How To Create a Compelling Villain, by Jess Rae

Image from the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive

I recently re-watched all the Harry Potter films and whilst doing so found myself rolling my eyes at “he-who-shall-not-be-named.” I found Voldemort to be, quite frankly, rather boring, with boring motives; his followers were far more interesting. It got me thinking about villains I do enjoy in series and what makes me like them, in some cases, more so than the protagonists.

Positive traits:

There’s nothing worse than a hero without flaws; they’re just not believable and they become insufferable. The same can be said about villains without positive traits; they’re not well-rounded and it’s lazy writing if they don’t have some kind of redeeming quality, something that could make them switch sides. My favourite villains have been written in a way that makes me like them and feel for them.

Example: Victor – Viscous by VE Schwab

Say what you will about who is the true villain in this series, but Victor is a villain in his own right. He might not be good, but he’s not all bad either. He helps a soldier with chronic pain by using his special ability to block his nerves. He takes on a young girl who is figuring out her abilities with no one to turn to. Your villain could be good to animals or children, treat their own people well, and have someone they deeply care about. Give your villain redeeming qualities; make it a little sad when your villain loses.

Give your villain something to care about, to love:

Let’s be real: your entire plot will be about what your hero has to lose, but if you don’t give your villain something to lose too, what’s the point of their plot? I think that was my issue with Voldemort, he wanted to live forever and create a pure race, but we never really knew what was really in it for him other than immortality. A wish for immortality isn’t very compelling in my opinion.

Example: Evangeline – Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard

It isn’t until later in the series that you find out the reason Evangeline does the things she does is because she wants to be able to be with the people she loves, something that is incredibly human and relatable. Yes, she’s still evil and a pain in the neck, but it’s understandable; you get it. It’s fun when you’re rooting for both the hero and the villain. It doesn’t have to be a person the villain loves either; it could be a place, an object, a pet. Your villain needs something they’re fighting for just as much as your hero.

Give your villain some core values:

Yes, your villain is bad, but they have to have some core values, lines they won’t cross. Essentially they need weaknesses and a belief system. Your villain doesn’t believe they are bad; it gives your villain integrity seeing them fight for their belief. It might not be a good belief but it’s still a belief.

Example: Victor – Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead

Why do all villains need to be called Victor? Observation aside, Victor believes that the Moroi live in an archaic way, their livelihood basically in the stone ages. He believes that he is the beacon of change needed for his people. He’s a terrible person but he doesn’t flip flop on his morals or goals.

Your villain needs to be an expert:

Your villain needs to challenge their heroic counterpart; they therefore need to be an expert in something that will make it hard for them to be defeated. Giving something the hero needs to figure out drives plot because your villain is a step ahead.

Example: Maeve – Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas

It is the two main villains in this series that have the entire picture of what they are and how they infect others. This fully-rounded knowledge means that the heroes have literally books to figure out the best strategies at defeating their enemy and their intentions, giving Maeve plenty of opportunity to create chaos, driving us as the readers to want them to be defeated.

Heroes are only great when balanced with an equally great villain. If I don’t care if your villain wins or loses then what is the point of the hero? Why can’t they live a normal life and never worry? A great villain is key to driving plot and a villain being bad for the sake of being bad is lazy writing. There are too many great stories out there to give me a lazy villain.

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