6 Simple Steps to Superbad Villains

simple steps

We all love to hate bad guys, and you gave me some fantastic additions to my villain list last week, (thank you). What I love more than hating a bad guy, is a bad guy that makes me empathise with them before I hate them. It makes the hate so much more powerful, because they cheated me, and I hate thinking of myself as gullible, so if they did get to me, then that makes them superbad in my eyes!

I’ve been thinking about my own antagonists/villains in my WIP, and what I can do to develop them, to make them more hateable but loveable. It led me to thinking about the importance of villains having a redeeming quality or some kind of positive trait. 

Even Voldemort has positive traits. As Tom Riddle he is charming and handsome and as Voldemort he is patient and intelligent. This, although you never really like him, at least makes you feel sorry for the mess Tom ended up in, hence you empathise with Voldemort. It gives depth to his character, and draws you in to his story. Isn’t that the point of stories? To be drawn in and empathise with the characters? I like nothing better than that feeling of finishing a novel or a series, and feeling bereft, like I just lost a friend. To me, that is the mark of a good writer, and personally I think empathising with villains is one of the key elements needed to do that. Make the reader feel for your villain. Make their craziness, their insane ideas and philosophies seem plausible just for a minute. Momentarily make the reader care about the villain, before slapping them back to reality with a chunky slab of crazy villain.

But How?

In developing my villains, I have found 6 simple sets of questions/principles I think about in order to create what I think is an authentic baddy. These aren’t meant to be comprehensive solutions to the best bad guy you can create, just a starter for 10 on basic elements you need.

1. History

No doubt you created a rich and full personal history for your protagonist and probably for most of your supporting characters too. But did you do the same for your villain? It’s important to know how they got that way, rather than just having an evil character for the sake of it. So I’ve started to ask myself lots of questions:

Why are they a villain?

Did something happen to them?

What was their childhood like?

What was their relationship with their parents like?

Did they ever have a boyfriend or girlfriend?

What’s the best thing that ever happened to them?

What’s the worst thing that ever happened to them?

And loads more, have you got any key questions you ask your villains, I would love to add them to my list…?

A lot of these questions will lead you to the answers and information for some of the points below, like where they get their morals or reasons/motives from.

2. Positive Traits = Realism

There’s nothing worse than a flat villain. A villain who is evil for the sake of it. No one is evil for the sake of it, and No one is just plain evil. That’s a exaggeration you can only get away with in very young children’s books, and even Disney films the villains have at least one positive redeeming quality. You need to make sure you give your bad guy at least one positive trait. It gives balance to all their negative ones, and with balance comes realism and believability. It makes them human, relatable. After all, humans aren’t all good or all bad so your villains shouldn’t be either.

Maybe they are kind to a sidekick, or a pet – take Voldemort again, he has a pet snake which he loves called Nagini. It’s redeeming quality – to love another thing, and gives him depth and authenticity.

3. Emotions

Villains need emotions just as much as heroes and supporting characters do. It gives them validity, authenticity and encourages conflict. Emotions drive plot, and show historical wounds. Emotions mean weaknesses, which mean blind spots. Blind spots mean a hero can exploit his weaknesses and beat them.

4. Morals or Reasons

“I want to destroy the world….”

“Ok, why?”

“Because I do….”

Sounds pathetic right? You need to give your villain a reason to want to destroy the world. Not just because ‘they do’, no one will accept ‘because I do’ as a valid reason and it will make your villains seem false, flat and unbelievable.

But better than reasons, are morals. Giving your villain morals makes them truly insane. If they have morals they not only think what they are doing is right, but they think it’s just and for the better good of everyone else. It also makes it harder for the protagonist to destroy the villain if they aren’t all evil. I spoke about Dexter and his anti hero ways, and the fact that his morals are what make him and his TV series. The same principle can be applied to villains but in reverse. I guess like a kind of anti-villain.

If you have ever been drawn into a villains master plan and momentarily agreed with them, let me know in the comments. I have, the last time it happened was with Virgil, in the final book of the Disturbed Girl’s Guide to Curing Boredom Trilogy, its one of ‘those’ books, one that made my most inspiration books ever list. Virgil sucked me into his evil virus-releasing world destroying plan, with a well argued and to be honest, quite logical plan for destroying most of the population! But of course, I came to my senses.

5. Motive = Conflict

This is part and parcel of morals and reasons. But is the most important aspect of your villain. It’s the why behind their plans. Without the why, you don’t have a good enough villain. The ‘why’ gives you conflict, the fundamental disagreement between villain and protagonist. Conflict gives you plot, and believability. You don’t have to have reams and reams of why explanation either. Take Captain Hook he hates Peter Pan because he cut off his hand. Or the evil Queen in Snow White, she’s partly driven by vanity, but that leads her to be envious of Snow’s beauty. 

6. Character Arc

Your protagonists should through change and grow as your story progresses, and so too should your villains, even if it’s just a spiral downwards. If your villain is the same at the beginning as they are at the end, then what was the point of the journey and the battle with the protagonist? They flat lined and I imagine were quite a boring villain.

Questions I’ve been asking myself include:

How does the story affect the villain? Do they get more evil and bitter? Or do they see the light and get redeemed? Or maybe I should just kill them off!? How do they feel about what happens to them? What is their goal or objective?

Whatever you choose your villains journey to be. They should end the story different to how they started it.

If you liked this post, subscribe here to get writing tips, tools and inspiration as well as information on the release of 13 Steps to Evil, my ultimate guide to crafting villains.

37 comments

  1. Hmmm… food for thought there, Sacha. I’m in the early stages of the last book of my trilogy, and the villains I’ve inherited from mythology. Since I started this writing journey, I’ve come to realise that these characters were most likely misunderstood by the scribes who collected and wrote them down. So now I have to decide whether to use this, or ignore it. Decisions decisions. It certainly makes it all more interesting…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Ali – SORRY I haven’t replied – I will promise! very interesting that you say they are misunderstood, how so? What do the character say to you? Do they tell you things? Mine are causing all manner of problems at the minute, tweaking my plot for me, its spectacularly annoying!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes they wreck my head! Its a good job I’m a pantser, because they defo do their own thing. I go with it every time, their ideas are waaaaaay better than mine!

        And will you STOP appologising??? No pressure, ok? 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ok ok, sor… joking! i just hate taking forever to reply, its been one of those weeks, will explain when I reply. HA! yeah I am still getting my pantser legs, so its uncomfortable for me at the minute, and also because I had a big gap between first half of the book and this half, I am finding that there is a lot to go back and correct… sigh. BUT I totally agree about their ideas being better than my own! lol

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    1. Thanks for commenting, who are your fave villains?

      Ha, it’s funny you say that, I have another post that sort of covers this. I hate giving posts as answers but it does talk through a particular anti hero and why he works which may go part way to answering your question. http://sachablack.co.uk/2015/03/12/the-dexter-effect-how-to-use-your-inner-psycho-to-write-better-the-crafting-characters-series-5/

      I am drafting up a post comparing villains with anti heroes as part of this series 🙂 which will be more explicit, but that’s why in the first part of this series I was asking about fave villains. I am also going to look at female ones.

      What’s your anti hero story about?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s still very much in the works but it’s essentially two sisters pitted against each other, with the younger being the antihero. Not very detailed, but I need to work on the one-line summaries first lol

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Very interesting, I too am writing YA/NA fantasy. Keep in touch, I would love to hear how your book turns out 😀 I am intrigued, and its always good to connect with other writers of the same genre 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Just short of 60K but I think I’ll have a finished first draft by the end of the month im doing NaNo so fingers crossed. But it needs a LOT of work. Do you write flash and short stories too or just novels?

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  2. Regarding #4, that actually came up in a conversation I was having with someone about comic books. I pointed out that my reasoning between a “bad” villain and a “good” one was having a reason to do things that made sense; that doing things “because reasons!” without giving a reason – however flimsy – was just stupid.

    Lots of villains want to “take over the world,” but a lot of times there doesn’t seem to be a reason why; giving them a reason – whether it’s just because they see it as the best chance for a pile of money and sexual partners whenever they want, or something as deeply psychological as the Green Goblin’s inferiority complex and the things that leads him to do – pushes a villain up several notches for me. (Yes. That does mean Dr. Evil qualifies as a “good” villain to me. At least he has a reason. Even if it’s a dumb/minor one.)

    I think it might help folks if they “ask” their villain one question: “If you destroy the world/kill the hero/conquer the planet… what will you do?” If the answer is “Go to Disneyland” or “Ummmm…” then they probably need some retooling. 😄

    Just my 2 cents.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am SO glad you agree. The more I think about it the more I get really irritated by crappy “I want to destroy the world” villains. In fact, my personal pet peeve for villains is exactly that, WHY do you want to destroy the world? Where are you going to live now MORON? rant over! might have to investigate the green goblin, is it a film? I haven’t compiled the list of recommended villains yet so he may me on there. Did you recommend him to me? loved your two cents for what its worth! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He wasn’t one I recommended; he’s Spider-Man’s arch nemesis. (The conversation I had was talking comic books, so he was a handy grab.) But basically, he wants to be a world dictator because he was abused as a child, saddled with a lot of “You’ll never be good enough,” etc, etc; so he became an ultra-successful mad scientist/businessman to prove daddy wrong. When that wasn’t enough, he became a super villain, among other things going on crime sprees and then funding and spearheading the efforts to stop said sprees, thus being lauded as a hero (and hoarding even more cash and power to boot.)
        He gets into a lot of things – which, sometimes, do look pretty stupid later, I’ll admit – but driving him to his eventual winning of a presidential election is always that core of “I AM a failure, I’ll never be good enough” and the – often psychotic – steps he takes to prove otherwise.

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    1. oooh, really? What kind of story? and whats it about? Is it a novel? some of the coming posts may definitely help, or not… but I’m hoping I can at least ask some useful questions!

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  3. It’s a short story. I wrote some 3000+ words in November and recently returned to it. On rereading, I realized that the story I had written was basically the backstory. So right now I have about 2 paragraphs. I’m having difficulty figuring out how to keep her the villain but also be relatable. I feel like at this point in the story people might actually like her. I do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You want them to like the protagonist though… even if they are a villain… Sounds weird, but is she actually a villain, or is she an antihero? What makes her a villain? Dexter is both the protagonist and a villain which makes him an anti hero… you need to like her though right? She’s your character. I like all the ones I write for others to hate….

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  4. Meaty stuff here to chew on, Sacha! I have a character who is not clearly a villain and I want some of that obscurity — was he or was he not deserving of what he got? Your six steps are clear, practical approaches to craft. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Charli as ever it means a lot. And lol… These are just the musing of one writer trying to work out her own way to better characters/stories/writing. All I can do is hope my crazy logic helps someone else 😄

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  5. Awesome post! I love a good villain, and a good anti-hero (Severus Snape anyone?). I knew I was on the right track when one of my beta readers couldn’t decide whether she loved or hated my antagonist. Job well done!

    That being said, there are definitely some things on your list I hadn’t considered, so maybe I’ll be able to flush his character out even more in the next draft. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  6. Wow, this was really good. I’m glad I found this, because I think my villain was starting to get a bit flat. Thanks; I’ll start applying these questions to my villain. He’ll be all the better (or, worse) for it.

    As for your villain-justification question, I think that Spiro from Artemis Fowl fits in that category. I could see what he wanted, and it was, in some ways, justified. (He wanted the Cube, and to produce the best tech on the market.) But the way he went about getting what he wanted was over-the-top-toddler-fit and totally wrong. (Sending a hit-man after Arty’s crew, stealing the Cube, kidnapping Artemis, etc etc.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh, I am so glad you enjoyed the post 😀 and I really hope the questions help 🙂 thanks for the Spiro suggestion too, I will have to go check out Artemis Fowl whilst i’ve heard of it, I haven’t read it, so might have to go get some more detail. thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to read the post. 🙂

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