Updated: Dec 31, 2022
For writers of all genres,
Are you tired of the cliche antagonist? The petty stepmother, the power-seekers, the victims turned victimizers. In this generation writers have finally showcased origin stories which make us see why an innocent person has resolved to become a villain. We even see in some story renditions how the villain wasn’t a villain at all, but a hero, like in the hit film, Maleficent. But how do we make our ‘bad guys’ stand out in our writing?
I’m JK Noble, author of HALE, a YA Fantasy series, and here are my tips to get your antagonist to stand out.
1. Why are they your antagonist?
Imagine this character as an ordinary person with a blank slate. Why have you chosen them from the lot of infinite characters you might create to be your antagonist? The answer is simple.
The antagonist is the one person who challenges the protagonist!
In many ways, your antagonist and protagonist should be exact opposites. For example, they might not think the same way in terms of justice, or doing the right thing. Often we see in literature that the hero and villain go through the same trials in life, but develop and learn from these circumstances differently.
Yet, like all people, they need to have some sort of relationship with one another, and you can do that by creating similarities, familial relationships, friends, co-workers, etc. If they were close to one another, like friends or siblings, what activities did they do together? What fun memories did they share? What did they teach each other? How did they help one another? Even in a toxic relationship, let’s pick the popular example of Cinderella. Her stepmother has taught her the importance of being kind even while someone is mistreating her. Cinderella learned to be strong in hard times.
Why is the stepmother a perfect fit as a villain for Cinderella?
Cinderella missed her mother and was excited to have a mother figure again. Cinderella was taught to always be kind and meets a new mother who is nasty and cruel, which challenged her beliefs. Why should Cinderella be kind to a spiteful woman invading her home with two children? Why should Cinderella deal with the agony they inflicted upon her with grace? Even in this simple example, we see why the stepmother was a perfect villain for Cinderella. They had a familial relationship, both sought Cinderella’s father’s love, both went through the heartbreak of death (Cinderella’s mother, and stepmother’s first husband), and both challenged the other with opposing beliefs.
Think of your favorite villain in literature or film. What was their relationship with the hero? What did they have in common with the hero? How were they different from the hero? How did they challenge the hero?
2. Where is their heart?
It is not realistic to create a pure sadist who feels nothing for anyone or anything. Everyone cares for something. What is the one thing your villain cares about? It doesn’t have to correlate with their diabolical plans at all! Why not, you ask? Because people are complex. Your villain can be planning to take over the world and yet return home to their stuffed teddy bear for comfort. While this example is humorous, it is very true. Everyone has that one thing they cannot live without, that they genuinely care for, the thing that humanizes them, the thing they would protect with their lives.
Here are some examples:
The Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz loved her sister, who died when Dorthy’s house smashed her.
The Cruella De Vil loved fashion and fur.
The Joker loved Harley Quinn.
Thanos loved Gamora.
An evil character can genuinely love, too. Possibly something that gives them that extra push to conquer their goals or give them more depth. Many villains, like some we mentioned, realize their love is a weakness and shut out that love to pursue their evil plans.
There are exceptions. Your evil character does not have to love. Voldemort from Harry Potter loved nothing besides power and himself. He was incapable of love since he was a product of a love potion and a one-sided infatuation. Perfects for a truly corrupt person with no weaknesses.
Some authors who want to write a straightforward story might not need to incorporate a separate desire the villain has. It suffices to write a basic villain with no backstory who creates situations your character needs to overcome. However, they might not stand out among the trillions of developed villains being published.
For example, belief in a higher power.
People are full of contradictions. Contradictions make the story interesting, and this certain contradiction is a fun one to dive into.
There are good and bad people in every culture, religion, etc. Even if your character is spiritual in any way does not mean that they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Even villains can believe there is a power above them. As we have seen throughout history, people have fought in the name of a higher power. Many people have created the illusion of righteousness while doing cruel things in secret. And some genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing by serving their higher power, by being the person willing to commit evil for the better good.
Mindsets such as, “If the higher powers did not want me to do their will, then they would have stopped me,” or, “The higher powers have commanded me to serve them in this way,” or, “It is my purpose/mission to help rid the world of any person who is beneath me/my people,” showcase personal justification of evil.
What about people who believe in a higher power, yet rebel against it for whatever reason? That could also be a driving point for your character to behave badly, too.
Any other contradiction in which the villain seems to promote goodness while acting maliciously in a justified means is a great way to get them to stand out.
You can add depth to your villain by incorporating confliction with their choices. Does your villain feel bad about what they are doing? Do they know on some level that it is wrong? Do they have a mental illness, obsession, or do they believe they are doing the right thing (like Thanos in Avengers: Endgame)?
Don’t be afraid to incorporate second thoughts, doubt, self-hatred, and confliction. Not all ‘bad guys’ are two-dimensional narcissists that are hellbent on giving a hero a hard time. They could have tons of other reasons for doing what they are doing besides basic greed, power, vanity.
You might think that heroes only feel emotions such as doubt and confliction, but that’s not true. The difference between a hero and villain here is that a hero will stop themselves from doing the wrong thing when feeling this way. They will put the pains of others before their personal pain. They will have compassion. But a villain will continue to justify their pain and their actions. They will put themselves first.
5. How Far Are Your Villains Willing to Go?
Some people lie, some manipulate, some steal. Everyone has flaws. Your villain should be no different. Therefore, not all villains do the same things. Some villains are sneaky, some are blunt, some believe they are honorable, therefore will not cheat or lie or steal. It all depends on their personality. Their actions must correlate with their personality.
With that said, figure out what will motivate your villain. What are they trying to achieve, and to what lengths will they go to get there? If they don’t have any moral hangups, then they will have no issues with actions like murder.
Some villains are lawful and will treat the hero with respect and will use fair play during battle (like Bane from Dark Knight Rises). This does not mean they aren’t the ‘bad guy’. This means they have certain values and a certain understanding of fairness. They are still trying to do awful things after beating the protagonist fairly.
In what ways are your villains willing to destroy your protagonist?
Do you want to create a lovable villain that will be hated and cherished in the hearts of your readers? How to Write a Lovable Villain!
As we can see, there are tons of ways you can help your villain stand out from the crowd. I hope these tips helped. Leave your thoughts in the comments below!