I teach an online creative writing course at Closing Credits, and recently I’ve started adding a module on how to construct a good villain. Modern audiences expect more out of a bad guy these days, which is why 30 percent of YouTube is “[Villain] was Right” takes. In their defense, I might have helped start that trend nine years ago by claiming the Joker was a better hero in The Dark Knight than Batman.
The point is, I have a knack for getting into the minds of antagonists. Here are five things I tell students when writing a villain.
Short Term Solutions
This tip comes from author Charlie Jane Anders, who drops a lot of great morsels on TikTok and Facebook. She said in a video once, “a villain is someone who has a short-term solution for a long-term problem.” That’s a good way to conceptualize the motivation of an antagonist. They don’t even necessarily have to be evil. They can just be pathologically uninterested in addressing a massive issue outside of fulfilling their personal needs, no matter who it hurts.
Or, An Unhealthy Mirror
Any story structure class will tell you that your hero requires a flaw, a want, and a need. Villains don’t have to be as fleshed out as that, but you can still use this setup to your advantage. If your hero is someone that fills a need by stepping up and doing something that makes the world better, imagine your villain with the exact same need and the least healthy way of dealing with it. Think of it like someone who wants to address a termite problem by burning their house down.
The Temptation of Circumstance
One of the exercises I do in class is have students fill out a sheet about their main characters full of little morality questions like “if they found a wallet on the side of the road, what would they do?” It’s a neat way to really get to know your hero, but it can also help with a villain. A villain is sometimes someone who never meant to start something evil, but they were very quick to take advantage of circumstances such as the accidental elimination of a person standing in their way. From this very understandable beginning, it’s easy to justify further downward spirals as part of the divine fate that set them on the path in the first place. I call this the temptation of circumstances, and it’s where some great petty villains are born.
Transgression is Key
One of the greatest essays on bad guyery ever written is Sarah Gailey’s “In Defense of Disney Villainesses,” which should be required reading in every creative writing class. She points out that the great Disney Big Bads like Malificent and The Evil Queen have a transgressive glory to them that makes them compelling. There’s a reason so many of them are coded queer. It’s because villains get to do what they want even though it’s against the rules. A great villain can be birthed after of simply, fabulously not giving a shit about what others think. A good many of history’s greatest monsters are simply flamboyant would-be leading men and women who were so compelling it made others follow them into darkness.
Their Role is to Be a Foil
In a strictly mechanical sense, a villain’s role is to keep your main character from fulfilling their need. This can be through direct action, as the personification of a system, or a combination of the two. Some villains never even meet their heroes, and that’s okay. What’s important when you’re writing these characters is that what they are doing incompatible with what your hero needs to accomplish. The friction between those two ideologies is where the sparks fly. If your villain isn’t actually making trouble for your hero at a molecular level, then they’re just a pointless shadow.