The #1, sine qua non, absolute first step to writing good villains is to make them believable. This is more important than making them powerful, crafty, or cruel. The audience must believe a villain would actually behave that way, which means understanding and even identifying with the villain’s motivations.
Basic Human Psychology
Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Wow, I’m so happy to be a bad person.” That’s why Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies is funny and why so many good vs. evil movies are so bad (cough, Iron Man II, cough).
No one is a villain in their own mind. People make emotional choices and then justify them with rationales. This is why some overt racists claim their hatred of different races doesn’t make them racist. To them, racist means someone who is incorrectly prejudiced about people of other races. Because they have justified their racist feelings to themselves, they feel they are just “being realistic.”
A villain who wants to take over the world just to take it over is not a good villain. Neither is someone who wants to kill millions because they haven’t had sex.
But, you may say, such sickos actually do exist.
And that’s right. Serial killers and torturers and child rapists do exist, but they’re mentally ill, which means audiences can’t relate to them. Who wants to watch a movie where the Justice League takes on Jeffrey Dahmer? Ew.
Real-life sadists do not make good villains. They can make good monsters, but that’s a different stock character.
Lazy Villain Writing
Many types of real-life bad guys out there don’t make good villains. These are often employed for body-count action scenes. They require no explanation, and thus are actually quite dull characters barely able to last through a mustache-twirl before they need to go away. You’ll note they all belong to organized groups. Group is bad = member of group is bad.
A good writer can take someone from one of these groups and make them a good villain, sure, but that writer must give the villain more than stereotypical characteristics of that group. One thing that made the religious fanatic High Sparrow a good villain in HBO’s Game of Thrones was that you couldn’t quite tell whether he believed in what he preached or just wanted power. (If either had been confirmed, he would have instantly gotten dull.)
Apart from lazy villain types, there are lazy villain motivations. You know them well:
Sure, I think people do crummy things to other people for money all time. But try writing a villain who is going to kill a billion people for a few bucks without making her a psycho.
Good Villains See Themselves as Heroes
This is the crux of it. We are all protagonists in our own life stories.
A masterpiece and template of villainy is Iago in Othello. Here’s a guy who dedicates his whole life to destroying the life of the hero in the worst possible way. As the play opens, Iago makes no sense. He’s Othello’s supposed friend, yet he warns us that “I am not who I am” (I, i, 67).
(Hang on, it’s Shakespeare. Give me a minute to explain.)
Throughout the play, Iago does two things. First, he lies his head off, presenting a different persona to everyone and never telling the same story twice. Thus, he is not who is seems to be.
Second, he keeps justifying himself. He thinks Othello slept with his wife. He thinks Othello kept him from getting promoted. He knows he is smarter than Othello is and wants to prove it. He thinks he is obviously superior to this black guy, but no one seems to realize it. Thus, Iago is not who he thinks he should be.
To destroy his nemesis, Iago will (spoiler alert!) cause the death of Othello, Othello’s wife, Iago’s wife, Iago’s friend, and finally himself (offstage), and he’s still not sorry. He is a seriously horrible person.
Yet never does Iago feel anything but righteous in his cause. He even sees himself as something of a martyr at times, having to work so hard to do what must be done.
This is a good villain. He believes in his cause and is not driven by some dime-store motivation. He is completely selfish, yet he never sees himself as selfish. He is extremely smart, but he’s allowed his intelligence to blind him to others’ motivations and intentions. He is more interested in being right than in being decent. He sees himself on his own special quest for justice. Those who oppose him simply don’t understand why he is right, and it is both his desire and his duty to carry out his agenda.
Sound familiar? Does your own favorite villain fit that description?
This is one reason for the popularity of the trope in which the villain is a mirror image of the hero. Good villains are heroes in their minds. Watch out, though. This trope has been done almost to death.
So, there you go. Want to make a good villain? Don’t be lazy. Give them believable motivations. Make them feel deserving of their desired reward. Give them a mission they believe in. Make them like us, like they’re just doing what needs to be done.
Just don’t make them too sympathetic. You probably don’t want the audience to boo when the hero wins.
We will get your free sample back in six hours!