Writing

How to Write an Unforgettable Villain: Tips for Writing a Great Villain for Your Novel or Short Story

Written by MasterClass

Jun 21, 2019 • 4 min read

From Darth Vader to Count Dracula, some of the best fiction writing contains unforgettable villains. Villains help define your story’s hero, drive the conflict, and capture the reader’s attention. For that reason, villains are just as important as the good guys in your story.

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What Is a Villain?

A villain is the opposite of a hero. A villain is the antagonist of your story whose motivations and actions oppose the protagonist and drive the plot of your story. A villain is the opposite of a hero. In contrast to the hero, a villain is usually compelled by a desire to commit acts of cruelty and immorality.

Bestselling author Dan Brown advocates for writing your villain first—even before your hero—because it is the villain who will make the hero heroic. Learn more about writing great villains in Dan Brown’s MasterClass.

What Are the Characteristics of a Good Villain?

Every great hero needs a great villain. Villains are the antagonistic force of your story that challenges your hero and drives the action. Most great villains share a common set of characteristics.

  • Strong connection to the hero. The best villains are inextricably connected to the hero, and aid in the hero’s character development through their inherent opposition to them. For example, in the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort murdered Harry Potter’s parents when he was a child, leaving behind a magical scar on Harry’s forehead intrinsically connects the two characters throughout the story. This scar serves as a symbolic reminder of the connection between Harry and Voldemort, and foreshadows that the fates of our hero and villain are dependent on one another.
  • Clear morality. Every villain needs to have his own morality. If a villain spends part your story 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. For instance, in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, primary antagonist Captain Beatty’s mission is to find and destroy books because he believes that books cause people to reject the stability and tranquility of a life of conformity. He has a strong moral point of view, and the reader believes that he believes he is doing the right thing by trying to burn books. After all, every villain believes they are the hero of their own story.
  • A worthy opponent. A great villain should be a strong and worthy adversary to your hero. They shouldn’t be weak and easily beaten, nor should they be so powerful that they can only be defeated by random chance. In Sherlock Holmes, his arch-nemesis Moriarty is a criminal mastermind who is every bit as smart as Sherlock. Having a villain who is in many ways equal in skill and intelligence to your hero will raise the stakes of their encounters, as it creates a credible threat that your hero might be bested.
  • Compelling backstory. Any good villain should have an interesting and credible backstory. In addition to creating a deep and more three-dimensional villain, a memorable backstory allows ourselves to identify and even sympathize with the villain. For example, the Gollum character in The Lord of The Rings trilogy used to be a normal hobbit until he was corrupted by the power of the One Ring. In addition to deepening the character by showing us the full breadth of his journey from virtuousness to wickedness, Gollum’s backstory forces us to consider how we are sometimes tempted by bad or unethical forces in our own lives.
  • Villains should be fun. Let’s face it: evil villains are fun. In Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, readers hold their breath whenever Hannibal Lecter appears on the page. Whether it’s their black-hearted sense of humor or their odious worldview, our favorite villains possess qualities that we love to hate.

4 Tips for Writing a Great Villain in Your Novel

  1. Choose a real-life model. Find a real person to model your villain after. It could be someone you know, a person from history, or a famous serial killer. Try writing a brief character sketch in which you list their positive and negative attributes, their physical appearance, and their state of mind. Once you’ve done some brainstorming, be sure to differentiate your fictional character from your real-life model (you don’t want to get sued!). You can do this by changing identifiable elements like name, age, and specific actions or events.
  2. Put yourself in their shoes. When it’s time for your villain to act, put yourself in their place. Think about challenges or hardships that might tempt people to act out or behave badly. How do you react to bad things? Tap into those emotions and try to apply them to your villain.
  3. Consider their motivation. Just like with your main character, determining your antagonist’s motivation can help you unlock other aspects of their character, such as their goals and their personality.
  4. Introduce a villain with a bang. A strong introduction to your villain sends your reader a clear message that this character is malicious. In Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield features an unforgettable introduction to antagonist Uriah Heep, whose seeming politeness is overshadowed by a face so shocking and ugly that it is described as “cadaverous.” His introduction immediately establishes the character as a villain.

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