Write a Sympathetic Villain Your Readers Will Love to Hate

Image: at a comicon, a Darth Vader cosplayer points a lightsaber at the viewer while two Stormtroopers stand behind.

Today’s post is by story and writing consultant Neil Chase.

When most people think of villains as they are writing a novel, they think of evil, heartless characters who are out to destroy or conquer the world. While these types of villains can, at times, be amusing, they can also be one-dimensional and uninteresting.

A great villain should have complex motivations and evoke sympathy from readers. Here’s how to build one.

Weave an intricate backstory.

For your story’s antagonist to be truly effective, they need to have a well-developed, and perhaps even tragic, backstory.

Just as your story’s protagonist should be more than just a one-dimensional character, your antagonist should be a fully formed individual with their own motivations, fears, and desires.

The best villainous characters have a deep, rich backstory that makes them relatable and ultimately human. Here are some ideas for interesting villain backstories:

  • The villain could be someone who was once a hero, but circumstances (or choices) led them down a dark path. They might be haunted by regrets for their evil actions, and their fall from grace only makes them more dangerous.
  • The villain could be someone who was born into a life of crime. They might have never known anything else, but they’re not necessarily happy with their lot in life. There’s always the possibility of breaking free from their criminal past, but they would need someone to show them the way.
  • Another option is for the villain to be an outsider who doesn’t fit in anywhere. They might be rejected by society and use their powers for evil as a way to get back at those who have wronged them.
  • Finally, the villain could be motivated by something other than money or power. They could be driven by revenge, love, or even a cause they believe in. No matter their motivation, they’re sure to be a force to be reckoned with.

A great example in literature and film is Frankenstein’s Monster, a creature made up of random body parts and shunned by the world as a result. His hatred of humanity is understandable, given his tragic history and desire for little more than sympathy and companionship—both of which are denied to him at every turn.

It begs the question: who is the true villain in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster or its creator?

By giving your antagonist an intricate or tragic backstory, you’ll make them more believable and give them greater depth and dimension. Also, by understanding your antagonist’s backstory, you’ll be able to better craft scenes in which they interact with your protagonist.

Give your villain a personality.

As an antagonist, your villain stands in the way of your protagonist’s goals and must be defeated for the hero to triumph. As such, you must give your villain a strong and distinctive personality. Why? Because a well-developed villain makes for a more suspenseful and engaging story.

Think about some of the most memorable villains in fiction: Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Professor Moriarty, and The Wicked Witch of the West. These characters have unique motivations, histories, and quirks. By contrast, a generic and one-dimensional villain is immediately forgettable.

If you want your story to be gripping, make sure to put some thought into making your villain someone who readers will remember.

Explore the villain’s motivation.

To create a three-dimensional antagonist, one must understand their motivation.

  • What drives them to do evil?
  • Are they acting out of greed, power, passion, misguided love, or revenge?
  • Are they misunderstood by others in the story?

By exploring the backstory and psychology of your antagonist, you can craft a more nuanced and sympathetic character. For example, In Stephen King’s Misery, Annie Shaw is a woman so utterly alone that her main coping mechanism is reading the fiction of her favorite author, Paul Sheldon. So when fate brings Paul into her life through a car accident in a blizzard, she’s overjoyed to take care of him and to read his latest novel.

She loves Paul’s main character, Misery Chastain, so much that it’s both heartbreaking and understandable when she doesn’t take it well that Paul intends to kill off Misery in his latest work. Everything she does to Paul, as a result, is justified and right in her twisted mind, as it serves to save both Misery and Paul from himself.

Make them attractive in some way.

Your story’s antagonist doesn’t have to be a traditional bad guy. In fact, making them attractive in some way can make your story more interesting. Perhaps they’re physically attractive, or they have a winning personality. Maybe they’re just really good at what they do, and your protagonist can’t help but be impressed by their skills.

Whatever the case may be, giving your antagonist some redeeming qualities will make them more three-dimensional and ultimately more compelling.

A great example is Hannibal Lecter, from Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, a cannibalistic serial killer who is thoroughly evil and yet so brilliant and charming as to gain the sympathies and trust of the story’s main character, Clarice Starling. In reality, he manipulates her to effect a prison escape, but we, as the audience, are as swayed by his manner and charms as Clarice.

Readers will be more invested in the conflict if they can see both sides of the story, and an attractive antagonist is a perfect way to achieve that.

The difference between villains and antagonists

Every story must have some sort of conflict to move the plot along. This is typically accomplished through the use of an antagonist, who works against the protagonist to create obstacles and further the story.

In many cases, this antagonist is a villain, someone who has bad intentions and is perhaps even cruel or overtly evil. However, this is not always the case.

In some stories, the antagonist may simply be a character with different goals or objectives from the protagonist. This does not make them evil, just different. And while they may cause difficulties for the story’s protagonist, they are not necessarily bad people.

Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is an example of an antagonist who is not villainous. Though he makes Harry’s life difficult, he works to protect the boy from the story’s true evil.

Likewise, certain protagonists can be villains as well. For example, in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is not only a terrifying serial killer but the main character.

Therefore, villains are not always necessarily antagonists or vice versa.

Parting advice

Show readers that the villain has been dealt a difficult hand, and they’ve had to make some tough choices along the way. Give your villain some personality, and maybe a unique physical characteristic, and enjoy the process of creating your bad guy! If you can make readers feel empathy for the villain, at least in some way, they will be far more invested in the story’s outcome.

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