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The Secret to Writing Good Villains

A good villain. Sounds like an oxymoron, right? One of my favorite authors, George R.R. Martin, once said, “Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.” By this definition, do villains know they’re villains?

Have you ever had a coworker who drove you nuts? Maybe they were just a little too chipper on a Monday morning and too excited for you to sign up to the company softball game on the weekend.

But, you have better things to do, so you tell them, “Not now, Karen!” Your voice is a little too snipped because you’ve only had three hours of sleep because you were up all night because your ailing parent had to go to the hospital.

Who is the villain in this scenario?

For you, it’s Karen. With an ailing parent on your mind, you’ve got better things to do than play softball right now. But for Karen? She heard about what happened with your parent from Bob and wanted to help you blow off some steam. And you yelled at her and called her some names that shouldn’t be repeated. For Karen, the villain is probably you. And this is the secret to writing a good villain.

The Why

Gone are the days of the antagonist being bad for the sake of being bad to make the protagonist look good. A villain who is bad just for the sake of it is shallow and boring.

Instead, figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing. Treat them as if they were the hero of their story. To do this, develop them like you would your protagonist.

  • What is their goal?

  • Why are they trying to achieve this goal in particular?

  • What’s at stake for them if they fail in achieving their goal?

  • And most importantly, what is their misbelief about the world that has led them to become the villain to your hero’s story?

Don’t be afraid to write a few scenes from the villain’s perspective. You don’t have to use these scenes in your story, but it will help you get to know your villain a little better, which will help you in developing your hero too. By knowing what your villain is doing and why they are doing it, your hero can make better, more realistic decisions, which will take your plot up a few notches. Once you see the villain as the hero in their own story, your character becomes richer and more compelling. This makes the conflict more tense and raises the stakes for your hero.

When you have a good reason for your villain to be bad, it can make the story a little more messy and morally ambiguous. But don’t shy away from this. Life isn’t always so clear cut. Life is messy. We face difficult decisions all the time. When your story reflects this, your readers can relate to your characters on a more personal level. And when that happens, your story becomes unputdownable!

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