10 Essential Tips for Writing Complex Villains

Much like Helen Zaas, I have always fallen for the bad guy. The only thing better than a villain, in my opinion, is a redeemed villain. That thought was the inspiration behind Redemption, the second book in our Sea Assassins Trilogy, set to come out on September 1. But whether your villains are redeemable or not, they’re nothing without a little complexity.

Is there anything better than a good villain? Let’s face it—heroes are boring. They’re moral. They’re predictable. Worst of all, they’re just a little bit too easy to root for. A good villain, on the other hand, will make your heart race, your palms sweat, and your moral compass go on the fritz—if only for a little while.

I’m talking the likes of Hannibal Lecter, Moriarty, the Phantom of the Opera, Count Dracula, Cersei Lannister… Apart from their wicked deeds, what do these characters have in common? And how can you take that vital ingredient and apply it to your own writing? Here are ten tips to help you craft the perfect villain.

1. Draw inspiration from real life

Don’t be afraid to model your villain on a real person, living or dead. The world is full of villainous characters, from murderous tyrants to that one snooty lady in the coffee line up who thinks she’s better than everyone else. Even if you only cherry pick a couple of traits, check out what makes/made your chosen model tick.

2. Dig deep into their motivation

  motivation dreams shia labeouf motivational GIF
Don’t let your villain’s dreams be dreams.

Nobody does anything just because they feel like it. In real life, a villain’s motivation is usually much harder to uncover, but in fiction it’s an integral part of the plot. What drives your villain? Money? Power? A perverted sense of justice? Whatever it is, it better be (in their mind) a pretty damn good reason. They are fighting just as much as your hero, so their motivation should be just as solid.

3. Tread lightly with tragic backstory

First of all, your villain does not need a tragic backstory. There’s nothing wrong with including one, but make sure you give it some thought first. Sure, it would be pretty easy to justify your villain’s insatiable thirst for power with a detailed history of child abuse and neglect, but that doesn’t necessarily add quality to your story—especially if you shove it down your readers’ throats. Chances are that your villain has been a victim at one point during their life, as we all have, but relying only on an overly tragic backstory is selling your villain short. They have made the decisions that got them to where they are and you shouldn’t downplay that. Those decisions are what make them unique to all the other sufferers of tragedy.

4. Give them likable qualities

 hannibal friendship dinner mads mikkelsen hannibal lecter GIF
Everybody loves cannibal puns.

Villains are easy to hate, and making a hate-worthy villain is as simple as throwing an eye patch, an evil laugh, and Jack Gleeson into a blender. Sometimes you need a truly nefarious villain with zero redeeming qualities, but more often than not the best ones are the ones you hate to love and love to hate all at the same time. Perhaps they’ve got a weakness for seventies disco, or a die-hard dedication to their family. This doesn’t mean they can’t still be evil. Adolf Hitler, for example, loved dogs. I love dogs. However, if I ever met Adolf Hitler, no amount of mutual canine enthusiasm would stop me from punching that ridiculous mustache off his face.

 

5. Provide examples of their humanity

This goes hand in hand with giving your villain likable qualities. Unless your villain is a vampire, alien, or something else along those lines, they’re human. Even if they aren’t, they probably have human qualities, and thus your readers can still relate to their humanity. This could be as simple as them showing pity or fear—anything that proves they’re not a robot. Unless they are a robot. In which case, disregard. Like any other point on this list, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Psychopathic villains are generally known for their inherent lack of humanity, and that’s one of the things that makes them so interesting. If you’re creating a psychopath though, make sure that they’re actually a psychopath. Psychopaths and sociopaths share common traits and behaviours and should be written with care.

6. Get the facts on influencing factors

 research GIFYour villain’s personal experiences will shape them, but so can a myriad of other factors. Mental illness, culture, religion, history—these can all influence a person’s thoughts and behaviours. If you want to use one of them, though, you need to do your research. It’s not enough to say your villain has schizophrenia and make them a little twitchy, just as it’s not enough to sum up a hundred years of Kurdish oppression by making them pissed off. Life is complicated. Mental illness is complicated. Culture, religion, history—all complicated. Handle them with care and attention and your villain could be a real showstopper.

7. Set boundaries for them

Everyone has their limits and their own set of morals, however twisted they may be. Just because your villain enjoys burning down villages and laying waste to the countryside doesn’t mean they’re down to wreak every kind of havoc. What are their hard-line rules? Maybe they don’t hurt children, maybe they despise perpetrators of white collar crimes. It doesn’t have to be a rule you would keep for yourself, but it should be something they could back up. Also, don’t be afraid to have your villain break one or two of their own rules just to see what would happen.

8. Provide parallels between the villain and the hero

 supernatural finger snap demon dean GIF
A potential for darkness is always a good time.

The best example I can think of for this is Harry Potter and Voldemort. Those two are so alike that it’s scary in some ways, and that makes them perfect adversaries. Harry Potter has the potential for villainy in the same way Voldemort had the potential for heroism. The parallels don’t have to be as explicit as they are in the Harry Potter series, but there should be a reason why you’re choosing to set one specific character up against another specific character.

9. Don’t be afraid to get creative

Your villain does not have to be a kitten-kicking jerkface with an evil agenda. They could just be a regular Joe with a goal that just so happens to conflict with your hero’s. They could be a good person fallen on bad circumstances. They could even be you or me. Think outside the box and you’re sure to create something extraordinary.

10. Remember the cardinal rule: every villain is the hero of their own story

Sherlock bbc sherlock pbs masterpiece GIFYour villain is going to fight just as hard as the hero for what they want, and so they should. Action without motivation will just make your villain—and, consequently, the conflict in your book—feel flat. Everyone is fighting for something in this topsy-turvy world. Right or wrong, that something is some person’s everything.

Is there something I missed? Comment below!

– Danielle

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