Writing a good villain needs three things:
1. Enough evil to keep them scary without making them cliched
2. A human side with a backstory tragic enough to generate sympathy but not tragic enough to make them an antihero
3. Something no other villain has had before
Step one is probably the hardest step on this list. So many people like to go for the boring, worn-out horror villain who’s so violent that the gore factor shocks the reader into viewing them as a bad guy. This is pretty vanilla and overused.
The other mistake people make when writing villains is playing by cliches. If your villain is distant and mysterious and never seen by the hero, they’re not going to be very scary. If they send minions to do everything, there is no genuine fear factor there. You have to make them, at some point or another, directly involved in the hero’s life. They don’t have to do all their own dirty work; on the contrary, this can lead to Mistake #1.
It’s a balance. For example, though my main characters haven’t ever been in the same room as the villain, one character, Evie has an ability called TravelSleep where she is transported through dreams in a lucid state, so she has seen the villains. (I have two in reality. One is the control freak villain, Rhiannon, the root of all the problems, but her co-villain, Thanatos Raven, is the one who is directly involved in the hero’s lives.)
How to avoid Supervillain Syndrome: Try not to create evil armies of minions and make them the main fear factor. Don’t ever have a superweapon that is guaranteed to crush the hero that the villain keeps in reserve.
Never write a villain who wears too much leather or is incredibly handsome/beautiful. Make them have human traits, but don’t strive to make your villain attractive. This will only lead readers to view him or her as an antihero. Not what you want to go for.
Top Five Villain Cliches to Avoid:
– The all-powerful villain who runs the gorvernment/crime syndicate/other and claims the heroes are mere pawns in his plan. Please. We all know how this one ends. (There is only one Moriarty. Don’t copycat.)
– The villain that claims that they are invincible, makes long evil speeches before a hero’s destruction, or has a fortress that features lasers.
– The villain who feigns hospitality before throwing the heroes in prison. Seriously. Please don’t write your villain as the articulate scholar who claims he or she has an infallible plan.
– Villains who go purely for the shock factor. Stop. Now. Making your villain disgusting and gorey is just gross; this is not a good literary style. They don’t have to be a lady or gentleman; every villain should have blood on their hands at some point. But please don’t make your villain a boring, overused murdering psychopath. Joker did it first.
– DON’T GIVE THE VILLAIN AN OBSESSION WITH KILLING THE MAIN CHARACTER. This includes the villains who yell at their minions that NO ONE ELSE CAN KILL THE CHARACTER! It made sense for Voldemort. But seriously, unless you’re stealing the horcrux idea, it doesn’t make sense for any other villain. If your villain has not serious reason for the killing the MC by themselves except for spite or pride… well, your villain has a bad case of Darth Vader Syndrome.
Step two is hard; a tragic back story can be a difficult thing to construct because they tend to get snagged about in that dreaded poisoner of creativity, the stereotype.
It’s very tempting when making up a back story to go with the classics: the villain was disowned or unloved by their parents, was bested in everything by their brother or sister, or lost a duel and got a disfiguring scar. All of these can be easy to jump to when you’re stumped for an idea. Here’s a word of advice:
A great back story gives your villain (who should be more creepy than scary, more dark than evil) a human side. A villain without a story of how they became what they are is a static character, but once you write those magic words… your villain gets a little sympathy. Everyone should be able to look at him or her as a character and say, “You know, they’re a little crazy, but I almost get where they’re coming from.”
Back story DO’S:
– Do give your villain a back story that reflects upon a more human side of them
– Do use your back story to give relevance to the situation for the other characters
– Do use your back story as an instrument of explanation of your villain’s unique condition by giving them a unique back story.
– Do use your back story to develop your character
– Do make sure that your back story show that the villain sees themselves as justified in their actions in their one mind.
Back story DON’TS:
– Don’t make your villain an antihero by portraying him in a very positive light
– Don’t play by stereotypes or cliches
– Don’t make your villain too attractive or appealing to the reader (although making him/her attractive to a character can be a very interesting angle to write if you care to try your hand at it)
– Don’t let your villain remain static. Always continue developing them.
– Don’t tell the whole back story at once.
Try to give your villain a back story that is not only unique but also very memorable for the reader. You could make them vow to destroy the hero because the hero besieged their city in an effort for freedom. You could write the villain as a mayor or CEO who was kicked out of office and will do anything to get back to the top. You could even do something really crazy, like the villain constantly scheming ways to destroy the ocean because their arm was devoured by a shark in a surfing accident.
If you’re ever stuck for a back story, it can help to think through the list of things that motivates people to commit crimes. These things can be divided into few main categories: revenge, love, jealousy, money, power, and hate.
Giving you villain something no villain has ever had before is a tricky, but utterly vital step in the process. Every villain should have something distinct about them; whether it be something as trivial as Darth Vader’s breathing, or as groundbreaking as Maldor’s rewarding of his enemies with luxury and eternal feasts. Every villain needs a thing.
For example, the villains from my novels, Arch Nemesis and Secret Nemesis, each have something odd about them that keeps them interesting. Rhiannon has spidery tattoos all over her that light up purple when she casts a spell. (She can also turn into a dragon.) Thanatos is a former grave digger who wears gauntlets made of black mummy bandages and speaks in that way that makes your w’s sound like v’s. He has a scar on his cheek in the shape of an hourglass, Rhiannon’s symbol.
Weird? You betcha. But it keep things interesting.
To come up with a few quirks for your villain that no villain has ever had before, you can’t turn to your usual sources. Books, movies, and other creative inspiration will only serve as temptations to copy. Instead, think about things that creep you out. Not things that scare you; things you find… creepy. This is what is called the “terror” factor.
Author Stephen King defines fear in three different categories: “The Gross Out,” is number one. This is walking into a dark room, flipping on the lights, and finding blood and guts all over your floor. It’s gruesome.
The second category is “Horror.” This is a little more intangible. Horror is like walking into the same dark room. The light switch won’t work. Then suddenly, a clawed hand grabs you from behind.
The third category, the one you need to focus on for a villain, is “Terror.” Think of it like this: you walk into the dark room. You feel the wall but the light switch isn’t even there. You stand in the center for a second, with a shivery feeling that something bad is going to happen any second. Suddenly, you feel cold, sickly-sweet breath down your neck, and you know in a split second someone will grab you from behind. You turn around, and there’s nothing there.
Terror is the suspense. It’s the creepiness. It’s the vague feeling you’re in danger, vague enough that you can’t tell if you should be scared or not; it’s the je ne sais quoi that every villain needs.
No one can help you make your villain truly creepy. If you really want a good measure of the creep factor, I highly recommend the video Why are Things Creepy? by VSauce. (It can be found on Youtube.)
Creepiness is ambiguity; it’s the blurred strange something every villain needs.
So get writing! No one can make your villain uniquely terrifying the way the author can. Best of luck to all of you.