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Apr 22, 2020

Writing a Worthy Villain

By Jessica Hogbin.

            The last few years have produced several amazing villains, whether it be in television, literature, or film. Authors find themselves looking at these fantastic antagonists and wanting to write equally interesting characters. To achieve this, writers try to give their villains intricate backstories filled with emotion. However, sometimes this simply isn’t enough. The bad guy can simultaneously have an incredibly detailed past and physical description while still lacking the je ne sais quoi of a worthy adversary. Here are three simple questions that you can ask yourself as you write your villain to bring them to the next level of wickedness.

            What is the villain’s motivation for doing this? This may be the most obvious of all the points, but it is important nonetheless. Motivation is part of the villain’s backstory, after all. Keep in mind when you are creating your antagonist that the best villains have a reason for their villainy. If the goal of your villain is to take over the world, ask yourself why they want to do this. While it may be easy to say that they are a power-hungry megalomaniac, try to develop a deeper reason. Did your bad guy grow up weak and without power, and now they never want to feel powerless again? Or did they grow up with power but want to establish a legacy for their family to thrive upon? These are the kinds of questions that you as an author need to ask yourself when you are developing a character, because a villain who wants to take over the world for the good of their people without considering the harm it would do to others is far more interesting than a villain who is doing it for the sake of power. 
What are the stakes involved for the villain? In essence, the antagonist needs to have the same high stakes in their success and failure as your protagonist does. When you are writing your protagonist, their failure to defeat the villain can result in the hero’s death, the death of a loved one, or a miserable life. Your villain’s stakes need to be just as high as your main character’s. Remember, the stakes don’t need to be life or death for them to be high. As a writer, you want your villain’s stakes to be mirroring your hero’s in some way. If your story is about a dance competition, and the villain is the opposing dancer who steals your main character’s dance moves, you still want to establish the villain’s stakes. The villain needs to have something that they will lose if they fail. Whether it is control of the universe or a $250 dance competition prize money, the audience needs to have some kind of justification for the actions of the villain.
            Does the villain have conflict? This is perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve in any story. Since your book likely isn’t about the villain, it can be difficult to show the conflict that your bad guy is facing. However, simply demonstrating that the villain is not all-powerful can change the way in which the audience sees the antagonist. Whether the conflict is internal—perhaps self-doubt or a fear of disappointing others—or external—a literal battle with other people—the story needs conflict for both the hero and the villain. If, when your protagonist finally faces off against the antagonist,  your villain is the strongest character in the world and your hero wins only because of  a fluke mistake, the ending won’t be truly satisfying. It’s better when your hero presents some kind of challenge to your villain; they need to be a worthy adversary.  After all, the point of creating a villain is for the audience to know that, at any moment, there is both a possibility that they may win and that they may, even with all their power, lose.


About the Author: Jessica Hogbin
Jessica Hogbin is currently a student at West Virginia University and is majoring in history, Italian studies, and religious studies. She spends her free time writing when she isn't studying for exams or working at a local museum where she designs and implements programs for children. Next year will be her last year as an undergraduate before hopefully heading to graduate school. Jessica currently writes young adult thrillers because she loves the intersection between teenage drama and real-life horror. Her first published short story was called "Fell Into Darkness" and was published by The First Line magazine. Her other published work is a flash fiction piece titled "The Miraculous Second Life of Bartolomeo Snyde" and is based on some graffiti she saw at a train station in Milan.