Compelling Villains in Fantasy.

Your main character needs someone or something to work against and that’s where villains come in. Villains are hard because people tend to start formulating their stories in terms of their main characters and then have to design villains to fit into that narrative. That’s not necessarily bad, but you need to do things to help ensure you have a compelling villain.

Don’t confuse “protagonist vs. antagonist” with “hero vs. villain”.

These terms can be applied to each other, but not always and it can be limiting to think of them as the same.

The protagonist is generally the main character, the one who changes the most by the end of the story. The one the reader follows. Your protagonist isn’t necessarily a morally good person that might be a “hero”.

The antagonist is the one who stands in opposition to the protagonist, meaning that the antagonist is trying to accomplish the opposite of what the protagonist is. It doesn’t necessarily mean “evil”. For example if it’s between you and one other person for a promotion, they’re your antagonist. They aren’t necessarily a bad person, but they also want the promotion and are working hard to get it (not necessarily by trying to make you look bad or anything.)

The protagonist vs. antagonist terms are better for literally analysis, but they can also help you from creating stock or cartoon villains (unless that’s your goal).

Your villain should be just as developed as the main character.

Your villain needs reasons to be doing the things they are doing. They need specific goals, motivations, and obstacles. These things should be clearly defined and they should make sense. “Evilness” is not a goal, that’s more an attribute or descriptor. Unless your villain decides that they want to make history as “the most evil person ever.” In that case, you still need to tell me why they want that.

Main characters usually have goals that are well developed and make sense. The villain is the second most important character to do the same thing for and needs the same amount of work and focus.

Things to consider:

  • What does this villain want specifically?
  • Why do they want that?
  • What stands in their way?
  • How do the main character’s goals get in the way of the antagonist’s ones?
  • What is their background?
  • How do they go about accomplishing their goals and getting over their obstacles?

Don’t make them cartoonish

Unless you have the specific intention to make a villain like this and it works, then you should probably avoid it. I’m not saying that you have to make the villain entirely sympathetic or even agreeable (they can be if you want), but you want a compelling villain.

It tends to happen that the villain always does things that are “morally bad” whenever we see them. They’re always torturing someone, burning down a village, killing someone mercilessly, etc.

If your villain is a person and not some weird force or trapped somewhere powerless to do anything but sit there, they’re probably going to do things other than torture people and other dastardly deeds. They’re going to eat, sleep, entertain themselves somehow (in ways that aren’t necessarily “evil”.)

If they’re a person, they’re going to have other people around them, people that maybe even care about them or feel whatever way about them. Draco Malfoy had friends and even girls who liked him, he cared about his family and they him, and so on. Jaime Lannister loves Cersei and vice versa (even though that’s a super messed up relationship.)

So this goes hand in hand with developing your villain, and if you can, give them some kind of activity that isn’t “being evil”.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Do they have hobbies? (that aren’t murdering people. Things like: board games, music, horseback riding, being with their loved ones, reading, gardening, writing poetry, painting, etc.)
  • Who cares about this villain? (Their family, friends, followers, significant others, etc.)
  • Does this villain care about/love anyone?
  • What would your villain do in their free time? What are their skills?

The villain should actually be a threat.

Too often the villain is a vague threat locked away in their tower or castle and doesn’t really do anything to the main character until the climax.

Sauron was kind of physically locked away in Lord of the Rings, but he had weapons at his disposal. He had the Nazgul and Saruman which were real threats to the other characters. They had huge battles about it. Characters we cared about were hurt or killed. In Harry Potter, Voldemort had weapons, powerful people on his side and so on. In both cases, there was a real sense of danger for the heroes.

Your villain isn’t going to wait until your main character shows up at the climax to try and stop them. They’re going to want to nip this thing in the bud, probably. Your villain is going to want to find them and try to get to them (whatever that means).

On the flip-side of this, your hero should be a real threat to the villain. If your hero is some peasant kid who has no education and little experience in things, then why would the villain even care? This is why the villain needs to actually be a threat, because the stakes should be just as high for the villain as they are for the main character. Your villain can underestimate your main character, that’s fine. But you need to set it up in a way that makes that not just a “Oops, I didn’t see this one coming.” (when any other person would have seen it coming.) A reader will see that coming a mile away and it runs the risk of making your villain look dumb.

Consider:

  • How does your villain find the main character?
  • Why does your villain think/know this character is a threat?
  • What do they want to do with the main character? (kill them, take something from them, harness their power for themselves, etc.)
  • How do they try and stop your main character from accomplishing their goals? (forcing your character into hiding, ruining their reputation, depleting resources, hurting loved ones, offering them power and glory if they side with the villain, etc.)
  • What weapons/strategy/advantages does your villains have that could cause real problems for the main character? (armies, magic, knowledge, geographic advantage, money, status, powerful friends, etc.)

Your villain should be competent.

I’m not going to believe this person is a real threat if the main character can easily outwit this guy at the climax. The villain’s stakes need to be high and as a result they should be competent in trying to achieve those goals with careful planning, strategy, and so on. They should know what they’re doing.

Unless your villain is a king or someone who can be crazy and everyone kind of just has to put up with it out of fear or duty, then you can ease this a bit. But still they should have some kind of knowledge, skill, or experience. If you make your villain a bumbling idiot and the main character just so clever then how am I supposed to believe the main character is the only one who can stop them? Surely someone else was closer by who could have easily outdone your villain.

Your villain should know they can be defeated. We all know we are mortal. We all know that if we stick out hand in a literal burning fire we are going to get burned. Your villain should know that they can be defeated, no matter how powerful or formidable they may seem. Sauron knew that the One Ring could be destroyed. Having a villain that suddenly realizes “Oh crap, I can be defeated” right before they are defeated isn’t as compelling as them trying their very hardest to not get defeated.

I’m not saying your villain can’t be impulsive, screw up, or crack under pressure. But think of something you really want, you’re probably going to plan it carefully in order to give yourself the best possible chance to achieve that goal. If you’re making a reasonably intelligent, challenging (for the main character) villain, they will too.

Keep moral standards and moral dilemmas consistent.

If your hero has to do something like blackmail or torture someone for information (no matter how “bad” of a person the victim is), and this is morally questionable in your world, don’t just write it off as “oh, they had to do it for the good of the world, so it’s fine.”

But when the villain tortures someone for information it’s horrible, unforgivable, despicable. Unquestionably so.

Don’t excuse morally questionable things just because the “right” character does it/has to do it and then make it terrible for the villain to do the same thing.

Now you can have your good guy do bad things, but you should make it more complicated than “it’s for the good so it’s not a big deal.” Does your main character have to do something horrible? Do they enjoy it? Do they take it too far and have to be stopped by their companion? Do they hate themselves for having to do it? Are they/others disturbed? Does your villain take pleasure in pain or do they hate it just as much as most reasonable people would?

The toll and consequences for these should be equal or at least questioned equally no matter who does them.

Give them deep and complex relationships, especially with the hero/main character.

This doesn’t have to be backstory, it can be anything really.

Maybe these two characters have similar or the same traits, but they just manifest differently or are used differently. In our world, someone who is really good at business can use that skill for personal gain and not care about others, or they can start a business that helps people. You’ve probably met someone you didn’t like very much, but understood they had some admirable qualities. Hell, maybe in a different place at a different time, your hero and villain could have been friends.

Maybe the two characters can even find some common ground or something they respect the other about. Maybe they both love their country and understand that about each other (not: “I’m loyal to my country in the RIGHT way!”), and even respect it: “I see we have different ways of going about things, but it comes from the same place for both of us.” They can even have the same goal, but different ways of going about it, different ways that contrast each other.

How do they feel about this connection or relationship? What would make one respect or even like the other? Do they even want to hurt each other, but are forced to for whatever reason?

Your villain should also have deep connections to other people. A lot of how readers learn about characters is how the characters interact with each other. If your villain sits alone in a tower and doesn’t talk to anyone other than barking orders at his terrified or brainwashed subordinates, the reader learns very little about them other than what I just wrote. Maybe your villain has children and loves them, loves spending time with them. Maybe their right-hand-man is also their sibling or best friend.

Giving your villain significant relationships (good and bad ones, functional or not) will help the reader develop a better sense of who this villain on a “human” (so to speak) level.

Your villain should reflect the main character and vice versa.

This may sound simple or too easy but it can be really powerful.

Their traits can contrast but they shouldn’t only do that. They can compliment or even be the same. Having it so one wants to burn the world, but the other wants to save it is cheap.

That being said, your villain can want bad things, but you can make this work to reflect the main character.

Let’s say that both characters want to be rich. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can become a problem. This is where you need to figure out where the conflict happened. Where did your villain go bad? Take the same trait and just turn it up a few notches for the villain. If they both want to be rich, maybe the main character goes about starting a business, or digs for gold, or tries to marry into a wealthy family. Maybe the villain instead gets involved in underground crime and becomes a kingpin. When does that become a problem? An obsession? How do they maintain this?

It’s also a common thing in fantasy that the hero would never stoop to the villain’s level. If the hero wants their goal bad enough, they will. Maybe they try to find other ways first, but if all else fails, they will have to stoop. They will have to do things the villain would do in order to stop the villain. They may not like it, but if it’s really the only way and the protagonist has to move the plot forward, they will.

The villain can be defeated, but don’t make it easy, don’t make it cheap.

No sudden storm that sinks the villain’s ship. No weakness that pops out of nowhere. No “inevitable” end. The villain’s end should be a logical conclusion to their choices and actions (theirs and the other character’s), not some sudden thing that just conveniently happens to defeat them.

No stupid mistake that anyone with common sense would have noticed and been able to avoid. None of that.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Consequences. The villain has made choices, done things, etc. But for every action, there’s a reaction. Your villain spends all their money on soldiers and weapons, and destroyed the economy. Your villain orders all books burned, but the secret to harnessing some power was in those books, etc.
  • Something unpredictable happens. Your hero kills their lover and drives the villain into a frenzy. Your villain learns a horrible secret. Don’t make it to random or out of nowhere, you should foreshadow it somehow, but it can still be unpredictable to the villain.
  • Take everything away from the villain. Make him/her a pile of rubble. They lose everything they cared about or loved. Maybe they surrender, give up, have no reason to go on. Make them miserable, and make the hero enjoy making the villain have pain. Lay the groundwork for this.
  • Give the villain a way out and have them turn it down. The villain can escape. The villain gets one last chance to turn back before reaching the point of no return. But they don’t take that chance. They keep going. You’ll need a good reason for this, but have the villain make a hard choice here.

Make me understand where the villain is coming from.

The problem with the “my tragic past made me evil” thing is that the reader doesn’t see the tragic past. The reader only hears about when the villain monologues about it or another character informs the reader somehow. The reader may want to know that information, they may even have some sympathy for the villain as well. But it’s a lot stronger to see the thing happening than it is to just hear about it.

The villain can have a tragic past, of course, but don’t rely on this. Maybe the villain genuinely wants to make the world a better place, and wiping out this other country (because that country has been shown to be bad for whatever reason) is the only way to do it.

Make me feel for the villain. Make me love this conflict between them and the main character and miss it when I finish the story, and want to read it all over again. Give them some objectively admirable quality that isn’t twisted into a bad one.

Things to consider:

  • They care about the world.
  • They care about other people and try to protect those people.
  • Introduce them doing something objectively good. (Being merciful, helping out a person in need out of the goodness of their heart.)
  • Give them good reasons to do the things they do.
  • Make them enjoy things normal people in your world enjoy. (music, art, animals, etc.)
  • Make them feel sorrow, guilt, innocent joy, etc.

Your villain doesn’t see themselves as “evil”.

The word “evil” is really generic in terms of characterization. It goes into a whole philosophy of what evil actually is: What is “evil”?

Everyone has flaws, but many of us don’t realize them. They’re just kinda there and they make sense to us because only we are in our heads. Depending on life experience, self awareness, and maturity levels, we may not even realize how our flaws might have an impact on people around us. That doesn’t make us “evil”.

In the same way, your villain probably doesn’t think of themselves as evil. “Crazy” characters don’t think they’re crazy. “Stupid” characters don’t usually think they’re stupid.

Draco Malfoy didn’t see himself as a bad guy. To him, he was a decent student who wanted to live up to something and be appreciated for who he was and what he could accomplish. He wanted to do right by his family in the best way he knew how with the information he had. He wanted power and recognition, and was overall an ambitious person.

Now, does this mean you should completely excuse the villain’s behavior? Of course not. Draco was also a cowardly jerk, a bully, used slur words (in his culture/world), hateful, jealous, and nasty at times.

You personally don’t have to agree with the villain, their actions, or anything else. But I do think that writers have some responsibility to their villains in this matter. The reader can hate the villain and want them defeated, but the writer does have to write the villain as the protagonist in their own story/arc. To write convincingly “evil” characters, your villain shouldn’t think of themselves as evil. If they did the story would end with “Wow, I am just so evil, this is bad.” and none of the main conflict would happen.

Your villain can know they’re doing morally bad things. They can enjoy doing bad things. But they should think they’re justified in those actions. For whatever reason, they should think that they are in the right.

Parting Words

Villains and antagonists are so important to so many stories. They are the reason the main character exists to do the things they do. They need to be thought on just as heavily as you would your other characters.

Read other work. Examine those villains. Which ones moved or compelled you? Why? Think outside the box. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

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