Literary villains are characters that readers love to hate. In fact, in many cases, well-written villains are so compelling that they can even overshadow the hero or heroine of the story, with personality types that are much more memorable than the detective or superhero that hunts them down and eventually brings them to justice.
Have a think about the following well-known villains: Darth Vader, Voldemort, Hannibal Lecter and Count Dracula.
What is it that makes all these characters stand out?
What is that makes readers almost root for their victory?
Well in this article I’m going to discuss the key character traits of a villain, explore a handful of literary villains that have gone down in history and finally, give you some tips to bring your villain to life on the page.
What Makes A Good Villain?
The most important thing to note is that villains should not be created any differently to the other protagonists in your novel. They may have done the unthinkable. Their crimes may be highly unrelatable. But they are still multi-faceted, complex people with vulnerabilities, motivations and needs, no different to anyone else.
A reader’s enjoyment of a novel very much depends on whether they can relate to, sympathise with and even root for all the characters in the novel. This is easy to do when a character is immediately likeable, courageous or an underdog (because everybody loves an underdog!), but even a villain needs to be relatable in some way, and sometimes even likeable – whether the reader will want to admit it or not!
The key to writing a good villain is backstory, vulnerability and motivation. There is nothing worse than reading about a villain carrying out a series of heinous crimes with no explanation as to why they acted that way. Every villain will have suffered at some point in their past. Every villain will have been a victim. This is essential backstory to garnering sympathy from the reader and ultimately enhancing your story.
Another key to writing a good villain is character. Your villain is not just the crimes they commit. They will need their own set of idiosyncrasies and personality traits, completely independent of their crimes.
Let’s explore some of the characteristics of believable villains.
Characteristics Of Believable Villains
Here are five key characteristics of believable villains that you can use as a checklist while creating your own.
Backstory. As we’ve explored briefly above, every villain needs a backstory that provides an explanation for their villainous behaviour. Think about the backstory of the most well-known villains. Darth Vader. Count Dracula. Most of them started out as relatively good people. But it was something in their past, some sort of suffering that led them down a dark path.
Complexity of character. A villain who is nothing but their crimes, is not a villain your reader will care about. In creating your villain think about who they are as a person. Their likes and dislikes. Their wide range of emotions. Their body language. Their motivations. Some villains may be sarcastic and self-deprecating, with a limited sense of empathy, whereas others may possess a notable sense of humour (though a deeply twisted one).
The capacity for evil. This may not be the case for all villains. Some may carry out horrific actions because they have no choice. Others may experience regret or guilt. But some villains are created as pure evil, with the willingness to do bad things and feel nothing. Think of Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones, who is effectively a serial killer who showed no remorse for his actions.
Justification. As mentioned above, some villains are not pure evil. They may carry out evil but only do so from a perspective of personal righteousness. These villains are otherwise known as the anti-hero of their story, a sympathetic villain who garners immediate sympathy from the reader as their story is told wholly from their own point of view.
Special skill that sets them apart. This is another key trait that your villain may or may not possess. There are a few examples that immediately come to mind. Jason Bateman’s character in Ozark with his defining feature as a mathematical genius and Hannibal Lecter, who as well being a cannibal, is also a brilliant psychologist, which is largely what makes him so compelling.
There are other common characteristics that you can play with to make your villain an authentic, relatable, three-dimensional person, such as:
- Sarcastic and droll.
- Charming (both in looks and personality).
- Intelligent and accomplished.
Best Literary Villains
Now let’s explore three well-known literary villains and find out exactly what it is that makes them memorable.
The Grand High Witch In The Witches By Roald Dahl
Described in the novel as “the most evil woman in creation”, she is on a mission to torture and murder as many children as she can. But what makes her stand out isn’t so much her crimes but the way she is depicted as not only terrifying, but charming, glamorous and highly intelligent.
Tom Ripley In The Talented Mr Ripley By Patricia Highsmith
Tom is a highly relatable character than you cannot help but root for. Okay, less so when he murders his beloved and assumes his identity, but you can feel the pain of his broken heart when he is pushed away by the man he so admires and loves.
Humbert Humbert In Lolita By Vladimir Nabokov
This psychopathic paedophile is a very well-crafted character. Despite kidnapping a young girl whose mother he murdered, and driving her around while coaxing her into sexual acts, you cannot help but become charmed by him and his persuasiveness. With the fancy prose and his enigmatic speeches, you almost forget that he is a villain in its most horrific form.
How To Write A Villain
Now that we’ve delved into the characteristics of villains and explored some well-known examples, here are some top tips to help you go about developing your own.
- Spend some time crafting a complete and foolproof backstory for your villain. Think about where they were brought up, any influences or role models they might have had, and what happened to them to lead them down this dark path.
- Create the elements of their personality from scratch, completely independent from their crimes. Who are they? What are their likes and dislikes? What about their mannerisms, quirks and body language? How might a stranger view them if they saw them walking down the street?
- Find an area of sympathy, or something that makes them relatable. Why might a reader warm to or root for them, in spite of their crimes?
- Put yourself in their position. If you had experienced their childhood, their past, if you had their vulnerabilities, their values and their character, would it make you capable of their crimes? Have you created a believable villain?
- And finally, unless you are writing a romcom or satire, ensure that you steer away from inadvertently creating a comical villain. There is a different between a witty, humorous villain and one whose actions and mannerisms are akin to a pantomime ‘baddie’. Avoid cliches in their dialogue and be careful when describing their actions and expressions.
Writing Believable Villains
As we’ve discovered, the best villains are those that the readers can connect with, because they understand why a character has gone down the path they have and where they might go next. If a character has no vulnerabilities or motivations, your story will fall flat because the only conflict is external and therefore can be solved by anyone. You want your reader to finish the book and feel disappointed when the villain is brought to justice!