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How to Write Villains That Keep Readers Turning the Page

If you struggle with the question of how to write villains, you’re far from alone! Writing them well is one of the trickiest aspects of any novel.

Every good story has a great villain, but how do you write these bad guys/girls so that they’re believable?

The key is realizing that from their point of view, the villain is doing the exact right thing, even if they’re ruining someone’s life.

How to write great villains - featured image


The key to how to write villains people care about is to have them do horrible things for what seems like good reasons.

Where writers sometimes go wrong is in thinking just in terms of what the villain is doing and not about WHY they are doing it. The bad guys usually cause pain for your protagonist and their friends, or at the very least get in the way of their happiness.

So it’s easy to think that’s the defining characteristic of your villain. But the problem is, if ALL you focus on is the character making trouble, all you get is a one-dimensional character that just does bad things for the sake of doing them.

That’s not entertaining or compelling.

Fortunately, there’s a comparatively easy fix for that: figure out how the world looks from your villain’s point of view.

If you asked your villain, he'd say he was the hero and your protagonist was awful. To write a compelling villain, find out why. #amwriting #writerstips Click To Tweet

There are a few fun ways to do this.

  1. Rewrite a scene in your WIP from your villain’s point of view. Remember: in this exercise, your villain is the good guy and your main character is the bad guy!
  2. Write an entry from your villain’s diary. Let the villain pour their heart out about why they hate your protagonist and why the protagonist deserves whatever pain or problems the villain is causing.
  3. Write a scene from your villain’s backstory. Try to make the villain as sympathetic as possible during this scene and show someone else doing something that hurt the villain badly.

These exercises should help you understand your villain better, which is one of the keys to how to write villains effectively.

Remember that their behavior must have internal logic.

No matter how evil the villain is, their behavior has to make sense. It can’t just be evil for evil’s sake without any real motivation. Even if your villain is supposed to be a psychopath, SOMETHING motivates their behavior.

We see this all the time on crime dramas. How many times have you seen a show where the cops are trying to figure out the meaning behind a serial killer’s choice of victims? That’s because even the most heartless, evil villain has reasons for what they do.

In fact, the scariest villains are the ones who are convinced that they are totally justified in doing horrendous things.  In my fanfiction, I once wrote a kidnapping story in which an unhinged college student, hurt that the protagonist was hired over him for the villain’s dream job, chose to kidnap the protagonist’s girlfriend and do horrible things to her. In his own mind, it was justified because he felt he was getting back at the protagonist for stealing his job by stealing the protagonist’s girlfriend. Because I understood this, all of my villain’s behaviors reflected his view of things, adding to the tension and making readers fearful because there were no limits to what this character might do in his quest for revenge.

But this principle doesn’t just work for thrillers. Even if you’re writing a lighthearted romance, you still need to make the villain three-dimensional. Sure, your protagonist’s competition for the object of her affection might not be an evil person, but something has to make her tick besides just wanting the love interest for herself for its own sake. Maybe she’s always been passed over in favor of women that she thinks are prettier and she’s determined to win at all costs in order to prove she’s good enough. Or maybe she thinks men only want her for her money and thinks this guy is the only one who will ever love her for herself.  Whatever the case is, let that drive her behavior and you will have a far more compelling story.

To help yourself figure this out, think about the situation in your novel. Ask yourself what you would WANT to do if you were in the villain’s shoes but wouldn’t do because it’s wrong, illegal, hurtful, etc. Make a list and then think about which of these things your villain would be most likely to do and why.

Give your villain some redeeming features.

The best villains have characteristics we can relate to even though we hate what they do. It makes them seem more human and makes us love to hate them instead of just hating them. Click To Tweet

DIYMFA author Gabriela Pereira calls this the “pet the dog” moment. The idea is that when you see a bad guy suddenly stop and pet an abandoned dog, it makes him relatable and therefore a lot more compelling. And THAT is how to write villains people will want to read about!

Think about an ordinary day in your villain’s life. What do they do to unwind after a long day of causing trouble? What ordinary things bring a smile to their face?

My friend Michelle Burden did a great job of this in her book Fate Unknownwhere one of her villains was a mob member who tormented and killed people — but was doing it because he wanted to be able to go home to his wife and kids that night. A short scene early in the novel showed him having breakfast with his family before heading out to do some dirty work and praying it wasn’t the last time he ever saw them.

This was highly effective because even though this character was doing truly awful things, the reader couldn’t help but feel bad for him and root for him to get back home to his family. That’s the kind of thing you want to do with your villains to keep readers eager to find out what happens next!

Do you struggle with creating villains that keep readers turning the pages? What have you tried that helps bring your antagonists to life?

Share your tips for how to write villains below! And if you found this post helpful, please share it with someone else so that they can breathe new life into their villains too.

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About the author

Hi! I’m Jack A. Ori, a writer, editor, and life coach dedicated to empowering young people through stories to live life on their own terms. I’m currently writing Reinventing Hannah, a novel about a 16-year-old girl who is struggling to reinvent herself positively after she is raped at the kind of party no one expected her to ever go to, as well as helping writers like you with their own projects. If you’d like some one-on-one help with your work-in-progress, contact me and let’s talk!

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