Creating Authentic Villains

Eight things to think about when writing villains.

In the majority of books I read, and films and TV shows I watch, the villainous characters are usually the most eye catching and dynamic, and they are always my favourites. They are interesting, unpredictable and spontaneous. The main character may be the one driving the story forward, but the villain is the one planting bombs in the script. So, as I enjoy writing, reading and watching villains so much, I thought I would share a few things I have discovered along the way.

Why are they a villain?

Villains don’t just materialise from thin air. Obviously there are some exceptions to this, but if your villain is human then they would have been born, and very few human villains are actually born evil. They have viable reasons for choosing their dark path, reasons we can often relate to and empathise with. These could be an appalling upbringing, a destroyed love, a great injustice, or simply a lust for power and control.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the villain Voldemort was a child of false love. His mother fooled his father into loving her with a potion. She soon fell pregnant, but Voldemort’s father left as soon as he discovered he’d been tricked. The mother died in child birth, and Voldemort was brought up in an orphanage. With no friends or family, he turned to the only stable, reliable thing in his life, magic, and become obsessed with becoming the most powerful wizard.

In the Batman comics, The Joker’s past is told in several different ways, but two things are constant. The first is that he turned to crime because his boring day job wasn’t paying enough to support his pregnant wife, and the second is that the wife died.

The Penguin, another Batman villain, was born different, disfigured and hunched, and his parents didn’t want him. He was abandoned and shunned by the people of Gotham. He had to live underground in sewers beneath the city, and as a man, his only goal was to seek revenge and punish the citizens.

Empathy and understand are important. Try to get readers to put themselves in the villain’s shoes, and wonder what they would have done in the same situation. If your villain currently has no back story, give them one. And even if you would rather not share it with the reader, understand it yourself, as it will help you develop their character.

Villains aren’t dull

Villains don’t lack personality. They can be cold, ruthless, and completely insane in their actions, but their character can be quirky or quick witted, with a wonderfully dry sense of humour. Did you watch the TV series The Following? The villain Joe Carroll is a psychopathic serial killer, torturer, and the manipulative leader of a secret cult of killers. Yet his personality manages to make me ashamedly somehow like watching him. He’s a gentleman. He’s educated and polite and witty, sophisticated and just so composed; it’s hard to believe he could do such things. He is a true ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ kind of villain.

So, however evil your villain may be, they can have likable, even respectable qualities. They can have a set of morals and certain lines that even they will not cross, rules they will not break. A great example of this is Captain Hook from Peter Pan, and his fixation with ‘good form’. Just adding something a little odd and perhaps compulsive to your villain’s personality can make them much more three dimensional.

Villains don’t always know they are villains

A villain is the hero of their own story. They have their own purpose, own goal to reach, and they can justify every one of their actions to themselves, on the route to finding their own happy ending.

Who were they before they became villains?

It’s great to meet a villain in their early days, when they are just a regular person, perhaps even heroic and very unlikely to ever do anything wicked or corrupt. The reader gets to see the catalyst, witness the reasons and the triggers which led them to evil, and watch as they twist and break. This makes the villain more believable and realistic, more human. In Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker is a Jedi Knight with great promise and potential, but he goes over to the dark side because he thinks it’s the only way to save his wife. But his villainous actions cause her to die anyway, further propelling Anakin on his dark path to becoming Darth Vader.

Villains can give the reader hope

Some of the most addictive villains are those who hint that they will one day change their ways and step into the light. These villains are tortured souls, and in continuing to commit their dark deeds they are also punishing themselves. Damon, a villainous vampire brother in The Vampire Diaries still has some good in him, but whenever he get close to love, or to doing anything kind or heroic, he ruins it. He’s afraid to open up and let emotions in. He doesn’t think he can cope with the guilt of the pain he had caused over the centuries of being a vampire, so he’s closed himself off.

Spike from the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer was another villain we got to watch battle his inner demons when he fell in love with the slayer herself. And nothing could have been better than when Buffy started to fall for him too.

Villains don’t make friends

The phrase ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ means nothing to a real villain. When two villains cross paths they are much more likely to battle between themselves than to form an alliance. Villains don’t like to share the limelight and joining forces displays weakness, suggesting they are not powerful enough alone. And on the rare occasion that villains do join together, it isn’t going to be a lasting friendship. As soon as they no longer need each other, one of them will stab the other in the back.

What’s their kryptonite?

Villain’s often have a weakness. There should be some way, however small, to disable or distract them. The weakness can be anything as long as it’s believable. It can be a physical injury, a person they love and want to protect, or an object of sentiment they hold dear. For Rumpelstiltskin in the TV show Once Upon A Time it’s a chipped cup, because it brings memories of the one he loves. For The Governor in The Walking Dead it’s his daughter, and more generally the need to protect those under his keeping at all costs. In Game of Thrones, the antagonist Ramsey Boulton is constantly trying to prove himself worthy to his father, because he is a bastard child, born from rape. This need to show his worth is the reason he became evil, but his need to please his father is also his weakness. Giving your villain a weakness will help make them a little less monster and a little more human.

Set your villain free

You don’t have to be constricted with your villain. Relax with them, give them time and space to develop and simmer, and let them create as much mayhem as they like. Then the protagonist, the hero character will pick up the pieces and lead the story. The villain is a character your readers should both hate and love, because they are explosive and exciting. Yes, other characters should be exciting too, but they are bound to morals and logic, whereas a villain, when pushed to their limit, is capable of anything. So wind them up and let them go.


Please add your own opinions and discoveries of villains in the comments below. If you disagree with anything I have said, write that too. Everyone has they own point of view and character interpretation, so feel free to share yours.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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1 Comment

  • 1

    Very nice piece! Definitely agree.
    As for the third point (villains don’t always know they’re villains), Wilson Fisk from Netflix’ Daredevil is a great example as in season 1 he’s just trying to save the city – from his perspective, of course. Actually, Fisk is such a well written character I found myself associating him with pretty much every point you made.

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