In fairy tales, the villain is easy to spot. Usually, the bad guy has sharp teeth and wants to eat grandma. But in other stories, the villain isn’t as obvious, and you’re not sure whether to love or hate him. Either way, you want to craft memorable and believable villains that readers love to hate. So, how do you write a remarkable villain with depth and relatability? First, it’s important to remember that the villain is the opposite of the hero or heroine in the story but equally essential and has motivations that match the main character. And truth be told, I sometimes find myself rooting for the villainess in some stories.
How to write villains readers love to hate
The Evil Lord
This kind of villain is easy to spot. Think of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter or Darth Vader in the Star Wars Trilogy. Both characters make others do their bidding through fear and torture. From the beginning, it’s clear that these two scary guys will eat your firstborn to further their mission of death and destruction. But, with these kinds of villains, there’s always the hope of redemption. At some point, they could realize their evil ways and turn good.
Traitors sometimes come in complicated packages. They can start off innocent and then take a nasty turn by betraying the hero to serve their own needs. Think of Theon Greyjoy in the Game of Thrones. He was the best friend of Robb Stark before betraying him to secure his own kingly dreams.
I like to think of this kind of villain as misunderstood. Most of the time, they are a sensitive child that wants to fit in, and through being bullied, they genuinely become evil. He’s a lonely outsider who desperately wants confidants but will never find the peace of being accepted. Something terrible has happened to him, and the pain will never be overcome.
The Black Widow
The beguiling siren lures people into her web and seduces them to do her bidding. Unfortunately, the victims usually don’t know they’ve been tricked until she crushes them with her venom. She’s a seductress with keen skills in manipulation.
The motherly figure rules her subjects through insight and coldness. She’s a motherly oppressor who believes her actions protect her children or subjects but solely benefit her twisted desires.
The sadist tortures people for the pure sake of enjoyment. This kind of villain is the hardest to understand but the easiest one to hate. Their actions bring up revulsion in the reader, yet you can’t stop turning the page.
In the last few years, bullying in school has been much talked about, but bullying in literature has been around since quills were the rage. The bully is stereotypically the big but stupid kid who steals lunches and comes with a rat pack of willing followers. But the bully isn’t necessarily a hammerhead ten-year-old with nothing better to do than torture the weak. Instead, a bully pushes people around with his strength and dogged determination at any age.
One of my favorite villains is Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by William Shakespeare. She’s the mastermind behind the plot to kill the king, yet her intensity makes her compelling and almost relatable as she makes excuses for murder.
But all of these villain archetypes are easy to explain but sometimes harder to spot in literature. One of my favorite villains is Tom Ripley in the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. We aren’t sure if we should root for him in the opening scene because he brings out a sense of unease from the first sentence. By the end, we can’t remember why we liked him at all.
Another equally confusing villain is Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. First, he’s an unreliable narrator, and the subject matter of pedophilia wrapped in the guise of being an erotic novel makes the despicable nature of the protagonist almost forgivable. Also, the language of Vladimir Nabokov is stunning, and the plot is filled with unpredictable twists, so you can practically believe Humbert Humbert isn’t a villain. But in essence, he’s a pedophile.
As a teenager, I was fascinated with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. She’s selfish, proud, and passionate. She’ll do anything to get what she wants, and in the end, she loses everything to achieve her heart’s desire. As the main character, you’re swept up in her life and beauty and read to find out how she redeems herself. Yet, this satisfaction never comes.
From page one, Amy Dunn from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a villainess you can’t help but sort of root for throughout the novel. She’s a femme fatale whose brainpower and manipulativeness make her almost admirable. And like most women villains, she’s cold as a corpse.
The White Witch
The White Witch from the Lion, Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis embodies the word “chilling” in the white setting of this classic children’s series. After all, she kills Aslan and tricks children with Turkish delights.
So now that we’ve looked at some typical villain archetypes and examples in literature, let’s explore how to write villains readers love to hate.
The most crucial aspect to explore when crafting your villain is to decide what motivates him. Motivations can run the gamut of wanting to inflict pure pain on others to more admirable ones stemming from a bad childhood or protecting what’s theirs. Incentives need to be clear and straightforward.
When there’s a villain, there’s a hero. Usually, their motivations are similar but for two different outcomes. For example, in the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch embodies pure evil, while Aslan the Lion symbolizes strength, wisdom, and warmth.
The reason good villains are memorable is that they’re likable in some way. For example, Scarlett O’Hara, despite being selfish and moody, is likable because she’s also passionate and persistent. She doesn’t give up, even in the darkest times. The purely evil villainess has a story, and the writer helps us to empathize with her actions.
Depending on your villain archetype, you’ll use your physical description to bring the bad guy to life. In my novel, Reaching Prague, the villain is Mikul, who has a deep scar on his cheek from a bar fight. The scar represents all the enduring pain in his life and that he’s a man to fear.
Most villains have storylines or tropes that make some of their actions relatable and excusable to some degree. There’s this idea that villains are created rather than born evil. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s series The Lord of the Rings, Gollum will commit atrocious acts for the ring, but before he turned into an untrustworthy evil-doer, he was a simple hobbit who loved to fish. So, when you look at how to write a villain, focus on their redeeming qualities, as well as the ones we love to hate!
Embrace the evilness
When you write a villain, you need to be willing to go to the dark side. Nothing’s worse than a villain without any bite, and when you embrace their despicable yet understandable nature, you’re going to craft villains readers love to hate.
Not all villains are sexy, but those with true sex appeal make their evil deeds even more fun to read. My first thought is of the Lestat in the Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice. Now, he’s someone you want to spend time with, but you know you’d never come out alive.
Now that we’ve explored different archetypes and essential areas to consider when writing one, you can always use this villain generator to come up with ideas.
As you use the writing prompts to craft villains readers love to hate, answer the following questions.
- What do they do for a living?
- What was their childhood like?
- What motivates them?
- Describe them in detail.
- How is he/she different from the hero or heroine?
- How are they relatable?
- Would you date them?
- What happens to them in the end?
- What’s their weakness?
- What’s the worst act of evil him/she has committed?
- Is there any chance the villain will redeem him or herself? Why or why not?
- Why do you like this villain?
- Why don’t you?
- Write their manifesto.
Whatever villain you craft, remember to have fun. Remember when writing villains that they represent aspects of reality and are alive in our imaginations but genuinely don’t reflect who we are as a person. Many people assumed that Vladimir Nabokov was Humbert Humbert in Lolita. The character was so real that he had to be Nabokov himself.
When you write villains readers love to hate, your readers will want him to be authentic. And that’s when you know you’ve succeeded.
I would love to know what your favorite villain/villainess is? Let me know in the comments below.