Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains

Just some simple tips to make your villains more intimidating, more convincing, and avoid a few common pitfalls along the way.

Last Revision: November 10, 2020.

Table of Contents

Figure out why your villains are doing whatever it is they're doing.

There are three main things to figure out first and foremost, though it doesn't particularly matter which order you figure them out in. All that matters is that they line up in the end. (You may have to adjust them all as you develop each one.)

The first is your villain's mentality. Are they the kind of person who deals with personal insecurity by bullying others to feel powerful and in control? Are they perhaps overentitled from living a life of privilege, and refuse to care about anyone else's feelings or welfare because they've decided that everyone else is too biased to have an objective viewpoint? Are they so afraid of looking bad that they refuse to admit when they're wrong and work on their flaws and knowledge gaps? Do they see themself (and maybe a few like-minded people) as the only real intelligence in a world full of mindless drones? Have they decided that other people's lives and welfare don't matter as much as making their own personal dreams come true? Do they believe that society or nature has a "natural order" that places them above others? Have they decided that they must be the underdogs because life isn't always as easy or convenient as they'd like? What's the mindset behind their cruel and selfish behavior?

The second thing to figure is what your villain is trying to accomplish. Are they trying to take over the world? Commit a murder? Sabotage their homecoming rival? Something else?

Okay, so why? Why do they want to accomplish this thing in particular? What do they expect to get out of it? It just doesn't work to have them do bad things simply because it's evil or because the plot demanded it. No matter how terrible or depraved they are, they are still fundamentally a person and have reasons for what they're doing, even if those reasons are irrational or selfish.

Are we looking at a villain who's trying to turn the status quo in their favor? Or are they perhaps trying to maintain a status quo that's already in their favor? Are they bored and looking for some entertainment? Are they stressed and looking for catharsis? Are they trying to take something they've decided they're entitled to, and if so, why do they feel entitled to it? Are they trying to prove a point, and if so, why do they want to prove it so badly? Are they trying to avenge themselves because they feel wronged or victimized? Are they trying to soothe a wounded ego by asserting their dominance? Are they trying to restore what they have decided is the natural order of things? What does your villain hope to get out of this?

The next question is, why this in particular? What are their reasons for taking over the world? Why have they decided that murder is a solution? Why does being crowned homecoming queen matter to them?

I have an anecdote to share about a very terrible old book series: Jerry B. Jenkins's and Tim LaHaye's Left Behind. For whatever reason, the shadowy Luciferian conspiracy spends billions of dollars funding the construction of a new Babylon in Iraq - and they actually call it New Babylon. If you think it through, they'd have no reason to do this. The literal city of Babylon wouldn't have much cultural or religious significance to most people outside of Iraq, let alone to actual Luciferians (who haven't done anything to deserve being vilified like this, anyway). Basically, they'd be spending billions of dollars to develop a city for pretty much no reason beside the fact that LaHaye and Jenkins believed that the End Times couldn't happen without the existence of a literal Babylon. Don't be like LaHaye and Jenkins, folks.

One last thing to get out of the way - mental illness should never be substituted for actual motive and rationale, as it's incredibly ableist. Some mentally ill people are definitely bad, but they're not bad because they're mentally ill. That's just not how it works. People do evil things because they choose to act selfishly to the detriment of others and refuse to take responsibility for themselves and grow as people. That's all there is to it.

If you want us to take your villain seriously, show us why we should.

There's nothing very intimidating about a villain who never does anything more than annoys or inconveniences people. That's not a bad thing if you don't intend the audience to take the villain seriously, but if you do then you need to make sure the villain actually poses a threat.

You don't necessarily need to have your villain violently brutalize someone (and seriously, some people really need to cool it on brutalizing female and/or queer characters), but you do need to show that they are able and willing to make people miserable. The exact nature of what your villain does doesn't matter so much as the impact it has on people.

Maybe they use their power and privilege to get away with threatening people who can't defend themselves. Maybe they're so entitled and egocentric that they take any disappointment super-personally and abuse anyone who lets them down, even through no fault of their own. Maybe they delight in psychologically torturing people to manipulate them into compliance. Maybe they physically torture people to assert their dominance over them. Maybe they take away the things that make others happy just so they can revel in making them miserable.

Whatever the villain does, their actions will hit the audience harder if they impact someone or something they're emotionally attached to. The deaths of a million nameless, faceless people in an unseen city won't hit as hard as seeing a few protagonists they've grown attached to in pain.

But watch out for the edge!

Many writers try a bit too hard to make their villains seem menacing. Like sure, you probably don't want your villains to come off as ineffectual wimps, but it's possible to make their evil so over-the-top that your story just stops making sense.

Let's say we've got a villainous organization called Cerberus, which has approximately 50,000 members. The leader of Cerberus is an elitist snob who only accepts the best of the best. Joining Cerberus requires one to pass an arduous screening process that involves a bunch of fights and death traps, which only one in ten actually survives.

There's a few little issues with this setup, though.

If Cerberus has 50,000 members, that means 490,000 applicants must have died. For comparison, the city of Colorado Springs has an estimated population of 478,221 as of 2019. That's an awful lot of bodies to dispose of and most likely a whole lot of missing persons reports getting filed. Additionally, a 90% chance of dying during the application process doesn't exactly incentivize people to join. It just doesn't seem very likely that this organization could last very long.

The same goes for villains and villainous organizations that kill their underlings at the drop of a hat. While it's absolutely plausible that a sufficiently egocentric villain would kill people for incredibly petty reasons, that kind of thing doesn't exactly make a group stable or functional in the long run. Some people would try to get away, while those who stay for one reason or another would be constantly stressed out, which would make them even more accident-prone. It would also be a wonder if somebody didn't try to overthrow the leader at some point, especially if they're being forced to work for them. Also, what are they doing with all the bodies? Like sure, there are plenty of situations where the disposal of a few bodies here and there wouldn't be a huge deal, but as a general rule it's way harder to make a body disappear than most people think.

For another example, let's say we have a small town that's continually plagued by supernatural activity that frequently kills off its residents - a possession results in the death of an entire family one week, the next week a vampire attack takes out a dozen students, and a short while after that a curse transforms six people into monstrous beasts that have to be killed. The trend goes on for so long that there shouldn't even be a town to speak of anymore. At this point, it can become pretty hard to suspend one's disbelief and stay immersed in the story. Remember, sometimes less is more. It can be much more effective to focus closely on a small wrong or horror rather than try to shock people with sheer volume. Think quality over quantity.

Don't spread fascist propaganda. No, really. Don't.

Many writers try to base their villains on fascist regimes, but primarily borrow the most superficial trappings - IE, the clothes, the flags, the paraphernalia, the marches, etc. The problem with this is that these are the aesthetics of fascism, which fascists deliberately designed to make themselves look cultured, respectable, and disciplined. It's all part of the propaganda. So by focusing on and emphasizing the aesthetics of fascism, instead of the pointless and often extremely banal cruelty it perpetrates (as Schindler's List, Pan's Labyrinth, and The Hunger Games do), you're functionally spreading fascist propaganda.

Additionally, too many writers keep buying into the fascist line that while their methods might be brutal, the beneficial results are undeniable. Except this isn't even remotely true. All fascism does is benefit a privileged few at the expense of everyone else. Whenever they claim that they've made things better and that the results speak for themselves, it's always lies and propaganda.

Let's make some things clear: Mussolini did not make the trains run on time, and Hitler was lazy, egocentric, and generally incompetent.

Anytime writers depict fascism as having the potential to make the world better (even if it comes at a terrible price), they're promoting fascist propaganda, no matter how critical they think they're being. They also miss out the opportunity to just point out that fascism ultimately can't produce anything good because it solely exists to benefit cowards and bullies who only care about themselves. Under fascism, the cruelty is the point.

(Fun fact, did you know that the Confederacy was actually highly unstable, partly because its leader was an egocentric bully?)

Also, take a moment to read Umberto Eco's 14 signs of fascism, because way too many protagonists who allegedly oppose fascism display quite a lot of fascist behavior and thinking themselves.

Stop using vocabulary from cartoons.

This is a problem I see with a lot of amateur writers. Their villains don't talk like actual, real human beings, but instead borrow from the bizarre and unnatural dialog found in cartoons. This includes the bizarre pseudo-British dialect given to so many queer-coded villains (EG, "so, this is a most interesting development, my meddlesome friend," or "your droll antics have been ever so amusing, my dear, but you are still doomed"), and the standard antagonistic adult figure stock phrases (EG, "now see here, young lady!").

Your dialog will be way better if you turn off the cartoons for a bit and tune in to real people for awhile. Why not make your villains talk like the Big Cheetoh or one of his crew? Why not base bullies' dialog on real bullies? It's a pretty simple way to make your villains a lot more convincing while also avoiding some very unnecessary queerphobia.

Remember that villains are allowed to organically develop and change, too.

Villains are generally people, and people generally change over time. Unfortunately, some writers get stuck on keeping their villain in the exact same routines and habits forever, even when it no longer makes sense. Consequentially, they're never allowed to progress in a natural way, or previously-established characterization is completely ignored.

So for the sake of an example, let's say we have a fantasy series about wizards getting into shenanigans. The main antagonist is the evil wizard Crosshatch, who is solely motivated by his desire to obtain the magic staff of his brother Houndstooth, because he's decided that Houndstooth "stole" it from their dead father (in reality, their father willed it to Houndstooth because Houndstooth isn't a major jackass). Finally, he kills Houndstooth and takes his staff.

Come the next story, we suddenly find out that Crosshatch is trying to steal every wizard's staff because apparently, he wants to become the most powerful wizard ever. The problem is, Crosshatch has never before shown any interest in becoming the most powerful wizard ever, and his motivations were entirely based around feeling like he'd been denied his rightful property.

This is bad villain writing because it lacks any natural character progression to explain Crosshatch's new goal. It would be very easy to insert a passage or chapter where Crosshatch duels another wizard with the staff, loses, takes it personally, and decides to soothe his wounded ego by stealing some other wizards' staves. Then from there, we might see Crosshatch getting hooked on the sense of power it gives him. Crosshatch might be a bad person, but he's still a person, and therefore his choices shouldn't be pulled out of a hat at random.

Sometimes, you might have a writer who's apparently afraid of their villain becoming less antagonistic. I often see this happen with antagonists who were created with sympathetic motives, or whose choices were initially informed by a skewed worldview. For example, let's say that designated supervillain Greenwing wants to bring down a CEO because her actions have been hurting people, and pretty much all of his efforts have been directed toward this goal. Finally the CEO realizes that she's been selfish. She apologizes and begins making amends. At this point, you'd think Greenwing would celebrate the victory and move on to other things.

Except he doesn't. Instead, Greenwing just starts antagonizing the CEO for basically no reason at all. He becomes more and more pointlessly violent and even turns into a raging misogynist, just so the audience is clear that we're supposed to hate him.

The fact that Greenwing can't continue antagonizing the CEO without being turned into a two-dimensional caricature simply proves that he was never that much of a villain at all. Sure, he was an antagonist, but that didn't make him wrong or unjustified. Being unwilling to admit and work with this is honestly a pretty cowardly move, and it's a total slap in the face to everyone who was rooting for him. If you really want an antagonist to be perceived as and remain a true villain indefinitely, then make them a truly rotten and terrible person from the start.

You might also be interested in:

Villain Motives Made Easy
What Writers Need To Know About Liars & Manipulators
How To Challenge Toxic Masculinity As A Writer
How To Evoke Audience Reaction & Keep Things Interesting Without Being Cheap Or Manipulative
Framing: What It Is And How To Use It
Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know
How To Keep People From Admiring & Idealizing Your Villains
How To Redeem A Villain

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