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Crafting Compelling Villains: A Guide for Fiction Writers

man's face in paint to make him look scary
Villains Can "Look" Like Bad People, and Often Have Distinctive Quirks to Distinguish Them

The word “villain,” to me, has always been associated with caricatures of bad or mean-spirited antagonists. I say caricature not in a derogatory way, but more in the sense that these types of characters overwhelmingly are not fully fleshed out but rather flat characters who represent or are symbols of the concept of bad or negative forces that our protagonists or heroes must face if they are to reach their goals. I prefer the word antagonist. In Crafting Compelling Villains: A Guide for Fiction Writers, we'll touch on the basics of what a villain is and isn't, with some good examples of each.

According to Merriam-Webster, an antagonist is “one that contends with or opposes another: Adversary, Opponent.” I think this is a more apt definition, because it removes the cartoon sort of feeling from the term “villain.” Of course, villain is appropriate if we’re talking about superhero movies and comic books and the overly exaggerated bad guys in books like Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, Napoleon the pig in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Captain Hook in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy. These villains rightfully carry the term of “villain.” But I’d argue that the level of overemphasis on their evil qualities almost dictates that they’re villains, even though they still fall under the category of “antagonists” in the books.

I prefer the term antagonist because it refers to the protagonist’s “opposition,” or their “adversary,” whose definition, also from Merriam-Webster, is “one that contends with, opposes, or resists: an enemy or opponent.” That enemy or opponent is our protagonist, and they aren’t necessarily exaggerated caricatures. The opposition could be a mountain and its perilous terrain. Or it could be our hero’s boss or mother-in-law, the protagonist’s mental state, their fears, and so on. So, I suppose the terms villain and antagonist, while used interchangeably, may not always refer to the same type of opposition.  

Villains, by definition, are evil. Antagonists don’t necessarily have to be “evil.” As mentioned, they can be a mountain, another person/character who our hero doesn’t get along with for some reason or who’s trying to impede our hero’s progress to their goals and wants, and so on. At any rate, the role of villains and antagonists are similar: they oppose our protagonist’s progress.

So, what should a villain be? Well, a villain can be many things. They can be round characters or flat ones. Either way there’s usually malice in their actions. They may deliberately sabotage our hero’s life for nothing more than their deranged pleasure. But the best villains are the ones that have their own stories. The ones that have a clear motivation for what they do. That have their own backstories and wants and needs that conflict, and harshly, with our hero’s wants and needs. While historically villains didn’t require such depth, either in fiction or television or the movies, contemporary times call for it more and more. Depth of character, whether protagonist or antagonist or villain, create more interesting characters, and thus more compelling stories.

Villains can be morally repugnant characters, mean-spirited, greedy, politically or socially radicalized, bigoted, corrupt, nothing more than a foil for our protagonist, and so on, but they can also be on an equal footing power-wise with our hero. Villains can be brilliant or uneducated, strong or weak (although their strength likely exists in their access to something that allows them to overcome that weakness), but they’re usually not too hard to identify, at least as the story progresses. There are also different types of villains, and depending on who you ask, the number varies.

AI image of a villain face caricature
Villains Don't Have to be One-Dimensional Caricatures. And They Don't Have to be Obvious.

Villains can be broken down into:

  • Henchmen

  • Masterminds

  • Fanatics

  • Anti-villains

  • Bullies

  • Beasts

  • Machines

  • Evil personified

  • Authority figures

And probably many other classifications. Each of these villains’ characteristics vary in some way. Henchman, for example, aren’t the main antagonists—they’re usually the followers of the main villain, and to be a little generic, are usually not too bright, may be strong physically, and exist strictly to do the main villain’s bidding.

Masterminds are the main villain. They are brilliant characters mentally and are often after whatever will bring them the greatest power. They are quite successful at what they do, but often get tripped up somewhere along the way, with the hero somehow overcoming everything the mastermind has set in motion that will help them but that will also be to the detriment of our protagonist.

Bullies are easy to spot. Bullies bully. They target the weak, and either force their will upon either our protagonist or someone near or close to our protagonist either physically or personally. Bullies tend not to be too smart. Bullies may either remain bullies throughout the narrative, or, in many cases, realize that their bullying ways are ultimately a detriment to what makes them happy. Under these circumstances, bullies may come over or “join the good side.”

Fanatics are villains that are usually single-minded when it comes to whatever it is they believe. They are likely religious fanatics or political fanatics, but they can be fanatics of anything, given a writer’s wont for their purpose in the writer’s fiction. Everything in their lives revolves around whatever cause for which they hold the most zeal. Obviously, fanatics can refer to more harmless endeavors, like baseball fanatics or basketball fanatics, but when we’re talking about villains, fanatics tend to be hard characters to change, meaning their transformation (if they have one) will be a difficult feat to achieve, at least from the character’s perspective.

Authority figures as villains are interesting. Think of the totalitarian government in George Orwell’s 1984. Or Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter novels. Or Hindley Earnshaw in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Authority figures make threats and follow up on them. They are a constant, imposing presence in our protagonist’s minds (and lives), and always hold the promise or threat of something negative befalling our hero(es). They can be intimidating. They can be all-powerful. But somewhere along the way, our hero(es) will likely overcome that intimidation, stripping the power from the authority figure in some form or fashion by the end of the novel.

One of the most disturbing machines as a villain I’ve ever experienced is HAL, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was also a novel by Arthur C. Clarke written at the same time as the movie was made (the novel came out after the movie). The Matrix movies are based on machines trying to enslave humanity out of the fear that humans are a threat to the survival of the machines. For the most part, you’ll find these types of villains in science fiction, including Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, by Harlan Ellison, and Daemon, by Daniel Suarez.

Woman with horns on her head horror
Villains Are NOT Always Men, Although They Are Often Portrayed as the Bad Guys

Beasts as villains are also normally found in science fiction and fantasy, though depending on how “beast” is defined, it can also refer to characters in other genres. The beast in Beauty and the Beast is obviously a “beast,” although he changes. But beasts in general tend to be villains with extraordinary powers to destroy whatever it is they want to destroy. Beasts do not have to abide by the normal thought processes of human villains, making them more unpredictable. The great white shark who killed people at random in Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was a beast (Jaws was also a great movie). The creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be seen as a beast, but maybe not a villain. Grendel from Beowulf is a beast and is feared by everyone.

Anti-villains achieve their goals by doing bad things. They may not necessarily be evil, but their means for getting what they want are bad. Some anti-villains turn away from their bad deeds and become good characters. We may learn that anti-villains somewhere along the way were treated a certain way (negatively), and thus became anti-villains due to their misfortune or the abuse or neglect they experienced. So, they may have a reason or reasons for having become anti-villains. Anti-villains are likely fighting for a good cause, but how they go about it affects others negatively. They can be very compelling characters, if used correctly.

Cully Perlman is an author and Substantive Editor. If your manuscript is ready for an edit, he can be reached at

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Jon Tobey
Jon Tobey
Apr 23

I tend to think of antagonists as a mirror to the protagonist. Certainly in modern story telling there no more white hats versus black hats. There is a more middle ground for both heroes and villains. I think this makes these stories much more interesting. I point you to Justified. Not the new one, but the original, where every character is drawn in riveting detail, and you have empathy for the most evil ones of the bunch. Thinking about this "gray" area, it makes sense to draw your villains in an empathetic way. This invests your audience with all of your characters.

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