune, all while listening to your MC be an obnoxious braggart? Sending him to the moon might not be so unreasonable.

How does your villain reinforce these beliefs?

People tend to seek out like-minded people or choose to emphasize experiences that reinforce their worldview. Is he surrounded by lackeys, or is he a loner? Does he attend a weekly antagonists anonymous meeting? What do the people around him want? How do they benefit from his mistaken belief?

How does he react when life events conflict with his worldview?

Mistaken views will be constantly challenged. How does your villain react to these tests? This will define his character. Does he just start shouting louder like a cable news talking head? Does he resort to elaborate conspiracy theories? Maybe he has a moment where reform seems possible, and then anger resurfaces.

What’s next?

Once you have these finished, write a book pitch as if your villain is the MC and see how well your choices fit together.

Example: Voldemort knows the name wizard once meant something in the world, and only he knows how to bring that meaning back. He’s studied relentlessly, forsaking friends and family to perfect his craft. He’s searched the world to find the best spell-casters to stand with him. He’s even split his soul into pieces, all so he can restore the ancient legacy of his people. All the pieces are finally in place. Nothing is going to stop him, especially not a 10-year-old orphan from Privet Drive.

We know what he wants, what he’s willing to do to get it and who is standing in his way. Make sure your villain is a fully-realized character and one who actively affects your MC. Otherwise, your story might start to read like a video game with a boss battle at the end. Remember villains are people too.

So have dinner with a bad boy tonight.

Your readers will thank you.

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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


  • miladyronel

    I had to put a WIP away because I wasn’t sure anymore who the villain and who the hero was by the time I had “dinner with a bad boy”… *sigh* I’ll get back to finishing writing that story once I remember the how’s and why’s of the plot and characters. Thanks for sharing this great advice 🙂

  • Kristina Stanley

    Great advice. This is the first time I’ve read about looking at the villain as the MC. I love learning something new, so thank you. This should be a blast to try for my current work in progress.

  • Mica Scotti Kole

    Wow. What a great article, and well-written too. I agree that having deeply fleshed-out and very real villains is a must, and it’s a common pitfall in the books I edit. Just “evil” doesn’t cut it… it’s been done too many times. I was gratified to run some of my major villains through your questions, and they seem to meet the qualifications. In the future I’ll keep an eye on it though and make sure I don’t fall through the “sheer evil” cracks. Please, keep spreading this gospel!

  • E.M.A. Timar

    Great advice. I find character-driven stories the most compelling and to me that doesn’t mean just the main character. I love the idea of writing a pitch from the POV of the villain to make sure she is fully realized.

  • M. C. Frye

    I love this! My current villain is a cog in the wheel of a dystopian state, and I think that works well in my story. But I should put some more thought into why he’s a willing cog and what he gets out of cogging for the state.


  • Louise Foerster

    Yesterday, a friend observed that these days you can’t tell the bad people from the good ones. The bad people are all attractive, well-dressed, and seem to be nice. You want to believe in them. You want to be their friend, offer them access to your credit cards, house, car, whatever they want. So it can be with villains, especially when you give them equally billing and strength, motivation, agility with the main character. Thank you for laying it out so clearly!

  • cherylsterling1955

    The more backstory a villain has, the more human you can make him, the more the reader will connect. I try to make the line so fine that the reader can see pieces of himself in the villain.
    Villains are more fun to write because they are so complicated.

  • lupa08

    I’m a staunch believer in the notion that villains are people too but were just conditioned to respond to the world in harmful ways. Authors who sympathize with their villains seem to make their villains come alive. Voldemort is a perfect example of this. Even with the similarities Harry harbors to Voldemort in his upbringing, there are aspects that make their orphan experiences different. Harry is dominated over and Voldemort left to his own devises. Harry knows his parents died in an accident, Voldemort figured he wasn’t worth enough to live for. And even while exploring throughout the series how genealogy greatly affects sorting, an individual’s choices and sense of direction has equal importance to the sort of people he/she will pickup along the way, thus committing themselves to a fate. As writers, it is so important to explore our villains as people first to do them true justice. Hence, the importance of thorough character sketches.

  • Dianna Gunn

    I love writing villains so much! So much so that I’m currently editing a novella about a woman who later becomes the villain of a Long Abandoned Book I plan to resurrect soon.

  • K. Kazul Wolf

    Man, I’m a big fan of complex villains, myself. I second that flat villains suck; nothing turns me off from a book more than flat characters, no matter who they are.
    Thank you for such a pointed list of questions for authors to develop their own! 😀

  • WriterDrew

    I almost always prefer knowing that the villain has reasons for doing what they’re doing, even if that reason is totally insane. There is one exception to this; Hannibal Lector. For whatever reason (and I did enjoy Hannibal) I think I preferred he going unexplained. Great article ?

    • M.L. Keller

      There are a few authors who can write a really good “pure evil” villain. (Stephen King comes to mind) and I agree, Hannibal had so many other great character qualities that his unexplained motives aren’t a detriment.

  • raimeygallant

    I feel like your subtitles would make a great antagonist worksheet. Also, love the hook reversal. What an excellent idea for an exercise. Thank you for contributing such awesome advice to the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop! So glad you joined in. I’m off to schedule this as a pin and a Facebook post. 🙂

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