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How to Create a Villain Your Readers Will Love to Hate

Angry rabbit with carrot! Creating a villain readers will love to hate

Evil laugh… funny hairdo… yeah, that’s another boring villain. Yawn.

Why is it that most villains are run-of-the-mill, seem to pose no real threat even though they’ve got the remote for the bomb in their hand, or — to put it bluntly —are  just dumb?

For your efforts to really take off, you need to create a villain your readers will love, loathe and secretly root for at times — and, more importantly, will stay lodged in memory long after the final word of your novel has passed.

One of the best types of villain is the true antagonist: a person you’re not quite sure is truly evil or who is honestly misunderstood. This type of villain works well when they’re acting as a parallel to a single hero. As both arcs begin in the same place, or at the same level, the hero’s curves up while the villain’s curves down. For every stroke of luck the hero has, the villain has a crushing tragedy. For every obstacle overcome, a plan is thwarted.

These villains work so well because, if even the tiniest circumstances had been different, THEY could have been the hero. You find a disquieting little piece of yourself rooting for them because you just feel they just need to catch a break. Villains like Frankenstein’s Monster, Mr. Glass from the movie Unbreakable, and even Gaston from Beauty and the Beast all qualify as villains we hate to love and love to hate. Because, like the hero, they have a flaw in their character — but while the hero finds the strength to overcome their shortcomings, the villain is dragged down by them.

Amp up the delicious horribleness of their character by making them in some ways better than your hero — more charming, a kinder person, smarter or just well-informed. When you encounter villains like this, you can’t help but throw your hands up at the do-gooders and yell, “Why can’t you be more like the bad guy?!”

Villains like this include Loki, who, in Marvel’s Thor franchise, is smarter, more humble, and (many would argue) better looking than his brother.

Another compelling type of villain is the one who’s just plain insane. Their motives are overblown, they exhibit obsessive, narcissistic and delusional tendencies, but most of all — they’re unpredictable. They blow into town like a hurricane, destroying everything in their path, and no amount of logic or reason will tame them. They want what they want. They might not necessarily be evil people, but most will stop at nothing to fulfil their mission.

Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s novel Misery is one such villain: she’s totally nuts. After her favorite novelist Paul Sheldon crashes in a snowstorm, she finds and ‘rescues’ him… only to demand that he finish off her favorite series in a way she likes — i.e., without killing the main character. A fairly reasonable request, from a certain perspective, except when Sheldon wishes to leave, she refuses to let him. And when she finds out that he’s been traversing the house while she is away… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Norman Bates from Psycho is another ‘crazy’ villain. Acting normal for police and the loved ones of the missing Mary Crane (whom he killed), Bates is all smiles and pleasantries when investigators arrive at his motel — but things are very different when his mother gets involved.

Hannibal Lecter is a famous example of the insane villain, but interestingly he isn’t actually the antagonist in Silence of the Lambs. He isn’t committing the awful crimes Clarice Starling has been assigned to investigate, yet his particular brand of malice and insanity hangs like a cloud over the investigation, suggesting that he poses a much more significant danger than the serial killer she’s pursuing.

Why do all of these villains make such a grand mark on audiences? Because they’re thoroughly fleshed out, thoughtful, devious, and – even when at their worst – undeniably human.

All in all, to make a villain believable and enjoyable, they have to be real – and it helps if they mirror some positive or negative traits of the hero. If you begin to think that some may argue your villain would make for a better main character than your hero, chances are you have a compelling battle on your hands!

How do you conjure the best villains you can? Who are some of your favorite standout nemeses in the world of fiction, and what do you think it is about them that makes them so magnetic? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Join the Discussion on “How to Create a Villain Your Readers Will Love to Hate”

  1. Fredrick Hudgin says:

    I try to make my villains understandable. No one is completely evil or good. Getting a blend makes both the heros and the villains more relate-able to the reader. An evil person has a reason he or she is that way. By showing why a person became an arch villain you can present lessons which enrich your story and capture the readers imagination.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Absolutely, Fredrick. The best villains are often those whose thought processes are realistically mapped out. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the villain’s conclusions, they can’t help but feel slightly pulled into their rationale. Very few are ever the embodiment of pure, unfettered evil.

  2. Dr Shadrick G Lungu says:

    Simply intriguing tips!

  3. Hannah says:

    When making a villain, or an antagonist, I usually give them a back round story throughout the book. A deep reason why they are doing something, as well as some connection to a dynamic, round character. ^-^

  4. anonymous says:

    I agree with Hannah. Making them a dynamic character with a story is important. I think that one source of shallow villains is that the people writing them forget that the world their protagonist is in is much bigger than any one character, and the villain ends up getting written only for the protag to interact with. They fall silent, flat, and dead as soon as a scene without them comes along.
    I think that you have to keep in mind that the villain had their own life before the protag came along, and will continue to have it while and after interacting with the protag. Who do they love? Where do they come from? Did they skip breakfast and are extra irritable towards those around them because of it?
    Did they cut off interrogating the hero because they forgot that today was their daughter/son’s track meet and they said they wouldn’t miss it for the world?
    The villains have obligations and lives outside of the hero and forgetting that just makes them look like the creepy stalker dude who has absolutely nothing else to do. at all. except stare at your profile pic on facebook…

  5. Excellent post.

    My favorite villain today is Mrs. Waterford in the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale. I empathize with her as I watch her unfolding backstory. At times she seems truly evil, but I can’t help but wonder if she might turn out to be an asset to Mayday (the good guys). I see a frustrated woman who knows her husband is up to no good, a woman who was a well-known writer before the dystopian events that created Gilead. What are her true motivations?

    Please don’t provide any spoilers, folks. I’m only a couple of episodes into the second season. I have Margaret Atwood’s book (plus the sequel, soon to be released) on my Kindle wish list. Once I’ve finished the third season, I’ll read the books.

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