How do you create a villain character? 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 to meet all these requirements and more?
These are questions I have asked myself when writing my novels and reading other authors’ books. Although each author may have their way of going about this process, some common themes seem to work best for most people.
Make sure he has flaws revealed as the story progresses so that readers can relate to him and his weaknesses. 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 neighborhood. His workaholic father, a business type driven by power and perceived social standing, rarely stays home. His mother, working low-end jobs, is driven by her need for ‘nice things.’ She occasionally brings Zachary with her when she shoplifts, 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 adds 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 and gets angry, he pushes her down the stairs and is kicked out of the house.
Opportunities for experimenting with recreational drugs become a regular occurrence. In his need for success and acceptance, Zachary moves to be 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. Finally, one man tells him there’s no need to be rude.
3. Develop your villain’s motive or goal
To create a villain character, you must first establish what they try to do; what is the motive or goal that your villain wants to achieve before everything else? So, what does your villain want? How would he get 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, his motivation for being part of a drug gang is that it brings him closer to his goal: 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 gang. He knows they are out to get him and that he needs to disappear.
He needs money to buy his way out of the province/country. Feeling desperate, he makes a deal with an independent drug dealer. Unfortunately, this is a costly deal, leaving him without cash and his stash of drugs.
Realizing he will need more cash to start over in a new place, his ex-fiancée comes to mind; she has money. So 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. Instead, the dealer points a gun at him, demanding he hand over his cash and drugs. Zachary pulls his weapon, and a violent fight erupts. It ends with the dealer dead, out of sight inside his car at the bottom of a mountain crevice.
Zachary flees north through BC, trying to keep consciousness, bleeding from a deep cut along his jaw.
Examples of different strengths
Zachary has enough strength to take care of his wound while hiding in an abandoned cabin in the interior of BC. In addition, he has enough power to develop a new plan 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 superpower/gift that gives them an edge over others
It will be more difficult for Zachary to hide in another province without the proper papers. 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, which 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 mustache grow wild, he uses peroxide to bleach it pale orange. He trims his thick, black eyebrows, whitens them, cuts his long, dark hair off, then bleaches the new growth from time to time.
It takes an extra month for the beard and mustache to grow long enough to disguise the lumpy scar along his jaw. But he is unrecognizable by the time he ventures out to break into an insulated cabin for the winter.
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.
Looking at himself in the mirror, he knows that he is unidentifiable to all except his ex-fiancée. So 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. Being charming when it’s needed is like a game to him. He finds it easy to sway others over to his side, persuade them to believe in him, and trust him.
He enjoys manipulating people; sees it as one of his favorite 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’ll 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 then they will kill them both.
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 and finding someone like-minded to start a dealer business.
The stress over waiting 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-fiancée has betrayed him, has described how he looks to a forensic artist. He will never forgive her for that. So now he will use all his power to punish her.
7. Designate what weapons they use and how they are used
Zachary has a gun and a knife 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 to comply with his demands, or his life will be over, and so will 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.
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 his ex a 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 behavior, and firearms use and feel they need to carry a gun for their safety. They also find it helpful 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 than those who carry some other kind of weapon. This behavior suggests that knives are often carried as a means of self-defense rather than with the intention of using them against someone.
Entire neighborhoods are controlled by street gangs using threats, violence, and forced children to rule their territory. Teams target children who have been excluded from school to groom them as drug dealers. Praying on school pupils to deal drugs has influenced many to believe it is normal to carry a blade to intimidate their customers, that the sight of the edge only will do the job.
Maybe they used to be in the military where they taught themselves about explosives; some villains carry out significant damage to society to avenge some unjust situation in their lives.
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 for us as audience members to find interest in their humanity.
I hope this helps. Happy writing. You can do it!