It’s no secret I love my bad guys. Some of my favorite characters are villains and I think I enjoy creating them than I do anything else in the writing process. Bad guys have the most fun, after all. They can do all the shit, because they’re the bad guy. They don’t have to have silly things like morals or a conscience. Sure, I can give them those things, but I don’t have to and that’s awesome.
Seriously, though, a good bad guy can blast a good story into awesomeness.
So, over the past few years, I’ve discovered a few tricks to creating memorable and even lovable baddies. Now, I’m no expert. If you think I’m full of shit, well you can think that. It’s okay. I do know that when readers review my books, the bad guys are mentioned most of the time, so I must be doing something right. Unless my readers are unbalanced… That is a possibility, I suppose.
Anyway, it’s time for a list. Here are a few of the things I’ve found helpful when creating a memorable villain.
Make him likeable.
But he’s a bad guy? Why should we like him?
Because when the reader pulls for the bad guy, the reading experience is so much better. So go ahead, make your bad guy all kinds of sexy. Okay, so maybe this isn’t appropriate all the time, but a hot bad guy is always easy to swallow. (Wow, that came out wrong) It’s human nature to be drawn to pretty things, so don’t be afraid to make your villain the hottest asshole around. He can be even hotter than your protagonist. Seriously.
Giving your bad guy a bit of sexy makes the reader root for him just a little. (Eric Northman, the heartless vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse novels, is bad. He’s nasty and manipulative and selfish, but damn, I wanted Sookie to choose him over goodie-goodie Bill. Just saying.) If your reader is pulling for the bad guy, even when that pulling is driven by hormones, it helps draw her into the story, and it adds a little more tension. The reader feels a bit conflicted, because she wants the protagonist to succeed, but part of her also cries a little at the thought of the bad guy going away. Conflict is a good thing.
You might feel a little skeevy toying with your reader this way. Don’t. She likes it. Trust me.
Don’t forget the ladies.
Or the kids. Women and children make excellent villains.
Women, because we truly are evil sometimes, and kids, because there’s nothing creepier than a bad kid. Proof? Here:
I don’t need to elaborate on this. You know.
Give him a goal.
Don’t just have your bad guy doing evil shit all willy-nilly. He needs a plan. Something should be driving him to act. It doesn’t have to be something tangible or clearly defined. It could be a simple need, like maybe he just wants to be loved (okay, that’s weak, but I’ve seen it work). Whatever the goal, just make sure your villain is motivated by something, be it greed, a personal demon, or the sheer glee he feels by inflicting violence on others. Remember, though, a bad guy doesn’t just wake up bad. Something has made him this way or a need for something has caused him to take the path he’s chosen.
Think about it. You don’t hate something without an underlying reason (even if said reason makes no sense to sane people). No one is born racist. Serial killers don’t plot their sprees from the cradle. (God, I hope I’m right about that.) There are always REASONS for what bad guys do. So when your bad guy is out there spreading evil, make sure you ask yourself how he sleeps at night. How does he live with himself? Does he like the face he sees in the mirror? What does he say to himself when he’s alone? How does he justify his actions? The reader is going to be wondering the same things, so make sure you give her an answer.
Don’t forget the third dimension.
Goals and motivation take us to another key factor in a memorable villain: Dimensions. If your villain is just bad all the time, well that’s rather yawn-worthy. Two-dimensional even. Give him a few good traits, or at least some “human” traits. It’s okay. You don’t have to make him vegan or give him an obsession with all things fluffy. All you need is one trait the reader can relate to so he isn’t entirely bad. Fears, doubts, needs, wants; all of these things can give your villain a soft enough edge to make him relatable. Maybe he’s funny. Batman’s “Joker” is hilarious, but there’s no doubt he’s evil. His light side makes him more interesting and redeems him a little. You can’t hate someone who makes you laugh. Trust me, I’ve tried.
When you give your bad guy a good side, however small, it leaves you some room to make him unpredictable. He might act like a badass most of the time, but now and then it’s okay to surprise the reader by making him do something unexpected or by showing a side that she can’t help but love. This increases the tension a little, because she doesn’t want to like him. Relating to a bad guy makes us uncomfortable, because we don’t like thinking a serial killer might be human. This discomfort adds some internal conflict for the reader that serves to heighten the tension in your story.
Never make him stupid.
If your bad guy isn’t at least as smart as your protagonist, then you’re making the protagonist look stupid. I mean, the villain has to be a worthy opponent, right?
Hannibal Lector is a fantastic villain, and his intelligence is part of what makes him so terrifying, but that doesn’t mean every villain has to be a genius. As long as your bad guy is at least as smart as the hero, you’re okay.
Even better, make him smart enough to stay a couple steps ahead of your protagonist. He should think about and weigh every decision so that when he does best your hero, it’s believable. When you hero beats the villain, same thing. It should be believable. This is where making him flawed is useful. One of those flaws you gave your bad guy might be something the protagonist can use to stop him from achieving his ultimate goal.
Don’t hold back.
If you worry about making your bad guy “too” bad, you’re going to sell your story short. Of course, don’t be ridiculous. I mean, if his actions don’t make any sense, the reader won’t find him believable. Keep him as bad as you’ve made it possible for him to be. If he’s willing to step on a kitten’s head, then there’s not much else he’ll shy away from doing. It takes a special kind of evil to go around crushing kitten skulls, right?
In IN THE BONES, my primary villain, Carroll Albert, was a thief, liar, manipulator, rapist, abuser and murderer. Let’s say he had very few boundaries. I questioned my decision to make him so bad, but when I held back, he wasn’t very interesting. I mean, he’s a redneck. So what? Then I thought about how bad a person “could” be in his situation. He’s the most powerful person in an isolated town. He has the cops in his pocket, ammunition to keep his neighbors in line, and the desire for more. Where would he stop? The answer was, he wouldn’t stop. In his mind, he’s invincible. No one can touch him as long as he holds all the cards. So I went for it.
Carroll Albert ended up being one of the most commented on villains I’ve ever written. Almost every reader that mentioned Carroll has said they detested him. He had limits, of course, when his own ass was on the line, but if he thought he could get away with something, Carroll went all in.
But not all bad guys should be as bad as Carroll Albert. How do you know how far you should go? A good villain has to be as bad as he needs to be to achieve his goal, but no worse than that. With the right backstory, you can figure this out easily, which takes us to the next tip.
Get to know him.
You spend hours creating your protagonists. Spend the same amount of time getting to know your bad guys. Don’t just plop someone in for conflict. Sit down and give the guy a backstory. Why is he the way he is? What are his goals? His dreams? Is there anything he won’t do? Why?
I recommend you write from the bad guy’s POV. You don’t have to use it in the story. Just do it for yourself, so you can ensure his motivations are believable. You might even discover a whole other layer to the character as you do so, or you might uncover new plot twists to make your protagonist’s struggle even better.
Seriously, when you give your bad guy the same care and attention as the other characters; you add depth that will only improve your story. (and it improves the reader’s experience) So go all Interview with a Vampire with your bad guys. Sit them down. Bring out the garlic and the crucifix, and find out what makes them tick before you begin writing.
Don’t limit yourself to just one.
One bad guy? *yawn* Why not two or three? Sub-plots galore, Batman! The possibilities are endless if you can use more than one bad apple in your story. Give your protagonist a real challenge by placing opposition in all directions. Give each one a different degree of badness. In LIES WE TELL, I’ve tossed villains all over the place, although many aren’t clearly defined as “the” bad guy. Instead of just relying on one personality, though, I’ve given my protagonists different roadblocks that can’t be dealt with in the same way. With more than one bad guy, you can increase tension with more conflict. And you increase the chances your reader will encounter a bad guy she finds impossible to forget.
Make sure he matches the story.
The degree of “ick” your villain exudes should match the story. If you’re going for lighthearted fun, well a dark twisted type that cuts up children for shits and giggles is not going to work. I mean, once you’ve gone that dark, there’s nothing you can do to brighten the mood. You can try. Tell you what, if you can come back from butchered children, I’ll buy every book you write, because that’s an impressive bit of writing.
Anyway, keep in mind that some stories require a villain with high degree of viciousness. A crime thriller or a horror novel, for example, would suit a serial killer or slasher type of villain, while a lighter genre, like fantasy (I mean fairies and rainbow shitting unicorns fantasy, not dark fantasy with intestine-spilling werewolves or soul-sucking demons) might only require a bully.
He doesn’t have to die, but…
I’ve gone a million ways when it comes to dealing with my villains, and I’ve discovered that the best “end” for the villain depends on his degree of badness. Carroll Albert, for example, was so bad the reader would only accept one fate for him: death. Other villains, like Jackson Murphy, were so entertaining with their evil deeds; the reader accepted a less permanent fate, because the desire to see said villain again was stronger than their need for justice. In my upcoming novel, LUCKY, Dionysus was such a charming villain, I couldn’t just kill him off or toss him in a hole and forget about him. He was punished for his misdeeds, but he also got his own story.
Your bad guy doesn’t have to die, but his fate should satisfy your reader. Sometimes leaving him alive, or even undefeated, leaves a nice layer of ick on your reader so she remembers him for a while longer. Just a thought.
So, there you have it. All the things I consider when I create my bad guys. I hope at least a couple work for you.