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How to Create Villains Who Are Actually Intimidating

August 19, 2019

Readers want to see determined heroes fight diabolical villains. When beloved characters battle their worst nightmares, we’re terrified alongside them, and the conflict pulls us in. However, if the villain is a pushover, winning won’t be a challenge for the hero. Instead, it will feel like a setup.

 

In real life, evil is difficult to defeat. Characters who overcome a trial remind us that we have hope of doing the same. Weak villains reduce emotional impact because they’re unrealistic, and their defeats don’t fill readers with courage.

 

So how do you prevent a villain from undermining a story? You need to evaluate how others perceive him, the effect his actions have on the protagonist, and the extent of his strength.

 

1. Give the Villain a Formidable Reputation

At Realm Makers 2019, I attended a session by Robert Liparulo on writing series. During it, Liparulo explained how he foreshadowed the villain in one of his books: through a fearful, demon-possessed underling who repeatedly mentioned his leader’s vileness.

 

Not only does this tactic build a foreboding atmosphere, it allows minor, preexisting antagonists to serve a double purpose by vouching for their masters. Work smarter not harder, right? Even nameless villains who aren’t identified as the protagonist’s adversary can carry a reputation. Their misdeeds speak for them.

 

Patrick Carr does this in his book, Shock of Night. Near the beginning, the protagonist examines a bloody crime scene. The strange wounds indicate cruelty, speed, and power, leaving an impression on readers long before they encounter these assassins and the evil presence behind them. The threat is tangible.

 

In addition to the violence, readers eventually learn that one victim was an expert bodyguard. By defeating him, the assassins demonstrate that their skills are superior. It’s like the opening scene in Avengers: Infinity War. When Thanos beat Thor, Loki, and the Hulk, he propped up his reputation by crushing theirs. 

 

2. Force the Protagonist to Suffer at the Villain’s Hands

Now the villain needs to live up to the dark image you’ve painted. When he reveals himself, he must inflict the protagonist with painful losses and setbacks or you’ll be breaking promises to readers. This might mean killing characters or crushing a dream the protagonist held dear.

 

Say your villain is a high-ranking official in the CIA. His access to satellites and networks enables him to hunt down anyone he wishes (which he’s done often). The protagonist holds information exposing this man as a mole and is trapped in a technology-saturated area. If the villain attempts to capture the protagonist but fails, readers will lose confidence in him and assume that you joked about his omniscience.

 

In a better (or worse, depending on your perspective) turn of events, the villain could prove his stalking prowess by bringing the protagonist in, destroying all his evidence, and accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit. You’d then have to figure out how to maneuver the protagonist out of the villain’s clutches, which would be tricky, but the predicament would gain readers’ trust.

 

But what if a vicious villain doesn’t fit your story? Bloodshed, for instance, doesn’t belong in a romance novel. If you don’t want your villain to be a murderer, don’t give him a reputation with a knife. Let the conversation about him relate to his purpose and the genre you’ve placed him in.

 

Jane Austen’s Persuasion lacks a blatant villain. However, many characters play the antagonist. Anne Elliot’s best friend, Lady Russell, destroyed her romantic relationship with Captain Wentworth. When the man reappears years later, Anne and readers worry that Lady Russell will interfere and cause them further heartache. Even with smaller stakes, a bad guy or girl can still be imposing if he/she harms or hinders the protagonist’s plans.

 

3. Create a Villain Who Inspires Hopelessness

A villain should be adept and intelligent and one step ahead of the hero. When the hero thinks he’s making headway, the villain needs to shove him backward. Try assigning a POV to the villain so that readers see his dastardly plans. The hero, however, won’t be aware of the danger, which will increase tension.

 

If you’d prefer not to add a villain POV, a plot twist can be just as effective at devastating the hero. Maybe he believes he was gathering and passing on vital information to his war buddies, then he discovers that one of his friends is a traitor.

 

You could also emphasize the hero’s frustration at being unable to determine the villain’s identity (though he knows someone is ratting him out) and his horror when the truth is uncovered. However you decide to do it, giving the villain an advantage will proclaim his power and send the hero into despair.

 

If your villain isn’t in a high-stakes story and doesn’t need to be a better fighter or smarter strategist, he or she can discourage the protagonist in other ways. In Persuasion, Lady Russell refuses to change her opinions, which could drive Captain Wentworth away from Anne a second time.

 

The Purpose of Powerful Villains

We now have the tools to craft a reprehensible villain who mows down characters. But if the hero never musters the will to overcome him, his existence is pointless. With the exception of negative character arcs, a villain is meant to sharpen the protagonist so he becomes a stronger and braver person who can meet every blow.

 

Like in real life, a villain who steals hope, triggers fear, and shows no mercy won’t last. A villain should be nearly invincible, but only if the hero has the potential to conquer him. We pay readers for all their anxiety by changing the protagonist through a victory that demands exertion and sacrifice.

15 Comments

  1. Austen Adams

    Great article! I love the advice about establishing a reputation for your villain–that can be a great way to build suspense, too!

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Thank you for reading! You’re right. Giving a villain a dastardly reputation is great for increasing tension.

    • Sophia Partridge

      Thanks for the tips. Gabrielle. 🙂

    • Gabrielle Pollack

      You’re welcome, Sophia! And thank you for taking the time to read them. 🙂

  2. Emma Caton

    This article was so helpful! I’ve been having some trouble with creating an exciting villan, and this gave me so many ideas to work with. Thanks, Gabrielle!

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      That’s awesome! I’m glad my article could jump-start your imagination. 😀

  3. Coralie

    I absolutely adore this article!! <3 I'm bookmarking it to return to again and again. I am notorious for underdeveloped villains, but my current villain hit several of these points which gives me hope! I've been working so hard on her! And this will help me to be even more specific in crafting her. Thank you!!

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Happy to help! Your villain sounds like she’s on the right path already. I bet she’s going to be awesome!

  4. Jeff Loving

    I would also add that memorable villains are not always far-fetched untouchable beings, but instead flawed individuals who see themselves as the hero of their own story. Many of my villains/or perhaps in some cases, strong antagonists, do not have super powers, overarching abilities, etc. but are, as you said in your article, intelligent, suave, charismatic, and dare I say it, likeable? One thing that I appreciate about a good villain is that you can in some cases, empathize with them in the end. The idea that, you would never ‘say’ that you’d go along with their evil plan or actions, but in some semblance of your moral code, you the reader (or writer) can see where they are coming from and inadvertently justify their evil actions. I love flawed villains that have fallen from grace and have a skewed view on the world (regardless of the genre), or even misunderstood villains – aka The Lord Ruler in the “Mistborn” series.

    Overall, enjoyed your article! Thanks for sharing. Villains are some of my favorite characters to develop.

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Yes! Those are my favorite types of villains, too. Every character, even a bad guy, deserves a solid personality. Thanks for reading!

  5. Michael

    Very useful article. I’m still fine-tuning my manuscript with special attention to the characters. I opted to forego the typical Good Guys vs Bad Guys duality. Instead, I have two sets of protagonists and two sets of antagonists all after the same object for different reasons. Alliances are made and unmade. The protagonists don’t even realize that the antagonists are the problem because they operate thru minions to place obstacles in the path of the main protagonist while searching for the location of the secondary protagonist; said search made difficult by the secondary protagonist operating under an assumed name. Sounds like a muddle, but since this is a comic fantasy I’m hoping it’ll work out. 🙂

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      That sounds like a fun story! I don’t envy the writing of it, though. It must be hard to keep everything straight!

  6. Brian Stansell

    Very good advice, Gabrielle!

    Thank you for writing this. Every hero’s journey needs a dangerous character foil to raise the stakes.

    I will be bookmarking your articles as well.

    I think some of the scariest villains are the ones who appear to be sympathetic when in fact they are sinister.

    I think some too often so focus on their hero that they make the villain a caricature and lose the menace that would make the hero’s arc significant and more satisfying and cathartic.

    Portraying a baddie is an art. I think of the scripture related to our arch villain:

    But I am not surprised! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. In the end they will get the punishment their wicked deeds deserve. [2 Corinthians 11:14-15 NLT]

    One of the most treacherous villains I know from Shakespeare was the character of Iago in “Othello”. Such a fiend! But he tormented Othello with thoughts of jealously that Desdemona was cuckolding him, which turned the intensity of his love for her to blind rage and betrayal.

    Deception is a device that runs through the dark heart and is skilled in playing against assumptions.

    Thank you again for a very astute and valuable article.

    God Bless!

    Reply

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