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Writing

5 Characteristics of a Compelling Villain

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

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From Grendel to Darth Vader to Hannibal Lecter to the Klingons of Star Trek, a well-written villain can captivate audiences. Some villains—like Batman’s nemesis Joker and The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—even get their own stories told from their point of view. These disparate villains all possess specific characteristics that make them memorable.

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Dan Brown Teaches Writing ThrillersDan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers

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5 Characteristics of a Compelling Villain

The art of writing villains involves crafting characters who fulfill a handful of core characteristics:

  1. The capacity for evil and a willingness to do bad things: A popular type of villain in Western storytelling embodies pure evil. Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is a wholly malevolent being whom Frodo and his fellow hobbits must prevent from destroying Middle Earth. Iago, the antagonist of Shakespeare’s Othello, seems to revel in the destruction of Othello and Desdemona for no good reason. Although he believes himself passed over for a promotion, this alone cannot explain Iago’s malevolence; he enjoys inflicting misery for the sport of it. In Game of Thrones, Ramsay Bolton is effectively a serial killer with the status of a knight. No reason could adequately explain his trail of human destruction.
  2. A backstory that explains their villainous behavior: The best villains act in a way that is coherent. Some even began their lives as relatively good people. Before the Star Wars villain Darth Vader embraced the dark side, he was Anakin Skywalker, a heroic young man. Before Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula was an evil vampire, he was believed to have been “a most wonderful man,” according to the text of the book. And Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has described the series’ prime antagonist, Lord Voldemort, as the kind of person who turns bad due to early life insecurities. Learn how to use character backstories in our complete guide here.
  3. A complex range of emotions: Many literary villains are three-dimensional characters, showing a span of emotions, behaviors, and motivations. A comic book villain can skew somewhat more outrageous than the bad guys of a prose novel, but they should nonetheless have some grounding in the real world. The Joker, the primary villain of DC Comics’ Batman and the Dark Knight film adaptation, is a good example of a comic villain who possesses some inherently human qualities—most notably a sense of humor (however twisted). Marvel Comics’ Loki is another bad guy whose personality blends the heightened energy of comic books with the relatable emotions of real life.
  4. A point of view that justifies their evil actions: Even the most evil villain operates from a perspective of personal righteousness. This is especially the case with villains who function as anti-heroes. An anti-hero is a sympathetic villain; they are the bad guy, and yet their story is told from their own point of view, causing the audience to root for them. A prime example is Breaking Bad’s Walter White, a three-dimensional anti-hero who becomes the mastermind of a methamphetamine enterprise. Many of the most enduring villains of all time see themselves as the hero of their own story, and Mr. White is no exception.
  5. A special skill that sets them apart: Mathematical genius is the defining feature of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immensely popular mystery thriller series of books. Or, consider of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, who first appears in Red Dragon, emerges as a major character in Silence of the Lambs, and finally gets his own novel in Hannibal: In addition to being a cannibal, Lecter is also a brilliant psychologist, which is a large part of what makes him so compelling.
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