Writing Tips for Creating a Complex Villain

fiction writing exercises and villains

Create a villain with today’s writing tips.

When it comes to writing fiction, we each have our own unique challenges. For some of us, it’s a struggle to come up with names for characters. For others, it’s hard to write realistic dialogue.

Maybe you’re like me and find it difficult to write a really good villain — I mean — a really bad villain.

The funny thing about our writing weaknesses is that sometimes all we have to do is identify them and suddenly we start coming up with tons of solutions.

That’s what happened to me a few years ago when I realized I was having trouble writing a nemesis for my main character. Time and time again, it was one of the key elements that was missing from the stories I wrote. I was struggling to create a villain that would give my story the conflict it needed.

Once I noticed this pattern, I started seeing villains all around me — as if merely noticing their absence from my writing made them suddenly appear everywhere in my everyday life.

Villains Are Everywhere

Customer service would forget to return my phone call, and I’d imagine a self-absorbed boss who overworked employees and neglected customers. I’d see a story on the news about road rage and I’d imagine a crazed, angry egomaniac. Dirty politicians, people who committed heinous crimes, and generally creepy individuals all became infinitely more interesting once I stopped viewing them as a consumer of the news and started looking at them through the lens of story.

I would notice people’s flaws, mistakes, and bad moods, and think about what people would be like if those flaws were embellished and magnified to outweigh the person’s good qualities and positive traits. Suddenly, my villains were born, one after another, like a little herd of evil trolls.

Film, television, and books also became sources of villainous inspiration. Instead of cringing at them, I started examining them closer. I found some villains were bland and shallow. A villain driven to power for power’s sake lacked depth. A villain driven to power out of revenge for something terrible that happened to his or her family was compelling. Villains whose motivations were understandable, even if they weren’t acceptable, were the most interesting and the most believable.

Tips and Ideas for Creating Villains

I make up characters in my head all the time. Sometimes I write down my ideas, drafting character sketches. Most of them never make it to a story, but the really compelling ones do. Now that I’ve found a surefire way to harvest villains from the world around me, the character sketches have really started to pile up.

If you want to write good fiction, you need a character who creates tension and who is at odds with the forces of good. Even for poets and nonfiction writers, the ability to write a complex villain will improve your writing and help you better understand the subjects you write about.

Here are some tips and ideas for creating complex villains for your stories:

  1. Choose a model for your villain: an ordinary person, a celebrity, or a notorious criminal from the news; examine that person’s flaws and weaknesses. How have they wronged others? Discard their positive traits, magnify their negative traits, and write a brief character sketch. What’s the character’s name? What does he or she look like? What is going on in the character’s head that allows him or her to treat others with disregard?
  2. Give your villain a shady past: what terrible things has your villain done throughout his or her life? What terrible things were done to him or her? Some villains are just troublemakers; others are deranged psychopaths. How extreme is your villain?
  3. Identify the source: what happened to your villain to turn him or her so evil? Was your villain born that way?
  4. The most interesting villains are not completely evil. They have a soft spot for puppies or they write cheesy love poems. Contrary personality traits add depth and realism to all characters. Describe your villain’s positive traits.
  5. Put your villain in a scene: make sure you include dialogue so you can work out how the character speaks. Give your villain a distinct voice. Is your villain disguised as a benevolent character? Does he or she spend every waking minute committing evil deeds?

Most importantly, have fun! That’s what fiction writing is all about. Villains are the characters we love to hate because they are the harbingers of obstacles and challenges through which the heroes of our stories prove themselves. Whether you write totalitarian villains like Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter fame or more subtle, complex nemeses like Catwoman from the Batman comics, give your villains plenty of color, character, and complexity.

whats the story building blocks for fiction writing

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


35 Responses to “Writing Tips for Creating a Complex Villain”

  1. I like my villains a little more middle of the road–not pure evil, but working towards some goal which requires them to perform less than savory acts. To them, the ends justify the means, and those means casts them in a spotlight that others view as ‘evil’. As far as they’re concerned, they may not be the nicest person on the block, but they certainly don’t think of themselves as evil. More like they view everyone else as weak and unwilling to do what it takes to accomplish or attain something.

  2. @Scott, me too. Some of the best villains are the ones that you think might turn good at any minute. Characters who operate on the philosophy of “the ends justify the means” are excellent bad guys and gals. Doing evil for the greater good! It’s a timeless tactic. I wonder if most of the pure evil types of characters come out of sci-fi and fantasy?

  3. t.sterling says:

    First of all, and I have to ask… were you inspired at all by the past few episodes of “Heroes”?

    Anyway, this is a great post. I could come up with characters all day, but there is nothing that fascinates me more than a really good villain. And I love reading the top 20 or 15 baddest villains of all time from Disney cartoons to Bond to anything really. To this day my favorite all-time villain is The Joker, and The Dark Knight only solidified it’s #1 position (he’s been my favorite for a few years now).

    For some villains that I create or plan to create, I look at real life people. I recently watched the special about Jim Jones and wanted to make one of those unseen villains. And then I sometimes look at myself and consider the opposite of what I’d hate and how could I get under my own skin.

    Lastly, I love that picture.

  4. Matthew Dryden says:

    I have so much to say about this subject – writing villains and just violence in general. For me, the greatest villians of all time are the ones who are evil just because they can be (The Joker from Frank Miller’s run in the Batman comics is a perfect example).

    Hannibal Lecter(?) is another example of a perfect, complex villain.

    For me, writing violence is much like keeping a secret all along. I find it’s much more of a shock if it’s a surprise and completely unexpected. As long as you can get the reader to believe that the character has limits, you will always surprise them when you force your villain to break them.

    People who have no limits are scary, but they are even more scary when you think they do have limits and they break them.

  5. @t.sterling, I missed last week’s episode of Heroes but luckily they have episodes online so I can get caught up later today. This is a post I’ve been thinking about on and off for some time, but maybe the latest developments on Heroes pushed it through. I saw the Jim Jones documentary too, and what a villain that guy was! Uh, wow. He had all the makings of a typical dictator. One of my all-time favorite villains is Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Nobody plays a villain like Rickman, who also plays Snape in the Harry Potter films.

    @Matthew, oh yes, Hannibal Lecter, another one of my favorite villains. Super scary too. Interesting thoughts about limits. That’s an angle I’ve never considered before. Kind of like when a good character does something bad or starts becoming bad? I’m trying to think of an example but I’m coming up blank. Last night I realized that my NaNo novel might require a scene with violence, and that’s an area that makes me uncomfortable because I find base violence to be less interesting than psychological or emotional evil. Going back to your example of Silence of the Lambs, there’s really no violence in that movie, just the aftermath of violent acts. That makes it even scarier because then you end up playing out the violent stuff with your imagination, which can be far more terrifying.

  6. Karen Swim says:

    Melissa, great advice on villains. When I started NaNo the villain was one of the only characters I knew, the others just showed up. NaNo has revealed interesting things about my writing and weaknesses. My favorite villains are either the purest evil imaginable or complex where you can see the humanity and how it has gone wrong, but all villains are great fun and give you room to explore and play.

  7. @Karen, it’s true, villains are a lot of fun to write. Who knew? (not me). NaNo is proving to be an amazing learning experience, like nothing I’ve ever done before. My NaNo villains are going to be the complex kind, messed up individuals with some humanity. Maybe if I can pull that off, I’ll try for a pure villain next time around.

  8. Marelisa says:

    I think it’s also important to find the villain’s motivation. There are few people who are mean because they enjoy making others suffer; nasty behavior is usually rooted in some fear or insecurity, some lack (growing up in an unkempt home), or some twisted logic (like the doctor who kills his patients by using them to test out a vaccine he’s creating because he believes the vaccine will be able to save thousands).

  9. Kim says:

    I think your first bullet point hit it right on the head–the most compelling villains (in my opinion, all of the most compelling ones) have some bit of truth or light to them. I think what creates a good villain in life as well as in writing is the fact that they are a fatally flawed person and that, at one point, they were probably more good than bad or at least have let the good side win out a few times along the way.

    Great post!

  10. @Marelisa, oh yes, motivation is essential for a really complex villain. Why did the character become evil? That is actually something I’m exploring right now in my NaNo novel. I think it creates a certain sympathy for the bad guy, which can make the reading experience more interesting.

    @Kim, she’s not a villain per se, but one of my favorite complex characters of all time is Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. When I read the book, I was constantly wavering between “ooh, that nasty girl” and “aw, poor Scarlett.” I wonder if it was her characterization that made the book so hugely popular. Thanks for commenting, by the way.

  11. Evelyn says:

    “But don’t let them get too deep inside your head.” Too late! This is a NaNoWriMo thing. I created her, she’s not all bad, she has issues like we all do, she is getting worse as am I. I hate her. She’s going to die and I can’t wait to kill her!

    For the record, I asked in the NaNo chat room if I was losing my mind and they said, “No, not at all!” In fact, one person enjoys killing his characters very much! LOL! My characters are deep in side my head but this evil b*tch has hit my heart so she’s dead meat. It can happen and it does.

    Now I know why someone wrote, “NaNoWriMo ate my soul.” I’m not that bad but I understand the emotion. You’ve got to wonder about the mental stability of people like Stephen King and Dean Koontz. OMG!

    Love your blog and love to get your tips and things!

  12. @Evelyn, wow, that’s brutal (and awesome!). It’s also an excellent way to approach a villain — make sure you hate the villain so much that you’re eager to kill her off. Very clever!

    I love hearing stories about how writers react to characters and plots as they develop in unexpected ways. Recently I was listening to an interview with a murder mystery writer who said that she was almost finished with her novel when she suddenly realized the killer wasn’t who she had thought it was all along. I guess she freaked out, started calling her writing mentors, and learned that it happens all the time, which only makes the writing process and the novel itself all the more thrilling.

  13. Karen Swim says:

    OMG!!!! I was scrolling through email for one last time tonight and read the latest comment from this post and my eyes nearly popped out as i read: “when she suddenly realized the killer wasn’t who she had thought it was all along.” Brilliant! And now 33,111 words into my first NaNo novel, it doesn’t end the way I thought! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Ha! I’m so excited to write tomorrow now that my killer is not the killer!

  14. t.sterling says:

    I haven’t written anything villainous lately, but I’m feeling it growing even more just reading these comments alone. And I’ve come up with a few villains that hate due to misunderstandings, or just evil for the sake of being evil. I’m also noticing it a lot more in TV shows and movies I’m watching and I love it. So now I have a few nasty bad guys but I don’t have anywhere or anyone to unleash them yet.

    I’m also enjoying reading about the progress and process a lot of you NaNo writers are experiencing.

  15. Kate says:

    I love villains. The more twisted, the more demented, the better. I especially love the sick manipulative ones. Heroes are boring. Villains always spice them up.

    Ones you don’t see these days too often are the protagonist-antagonist. I love not deciding whether I hate the character or not. He’s the hero. No wait, he’s the villain! He always think what he’s doing is right. Perfect examples are Artemis Fowl (in the first book) and Light from the Japanese manga/comic series, Death Note.

  16. @Karen, you’re excited and I’m excited for you! I’m starting to realize that’s why we write — because how else are we going to know who did it? Heheh! Sounds like you’re about to write in an awesome twist!

    @t.sterling, one of my favorite villains ever is Sylar. You know who I’m talking about, right? In that episode where he was in the kitchen, cooking, with the dog on the stool next to him, I almost died laughing. How can he be so evil yet so funny and likable? That’s some serious writing talent right there!

    @Kate, Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about in my comment above to t.sterling. Hate them? Love them? The best villains are the ones who always leave you wondering. People keep recommending Artemis Fowl to me, so I better get on that!

  17. Bobby Revell says:

    I read an interesting idea about character development from author Bret Easton Ellis took a character in his novels and created verisimilitude for her. It’s a new word for me, but good to know. He created a website for one female character to make her real. He never tried to actually deceive people and they all knew she wasn’t real, but it served to create buzz and make her come alive.

    Since I have characters that appear in more than one story, and once I have a great character, they can appear in any story. It seems like a great exercise. Create some free wordpress.com blogs for different characters and write some posts from their perspective and personal lives. This idea and similar techniques seem like a potent concept. What do you think?

    Yeah, if a character is 200% evil or perpetually psychotic and so forth, allows them no realism or humanism. I always like to see a character change into a villain. A writers control of chaos/order can make a real difference and seem more wicked.

    You misspelled villain…lol. On my blog, I rarely ever see the most obvious mistakes so please point any out. Or maybe you’re using the ancient Anglo Saxon spelling 😉
    I actually wrote the real Julia Roberts into a tale…lol.

    • Evelyn says:

      What a clever idea! A fictitious blogger! You would even get comments from blog readers and see your “blogger” as they see him/her. I like this idea!

      • Hi Evelyn! Yeah, it is a cool idea. Actually, I’ve seen it done on the web and on social media networks. If you start thinking about the possibilities, it can get pretty wild!

    • What do you mean I misspelled villain? Hehehee. Just kidding. I fixed it. Ack! I can’t stand when I do that.

      Yes, I do think the character website idea is a great one. Last year I tried something like that with a character I was working on. I made her a MySpace page. Silly, perhaps, but it did help me get into her head a little better. When you do that, you really have to become the character; it’s a pretty interesting exercise.

  18. Evelyn says:

    I remember you saying that, Melissa. I was thinking of giving my “b*tch” a journal so I could publish her thoughts rather than tell people her thoughts. It sort of really makes them hers — that witch! I wonder if I will recover from the hateful relationship. Maybe I’ll need a therapy! 🙂 I still think you’re awesome!

  19. Aedyn says:

    In my book that I am writing, I have made my villan purely evil, at first I thought it was unrealistic, but she is pulling it off pretty good… er… bad

  20. Morgan Wiggins says:

    Ms. Donovan, I have to say that I am very compelled by this website you have here. It has done me many a good thing in my writing. But I was going to ask…. do you use the same concept when making a hero? I find it very easy to make a horrible villain, but sometimes I find it more difficult to make a hero. Should I just reverse the process?

    • Hi Morgan, I think reversing this process would work to create a hero (to some extent). The hero or protagonist is not necessarily the opposite of the villain, but you can certainly adapt these techniques for a hero.

  21. Fiona Ingram says:

    Great article! Many thanks.

  22. Great post! Very timely for me. I am working on the plot for my debut novel, and it is a dual mystery from two different timelines, so I have to come up with two separate murderers and motives. This helps. I shared it on Facebook for others that may be struggling with this as well. Thank you!

  23. Robyn LaRue says:

    I work on #4 a lot. I think it keeps the reader off center a bit also, and makes the story more interesting to write. 🙂 Also, that’s a fantastic photo at the top. 🙂

    • Thanks, Robyn. I’m more interested in complicated villains too. Someone once said, “Good people do bad things.” I think the reverse is true too (“Bad people do good things”). Either of those statements works as a good starting point for creating a villain.

  24. Sarah M Blood says:

    I enjoyed this post.

    I was well into my novel before I realized that my antagonist was purely mean. She did the meanest possible thing in any situation, which made her flat and uninteresting.

    I spend weeks walking around town with this character in my head, trying different ways to make her interesting.

    I knew that I had fixed her when I could ask what she would do in specific situations, and the answer was clear to me. It was no longer just the meanest thing.

    Thanks again,

    Sarah M Blood

    • I too find that simply thinking about a character helps us find greater depth in their personality so we can make them more complex and therefore more believable. It’s funny how I’ll be doing the dishes and some new insight about my character will pop into my head. I think complexity is the key to creating believable characters.

  25. Grace Rankin says:

    This was an interesting read. I can relate to finding villains in the people around me (although it’s better they don’t know that…). I’m glad there are others who do the same thing!
    Learning how to create character sketches was one of the biggest things that helped me in my character development. It completely changed the way I approach characters and their portrayal in my work.

    • Hi Grace! I agree that character sketches are extremely helpful, although I encounter a lot of writers who like to let characters unfold as they write the story.