Horror of horrors, beta readers keep telling you that your villain isn’t scary. You’ve given him a tragic past, control issues, and bloodlust. He even has an impeccable sense of style and color coordinates his weapons and outfits. Why isn’t he memorable?
Villains spark as many fandoms as heroes nowadays—if not more! I suspect that one of the reasons is because darkness has fascinated humans since the fall in the Garden of Eden. The other reason, however, is more virtuous: villains embody the chaos that ensues when a person’s moral compass goes crooked. They warn us of the atrocities we’re capable of if we let sin rule us.
But a second-rate villain results in a second-rate story. If he’s a pushover, he’ll provoke eye rolling, not contemplation. And his defeat will leave readers jaded, because evil is difficult to subdue in the real world.
Despite popular opinion, the habits that define a spine-chilling villain are not cannibalism and torture. Instead, he instills fear because of how others perceive him, his impact on the protagonist, and the extent of his strength.
1. Add a Formidable Reputation
Before the protagonist meets the villain, she needs to hear about him from both his enemies and his allies. And she needs to see the destruction he can wage. If he’s as clever and cruel as he seems, how can she emerge from the fight unscathed—or even alive?
Let Rumors Run Wild
Voldemort doesn’t reveal himself until the last few Harry Potter books. But because he’s wreaked all sorts of havoc in the wizarding world, the students at Hogwarts frequently mention him, which builds anticipation for the final confrontation. The identity of the characters who talk about him influences readers’ feelings too. When the Death Eaters tremble at Voldemort’s name, that arouses more dread than a family who has the same reaction.
In slower-paced genres, such as contemporary, villains are normal people without special powers, so they don’t usually cause heart attacks. The protagonist’s boss could be a jerk, for instance, and she discovers that through the complaints her coworkers voice when he’s out of earshot. He may not be as life-threatening as Voldemort, but he still controls his employees’ environment and stirs up animosity.
Show the Trail of Debris
In every dinosaur movie, the characters don’t encounter the carnivore immediately. They stumble upon his footprints first, or the carnage after he’s devoured a meal. Then they flee as far and as fast as they can. A villain should likewise cast a shadow behind him, compelling the protagonist to avoid dark alleys for the next century.
Near the beginning of Patrick Carr’s Shock of Night, the protagonist examines a bloody crime scene. The strange shape of the wounds on the corpses, plus the fact that one victim was an expert bodyguard, indicates viciousness, speed, and superior skill. All of these details leave an impression on the protagonist long before he tangles with the assassins.
Even after your villain makes an entrance, your protagonist needs constant reminders that he could strike at any second. In The Scorpio Races, the capaill uisce (man-eating horses) kill and maim their riders, emphasizing the danger of trying to tame the beasts.
Again, depending upon your genre, the evidence of your villain’s presence may be less dramatic. A pair of uptight parents won’t amass a pile of bodies (unless you’re writing a thriller), but the protagonist’s efforts to earn their approval will accentuate their harshness. Before Thanksgiving dinner, she changes her dress five times, advises her boyfriend not to bring up politics, and hits the road so early that only the apocalypse could make her arrive late.
When characters exchange opinions about the villain and witness his work firsthand, you’ll convey a sense of foreboding, which lays the foundation for my next three points. Keep in mind, though, that some of these tips may not be applicable to your story. If your villain appears in an opening chapter, skip the reputation part and begin with point number two. And if your villain is a stranger to the society you’ve constructed, put his wickedness on display before characters gossip about it.
2. Inflict Pain
Now your villain must prove that he’s capable of every vice on his résumé—and worse. Unless he causes suffering and setbacks, you’ll be breaking promises to readers. So, position him at the protagonist’s front door, and when she opens it, he’ll tip his hat and nuke her dreams.
An incident during The Fellowship of the Ring illustrates how a villain (or evil entity) can decimate the protagonist’s plans. Gandalf constantly lectures Frodo about the allure of the One Ring, and Sauron’s determination to find it confirms its potency. But the old wizard’s paranoia doesn’t faze anyone until Boromir defects and the traveling party scatters.
In contemporary fiction, the villain is often close enough to the protagonist to be privy to her insecurities—like the uptight parents. Because they resent their daughter’s interest in music instead of law, they brag about the luxuries their salaries provide and worship their other children’s accomplishments. Gradually the pressure drives the protagonist to either break ties with her family, return to law school, or sacrifice her well-being to propel her debut album to the top of the charts. Her lapse in judgment leads to consequences later on.
Even with smaller stakes, an ill-intentioned person can still be imposing if he harms the protagonist mentally. But regardless of how you increase his terror wattage, readers won’t buy any of it without knowing the fuse that lights him up.
3. Polarize Motivations and Goals
Develop your villain and protagonist in tandem. You’ll deepen your understanding of who they are as well as how and why they clash. If your protagonist holds a belief, your villain holds the opposite belief—or, more disturbingly, he shares her ideology. If your protagonist pursues a specific outcome, your villain pursues an outcome that negates it.
The Villain Needs a Goal That Relates to the Protagonist’s
If you’ve already defined your protagonist’s inner longing and outward goal, deciphering the second half of the equation will be easy. The young woman I described earlier might want to win a contest to validate her talent as a singer, but her parents want to teach her that her career aspirations are frivolous. So they bribe the judges to award her a low score.
The more the protagonist’s and the villain’s goals overlap, the more opportunities they’ll have to interact. That’ll turn the villain into an impetus for the plot and a continuous source of angst for the protagonist.
The Villain Needs a Motive as Legitimate as the Protagonist’s
The villain’s reason for causing trouble can also be pulled from the protagonist’s arc, and Thanos and Tony Stark from the Marvel universe are a vivid example. Both of them are intent on saving the world—one through the sacrifice of half the population, and the other through personal sacrifice. Although their mindsets echo each other, the difference in their approaches generates a compelling layer of tension between the means and the ends.
When the villain’s motive is parallel to the protagonist’s, his insidiousness intensifies. Readers recognize that the protagonist is only an increment away from devolving into a corrupt version of himself, and they worry that the next face-off will provoke him to cross the line.
The Villain Needs Justification for His Choices
Villains are, as you’d expect, willing to play unfairly. Whereas protagonists may push boundaries at times, but their consciences ultimately restrain them from straying too far. So, while the wannabe pop star is wrestling with the temptation to sabotage her competitors, her parents have already (without hesitation) rigged the contest.
Why? Because they’re convinced that their daughter is wrecking her future. She may be a sensation for a week, but after that she’ll end up begging for tips from the stage of a bar, disgracing their family name. Since their attempts to manipulate her have failed, cheating is the only remaining option. Once you can identify these excuses—which, according to the villains’ rationale, absolves them of guilt—you’ll be able to predict the tactics they’ll use to undermine the protagonist.
You may need to brainstorm for several hours to figure out the right combination, so be patient. It’s like assembling a puzzle upside down. You won’t know which piece is the correct shape until you’ve tested a handful.
4. Inspire Hopelessness
Any conflict that doesn’t involve loss will feel artificial. Before your protagonist can oust your villain, she needs to relinquish a part of herself. Often it’s the lie she began her arc with. The villain chases her into corner after corner until she runs out of places to hide from her ghosts.
In Leigh Bardugo’s King of Scars, the country of Ravka is on the verge of splintering. Usurpers are gaining support in their conquest for the crown, and religious protesters are worshiping the enemy. As an illegitimate son, Nikolai interprets the unrest as a sign that he’s unworthy to be king. He worries that he can’t protect his people until he exorcises the monster the Darkling infested him with during the war that ruined Ravka and massacred his family. But only by accepting who he’s become and letting go of his impossible standards can he vanquish his literal inner demon.
The takeaway? Your villain needs to be close to your protagonist to sense her vulnerabilities and disrupt her peace of mind. Nikolai’s villain swelled inside him. The singer’s villains raised her. An intimate connection can be a conduit for immense damage. To quote Kate Lamb, “Never let a villain hurt your hero if a loved one can do it better.”
If your story won’t allow your villain access to your protagonist’s psych, flaunting his success can have a similar effect. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos sends Hulk spiraling to Earth, where he informs Doctor Strange, Wong, and Tony Stark of the violence he witnessed. Since Vision possesses a Mind Stone that will complete Thanos’s Infinity Gauntlet, the team considers blowing up the android to prevent more deaths.
When a villain prevails at the expense of the values the protagonist clings to, it can deflate her morale faster than a thumbtack puncturing a balloon. Eventually she’ll either bungle her mission or adjust her strategy. In Infinity War, Wanda kills Vision, but because Doctor Strange traded a Time Stone to save Tony Stark, Thanos reverses her action and claims his prize. In the end, only one maneuver guarantees victory, and the villain prods the characters toward it.
The Purpose of Ominous Villains
You now have the tools to craft a thematic villain who’s cunning, relentless, and sadistic. He’s determined to build a throne of falsehoods and rule from it, reinforcing every doubt your protagonist struggles with. She must gather the might and the courage to overcome him, but that alone won’t satisfy readers. She needs to learn, under a barrage of the villain’s making, that only the truth can fortify her and ensure victory.
In real life, all of us have chances to conquer evil through exertion, sacrifice, and growth—just like our favorite heroes. But to remind your readers of that, you need a plan.
After reading an article, you risk forgetting the thrust of it before you get around to applying the ideas. That’s why I’ve compiled a step-by-step brainstorming guide to help you enhance your villain. I even included extra tips on how to amplify his scare factor! Fill out the form below, and I’ll send you the resource for free (so that your villain stumps your protagonist, not you).
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 19, 2019. Revised and expanded on June 13, 2022.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.