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Designing a Memorable Villain

May 20, 202412 min read

Discover in this post …

  • The difference between an antagonist and a villain—and whether morally gray is a better choice than straight-up “evil.”

  • How to craft a compelling villain that readers love to hate.

  • How to avoid losing emotional impact with readers when designing your villain.


The Best Villains

Over forty years ago, film critic Roger Ebert claimed that “each film is only as good as its villain.”

Granted, he was speaking specifically about Star Trek and James Bond at the time, but I’ve found that in most cases, a story falls flat without a compelling villain.

Well-designed villains keep readers (and the hero) on their toes, elevate the tension and conflict, drive character development, and leave a lasting impression.

Some of my favorite villains in literature include the Lord Ruler in Mistborn (a tyrant who believes he’s acting for the good of everyone), Annie Wilkes in Misery (a serial killer who forces the protagonist into writing his best book to date), and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (a polite, eloquent, cannibalistic killer with intelligence and charisma).

It may be easy for you to identify your favorite villains, but have you ever analyzed exactly what makes them so compelling?

Nicole Whisler Edits Book Coach Novel Writing

Why do we love to hate them? Why do we lean forward, eyes glued to the page, stage, or screen when they enter the scene? Let’s break it down today so that you not only understand what makes these types of villains tick, but also leave knowing how to capture your audience in a similar way in your own story.

Before we get to the meat of this post, though, let’s make sure we’re on the same page with our terminology.


Is an Antagonist the Same as a Villain?

“Antagonist” and “villain,” although related, are not interchangeable terms.

An antagonist (or an antagonistic force, such as “man vs. nature” or “man vs. self”) opposes the hero in some way, whereas the word “villain” is typically associated with some type of evil. Merriam Webster has two primary definitions for villain:

  1. “A character in a story or play who opposes the hero”

  2. “A deliberate scoundrel or criminal”

When we hear the word “villain,” we generally think of a person who is morally corrupt in some major way. That’s the connotation I’ll address in this post, not “man vs. nature” or “man vs. self.” Those are interesting topics, but not relevant to today’s discussion.

We’re about to dive into my recommendations for the best, most memorable villains, but if you can bear with me for another minute, I’d like to respond to one of the top questions I receive about villains:


Is It Better to Write a Morally Gray Villain or a Completely Evil One? Morally Gray Is Trending, Right?

If I were coaching the person who asked this question, I’d begin by asking them to clarify what they mean by “better.” “Better” is a relative term, so I’d want to know more about their personal intentions for their story and characters.

It’s true that morally gray villains have grown in recent popularity, but consider the why behind this trend. Readers admire characters with depth, and diving into the reason someone acts the way they do usually complicates the plot in a positive way. It prompts readers to ask questions: Is that action justifiable? Does that scenario make sense? Would I ever be driven to do that?

Remember that villains are often heroes in their own minds. They believe in the result they’re trying to create. Often, they subscribe to an “ends justify the means” mentality.

So to answer the “morally gray vs. completely evil” question, my opinion is that your villain can be as evil or as morally gray as you’d like, but make sure to include a solid, believable reason for their actions. Are they a sociopath? Did they have a traumatic childhood? Do they have a vendetta against someone who mistreated them in their past?

If you’ve seen the movie Maleficent with Angelina Jolie, you’ll understand exactly why she acts the way she does. The screenwriters gave her a tragic backstory that makes her actions throughout the rest of the story make sense—and even appeal—to viewers. The betrayal she experienced as a young fairy transforms her into a cold-hearted fairy bent on revenge.

And viewers can’t look away.

Nicole Whisler Edits Book Coach Novel Writing


How Do I Write a Memorable Villain Readers Love to Hate?

Now that we’ve clarified some relevant items, let’s consider what to focus on when crafting a villain readers will remember.

A few years ago, I had an insightful email conversation with screenwriting professor Eric Edson, author of The Story Solution: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take. We were discussing what makes a strong hero, but on the flip side, we found that these same items often applied to the story’s villain. Here’s what Edson said to me:

“I agree that you cannot create a ‘compelling character’ without first making them, to some degree, a ‘sympathetic character.’ Readers connect to characters in a story through subjectively emotional pathways. That’s how you make even arch-villains compelling, by giving them some true human depth including recognizable human motives. And some of the best villains are mirror reflections of the hero or heroine with many of the same qualities except for the villain’s selfishness and moral blindness—while the hero fights them to reach some form of moral justice.”

I love how Edson emphasized that an effective villain is often a mirror reflection of the hero, willing to go to morally questionable lengths to achieve their goal, while the hero is often unwilling to do so. Viewing the hero and villain this way ties these characters together while shedding light on their most fundamental differences.

It’s also a relief for many writers to understand that creating a memorable villain isn’t entirely separate from creating a memorable hero. It means we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we can apply the qualities of a likable hero to our villain.

In The Story Solution, Edson proposes that integrating a minimum of five of the following nine traits, as early as possible, will establish a firm connection between readers and your hero (so by extension, we can relate this list to villains as well):

  1. Courage

  2. Unfair Injury

  3. Skill

  4. Funny

  5. Just Plain Nice

  6. In Danger

  7. Loved by Friends & Family

  8. Hard Working

  9. Obsessed

I covered the traits above in much more detail in a past blog post (Crafting a Compelling Character), so take a quick detour to that post if you’d like further explanations of each, along with a specific example.

But other than integrating the qualities from the list above, how do we create a compelling villain?

To answer, let’s compare two of my favorite villains: Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery and Hannibal Lector from Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.

I find Annie Wilkes incredibly compelling and unpredictable. She saves famous author Paul Sheldon (she’s his biggest fan!) after he is severely injured in a car accident, then keeps him captive in her house and forces him to change his current manuscript to her liking. Oh, and she’s also a serial killer. Ironically, Paul writes his best book to date in her company!

Nicole Whisler Edits Book Coach Novel Writing

Hannibal Lecter, on the other hand, is a brilliant psychiatrist, psychopath, and cannibalistic killer who helps FBI trainee Clarice Starling find and catch another serial killer. Lecter is polite and well-spoken, but even more interesting than his surprising manners is his way of drawing out details from Clarice about her past and her deepest fears.

Both Wilkes and Lecter influence the protagonist in a specific way and even go so far as to help them. Wilkes prompts Paul to write his masterpiece, and Lecter provides clues that lead to Clarice locating a killer. The villains impact the heroes in a vital way, and they both have admirable qualities in spite of their sadistic natures.

But giving your villains sympathetic qualities and ensuring they influence your protagonist in some vital way isn’t always enough to guarantee you’ll reach maximum emotional impact with readers. You’ll also want to avoid some key mistakes writers often make when crafting their villains:


What Should I Avoid When Crafting My Villain?

We’ve looked at some characteristics that make up a memorable villain, but let’s not forget the power of staying far away from some beginner (and even intermediate) mistakes.

*Disclaimer: I believe a writer can pull off anything if done well. As I always say, of course there are exceptions to what I’m about to say! Just be wary of assuming you’re the exception. I’ve seen stories lose their emotional impact all too often when the book includes any of the items I’ve listed below.

Here are some villain-related problems that crop up in the early stages of many manuscripts. Don’t worry if you’re unsure how to resolve these issues at first—I included at least one potential fix for each!

COMMON PROBLEM 1: Your villain is too easy to conquer. They’re not a strong enough threat for readers to ever truly worry your hero will fail. This can lessen the suspense like nothing else! This issue is especially problematic if you’ve built up your villain as someone difficult to defeat, then leave that promise unfulfilled.

SOLUTION: Make your villain formidable! The protagonist should be the underdog; otherwise, all the mystery surrounding who will defeat who will disappear … and so will your readers.

_____________________________

COMMON PROBLEM 2: Your villain doesn’t appear until midway through the book—or sometimes even later.

SOLUTIONS: It’s actually okay if your villain doesn’t appear in person early in the book. To ensure your characters are still adequately threatened, you can follow one (or more) of these paths:

  1. Include “sub-villains” that threaten your protagonist and characters. For example, Voldemort is the main villain of the Harry Potter series, but Snape acts the part for the majority of the first book. In fact, if you look at each of the seven books, you’ll find at least one character who consistently stands in for the greater threat until it’s time for Harry to face Voldemort at the book’s end.

  2. Consider how the villain’s desires and actions affect your characters on the page, even if the villain isn’t seen. How is the villain creating harm? An emperor doesn’t need to be seen to establish a law that makes it illegal for anyone to leave their home after dark. An evil twin doesn’t need to be seen to wreak havoc on his other half’s life. How do these decisions affect the characters? What are the consequences? Showing the impact of these decisions upon the characters can add a layer of depth to your overall story—because the way characters respond to hardship reveals who they are at their core.

  3. Have other characters give a speech in praise of the villain. Set up the villain’s most sinister or powerful qualities by having other characters discuss them. When inserted into natural conversation that fits the surrounding dialogue, this technique can increase the tension by instilling fear in both characters and readers.

_____________________________

COMMON PROBLEM 3: Your villain is a faceless organization instead of a person. This choice doesn’t provide readers a detailed enough picture for them to respond emotionally to whatever is threatening the hero.

SOLUTION: This one’s easy! If an organization presents the main threat, simply include a villain who represents the face of the organization.

_____________________________

COMMON PROBLEM 4: Your villain lacks a clear goal or a clear motivation behind that goal.

SOLUTION: By the end of your story, readers will want to understand why the villain wants what they want. Let your villain’s goals direct the story. Just like you know what your protagonist is doing at any given time in your story, you should also be able to map out the “behind the scenes” moments regarding your villain—moments that will connect directly to your villain’s deepest motives, desires, and fears.


Summing Up

Today I’ve examined multiple aspects of designing a memorable villain. Here’s a quick recap of the key points:

Memorable villains should be believable and three-dimensional. Even if they’re fully evil, they should have clear goals and (especially!) motivations behind those goals.

To some degree, a sympathetic villain often has the same types of traits as a sympathetic hero. (Remember you can view those traits in more detail in my post Crafting a Compelling Character.)

Consider how your villain influences and changes your hero, especially in relation to your hero’s goals or character arc.

Avoid common mistakes when crafting your villain, such as not making your villain formidable enough, not including your villain’s presence until late in the story, or opting for a faceless organization instead of a person.


Hope you enjoyed today’s villain talk! As with any topic, I’ve scratched the surface here, but there’s always more to say. Who are your favorite villains in books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen? What traits did you admire (or despise) most about them? I'd love for you to email me at [email protected] and let me know!


Do you want to learn how to write a story that makes your target readers stand up and cheer? If you’d like support from A to Z (from brainstorming to drafting to revising to publication), book a Discovery Call with me to see if you’re a good fit to join my book coaching program, Fantasy Footsteps: Road to Publication. And if you haven’t done so already, grab your Free Guide on how to hook readers from your story’s start!


Nicole Whisler Edits

Nicole Whisler is a developmental editor and book coach who specializes in working with writers of fantasy novels. Prior to editing, she taught English and creative writing full-time for six years. She is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, a member of the Professional Editors Network, and a leading book coach for the Coach Foundation. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she leads an in-person writing critique group at her local library.

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