How do you create a villain? How can you make sure your villain is believable and not too evil or good?
How do we know if the character has been developed enough to be a true, 3-dimensional villain? How many steps must one take to develop a realistic, soulless bad guy for our story that will meet all these requirements and more.
These are questions I have asked myself when writing my own novels as well as reading other authors’ books. Although each author may have their own way of going about this process, there are some common themes among them that seem to work best for most people.
Make sure he has flaws that are revealed as the story progresses, so readers can relate to him and his flaws. This will make it easier for you to build up sympathy for the protagonist, but not too much because then your villain is no longer believable as a threat.
There are several steps to take to make sure that your villain not only stands out from others but has depth as well. These seven stages will help you develop a realistic, soulless bad guy.
1. Give the villain a compelling backstory
Your villain – let’s call him Zachary – needs to have a compelling backstory that happens before the story begins. How did he become who he is? How was his childhood, and what events led him to be this way now? This will give readers an understanding of why your character has turned into such a despicable creature. There are many ways for you to create this.
Here is one example:
Zachary grew up as an only child in a middle-class neighbourhood. His workaholic father, a business type driven by power and perceived social standing, is rarely at home. His mother, working low end jobs, is driven by her need for ‘nice things.’ She occasionally brings Zachary with her when she goes shoplifting, using him as a decoy, but otherwise leaves him to fend for himself. His parents constantly argue, mostly about money, and often threaten each other with divorce.
Zachary starts to act out in school and is suspended twice. Being kept away from his peers at school as punishment, further ads to the spiral. He is eventually kicked out of school as a 13-year-old.
He attempts to be noticed by his parents but finds no sense of belonging. When his mother catches him stealing from her, and gets angry, he pushes her down the stairs, and is kicked out of the house.
Opportunities for experimenting with recreational drugs becomes a regular occurrence. In his need for success and acceptance, Zachary moves to being raised by his peer group—easy money, drugs, limited thought development.
2. Make their appearance something memorable
When you first introduce the villain in your story, make it memorable and unique so that readers will remember them even after they have left the scene. How does this person behave? How do they speak to others? How do they dress? How are their actions different from those around them?
Here is an example:
Zachary is a white man, tall and slim, probably in his late twenties, dressed in black leather from top to toe. He has long, black hair pulled back into a ponytail, showing a lumpy scar stretching along his jawbone from his ear to his chin.
His deep voice demands attention, his dark eyes bore into the person attending him, snapping his fingers, telling her to hurry it up.
Customers in line behind him look appalled. One man tells him there’s no need to be rude.
3. Develop your villain’s motive or goal
In order to create a villain character, you must first establish what they are trying to do. This is the motive or goal that your villain will want to achieve before everything else. What does your villain want? How would he go about getting it, and what is stopping him from achieving his goals so far?
Here is an example:
Zachary is a character who wants to belong. After being thrown out of his home by his parents, his motivation for being part of a drug gang is that it brings him closer to his goal which is to belong to a group, a family of sorts. He sees an opportunity there to grow and become a leader of the gang one day.
But his trouble is he is impatient and grabs an opportunity that he believes will fast-track his success, but that ultimately leads to his undoing.
4. Design a character who has flaws, but also strengths
The constant desire for family and belonging drives Zachary on through everything. However, a near fatal mistake puts him on the run from his own gang. He knows they are out to get him and that he needs to disappear.
For that, he needs money to buy his way out of the province/country. Feeling desperate, he makes a deal with an independent drug dealer. This is a costly deal, leaving him without cash and his stash of drugs.
Realizing he is going to need more cash to start over in a new place, his ex-fiancée comes to mind; she has money. Now he must rely on her, the heroine, to help him out, the one who will eventually thwart his plans.
When Zachary meets with the dealer, he finds there is no deal. The dealer points a gun at him, demanding he hands over his cash and drugs. Zachary pulls his gun, and a violent fight erupts. At the end, the dealer is dead, out of sight inside his car at the bottom of a mountain crevice.
Zachary is fleeing north through BC trying to keep conscious, bleeding from a deep cut along his jaw.
Examples of different strengths
Zachary has strength enough to take care of his wound while hiding in an abandoned cabin in the interior BC. He has strength enough to come up with a new plan on how to get back on track with his goal.
Another strength would be his intelligence in setting up an elaborate trap for his ex, using his charm to confuse her, then abducting her and forcing her to empty her business account.
5. Give them some sort of superpower/gift that gives them an edge over others
Without the right papers, it will be more difficult for Zachary to hide in another province. But with his uncanny ability to reinvent himself, he will, in time, be able to hide from the gang and the police by changing his looks.
This will be enough to give him an advantage while fighting foes and his allies alike. He still has his stash of drugs, and thanks to his ex, plenty of cash.
Examples of superpower/gifts
Ability to easily disguise
Zachary, as he looks now, needs to disappear. As his beard and moustache grow wild, he uses peroxide to bleach them to a pale orange. He trims his thick, black eyebrows with scissors, then bleaches what is left of them. He cuts his long, dark hair off, then bleaches the new growth from time to time.
It takes an extra month for the beard and moustache to grow long enough to disguise the lumpy scar along his jaw. But by the time he ventures out to break into an insulated cabin for the winter, he is unrecognizable.
He locates a farmer’s store and stocks up on winter clothes like a quilt lined hooded jacket, lined overalls, plaid shirts, warm gloves, a farmers cap and a long scarf.
The makeover is done. He knows he is unidentifiable to all except his ex. He plans to spend a lot of time checking up on her to make sure she is still scared enough to keep their little secret.
Ability to easily charm anyone
Zachary enjoys being charming. He knows how to disguise his personality as well as his looks. How to be charming when it is needed, is like a game to him. He finds it easy to sway others over to his side, to persuade them to believe in him, to trust him.
He enjoys manipulating people. Sees it as one of his favourite gifts. And when he has what he wants, and has no further use for them, he leaves them hanging.
Ability to convince anyone that his lies are truths
Zachary convinces his ex that the men searching for him know that she used to be his fiancée, that as long as she doesn’t say anything about seeing him, as long as she doesn’t describe him to the police or anyone else, she will be safe.
But if she describes him, he warns, those men will know that she knows where he is and will come after her to find him; and they both will be killed.
6. Use the power to get what they want at any cost
Waiting out the winter while reinventing his looks, Zachary often uses drugs to endure the boredom, telling himself he must have a life. He convinces himself he will be fine as long as he keeps track of how much he uses.
He waits impatiently for a chance to venture outside again; to mingle with people. He needs to get back to his goal of being in a group, to find someone likeminded to start a dealer business with.
The stress over having to wait so long, makes him use more often and soon he finds himself snowed in and running out of drugs altogether.
Then he hears the news. His ex has betrayed him. She has described how he looks to a forensic artist. He will never forgive her for that. Now he will use all his power to punish her.
7. Designate what weapon they use and how it is used
Zachary has a gun and a knife that he uses for self defense and intimidation. He brings the gun with him to the bank, waiting close by while his ex withdraws her money.
He has convinced her, that if she does not comply with his demands, his life is over, and so is hers. He will use it to escape with her, and then maybe use it on both of them if it comes to that.
He is pleased to see that she is scared enough to play along, doing what he told her to do in a stiff kind of way.
The knife is there for other occasions when he needs to prove a point. One of those occasions is coming up soon, when he pays her his final visit.
Typical villain weapons and how to use them
Here are a few examples of weapons commonly used by villains in thriller novels:
Gang members are likely to own a gun. They tend to be more violent than those who are not. They engage more frequently in serious crimes, drug-related behaviour, and firearms use, and feel they need to carry a gun for their own safety. They also find it useful to intimidate, threaten or scare people off if confronted.
Knife carriers are less likely to use a weapon against someone, and when they do, they are less likely to inflict injuries on the victim compared to those who carry some other kind of weapon. This suggests that knives may often be carried as a means of self-defense rather than with any intention of using them against someone.
Entire neighbourhoods are controlled by street gangs using threats, violence and forced recruitment of children to rule their territory. Gangs target children who have been excluded from school to groom them as drug dealers. People praying on school pupils to deal drugs have influenced many to believe it is normal to carry a blade to intimidate their customers; that the sight of the blade only, will do the job.
Maybe they used to be in the military where they taught themselves about explosives, some villains carry out major damage on society to avenge some unjust situation in their life.
The villain is a complex character, one with many layers. How you want to portray your antagonist depends on the story and narrative style that you are using. When developing these characters, it’s important to remember there needs to be some conflict or reason for our protagonist to oppose them in order for us as an audience member to find interest in their humanity.
I hope this helps. Happy writing. You can do it!