James Patterson’s Three Tips for Writing a Great Villain

Written by MasterClass

Nov 16, 2018 • 2 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

James Patterson Teaches Writing

Every mystery or suspense novel needs a villain. But not all villains are created equal. According to the world’s bestselling author James Patterson, who has more #1 New York Times bestsellers than any other writer in history, the best villains aren’t cartoonish caricatures; a good villain is a complex bad guy who readers simultaneously love and hate.

Here, he reveals three invaluable writing techniques for creating the Lord Voldemort to your Harry Potter, aka the type of great villain who becomes a worthy opponent for your main character.


1. Create a Three-Dimensional Villain

When you’re writing a villain, you have to make them three dimensional—and James knows that readers’ feelings about villains are complex. On one hand, we don’t like them. They are, after all, the driving negative force in any narrative. But on the other hand, when they are given interesting back stories, personal traumas, and motivations that drive them (whether we agree with those or not), James say that “the ethics and morals of readers” fade away if they really love characters.

Take, for example, Hannibal Lecter—the evil villain in Thomas Harris’s book Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal is, of course, a cannibal. Yet he’s one of the most well-known villains of all time, a villain that audience members cheer for and that readers root on. That’s because Thomas Harris revealed both the dark side of the character as well as another, unexpected side that readers could empathise with.

2. Humanize the Villain

When you’re writing villains, you have to humanize them if you’re going to get your audience on board. James wrote a bad guy serial killer once, whose family thought he was “a neat guy.” On the surface, he was this great, supportive husband and father. But in his secret life, he was murdering people. Another famous example of a main character with a double life is the murderous antihero Dexter of the television series Dexter, who killed in the name of vengeance.

Whether you’re adding a layer of justice or creating a veil of secrecy around your character, try infusing them with some elements of humanity to help the reader connect to the character even more.

3. Equip the Villain With Smarts

Have you ever noticed villains seem to be some of the smartest characters? They’re witty and wry, clever as can be. They go on long-winded rants about super-specific topics that the average person wouldn’t know about. Is that realistic? Probably not. But James suggests giving up realism for a good story, any day.

Pick a few topics that your villain might be interested in and research them in depth. Weave those bits through your story, both in plot and in dialogue. Research makes for a more thrilling narrative, and a smarter-than-average villain is always interesting, since it begs the question: if they’re so intelligent, why would do they embark on this life of crime?

When you’re sitting down to draft your villain, give them depth. Give them complexity. Give them humanity. And maybe you’ll have audiences cheering when your villain commits acts of cannibalism, too.