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Writing

How to Write a Villain Protagonist in 6 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

All stories must have a protagonist, but not all stories need a hero.

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What Is a Villain Protagonist?

A villain protagonist is foremost a villain, an undeniable “bad guy” who drives the plot as the main character. Where a garden variety anti-hero might simply be a surly protagonist without the typically sunny, upstanding virtuosity of a classical hero, a villain protagonist is an anti-hero with decidedly evil aims or actions. Protagonists are often thought of as the “point-of-view” character, readers or viewers follow them and their exploits throughout the story; which often has nothing to do with a character’s internal moral compass.

6 Examples of Villain Protagonists

The dark side is full of complex villains ready to command the spotlight, from your garden variety bad person doing bad things, to pure evil. Maybe they crave world domination. Maybe they’re a psychopath or a sociopath. Evil characters can be loners or have lifelong best friends. Consider these popular villain protagonists:

  1. Dexter, the serial killer hiding in plain sight on his eponymous show, who kills other killers as a form of vigilante justice.
  2. Filmmakers have recently delved into the backstory of Batman’s main nemesis in Gotham, the Joker, to present a character arc that makes the viewer sympathize with the root of his evil deeds.
  3. The story of Sleeping Beauty was retold through the eyes of the evil fairy Maleficent.
  4. William Shakespeare’s corrupt king in Macbeth.
  5. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
  6. Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange.
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How to Write a Villain Protagonist in 6 Steps

When screenwriting, playwriting, or novel-writing, there are a number of things you should keep in mind if you’re striving to write a strong protagonist, villainous or otherwise:

  1. Mix character traits. When protagonists are either extremely moral characters or extremely immoral characters, it might be hard for readers to relate to them. Allow your protagonists a mix of traits in order to make them feel more human. After all, there is a bit of both in real people. If your villain spends part of the novel killing people, you need to give him or her believable reasons for doing so. Make the reader understand exactly what desperation or belief has driven him to it. You can curb your character’s supervillainous tendencies by giving them a sense of humor, a soft spot for their loved ones, or by surrounding them with a world far, far darker and twisted than they are.
  2. Keep the stakes high. An all-powerful protagonist can often leave readers feeling that the stakes of the story’s central conflict aren’t high enough—in other words, the protagonist is not risking anything and has nothing to lose. If the story has no stakes, it is not all that interesting to read. On the other hand, a protagonist that is too weak or helpless might leave readers feeling frustrated.
  3. Use internal monologue. One way to create intimacy with your reader—and to get them to care about your main character—is to use internal monologue. This means letting the reader see a character’s thoughts as they pass through their moral compass, which exposes the character’s motivations, opinions, and personality. Internal monologue not only reveals character, it’s a neat way to convey information about your setting, events, and other characters from a first-person lens.
  4. Understand the character’s morality. When creating motivations for villains, a key principle to remember is that making a decision between good and evil is never really a choice. All humans will choose good as they see it. You must elaborate on why your villain is choosing his own good (which to readers appears evil). This is where your moral gray area becomes important.
  5. Build the backstory. Understanding the nuances of your protagonist renders them more realistic (and compelling) for your reader. Ask yourself these questions about your villain centerpiece: What is their name? What is their gender? How old are they? What do they look like? What is their mood like on any given day? How do they feel about the opinions of others? Where did they grow up and go to school? What are their parents like? Do they have siblings? Are they married or single? What’s their favorite thing to do? What do they hate doing? Have they ever been passionately in love? Are they healthy? What was their most traumatic moment in life? What matters to them more than anything in the world?
  6. Consider your antagonist. Antagonism is one of the critical tools of storytelling. Stories don’t move forward without conflict, and conflict is produced by antagonists. These can be other villains, a hero, or forces of society (even forces of nature), but it’s important to consider how you treat any antagonist, especially as a counter to a villain protagonist. Equal and opposite character development is crucial; the “good guys” should be just as well-developed as your main evil protagonist.

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