7 January 2013


Your villain is as important to your story as is your hero so keep this in mind when you're creating your villain’s character.

Why is your villain so important?

Because HE/SHE  must be a worthy adversary for your hero to deal with, and because a good villain drives the conflict in your story.

Think of the stories you’ve read where there was one particular character (the villain) who put you on edge.  For me, there are two villains that come to mind in two of Daphne du Maurier’s books, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca.

I read Jamaica Inn while I was on a particularly stormy ocean cruise, but that’s another story.  Although, I must say that reading the book did help transport me away from that stormy sea and to the moors along the Cornish coast. And I'd say too that the character most responsible for my transportation was the VILLAIN.  And a most sinister one, at that.  His name is Joss Merlyn and he terrorises his wife and his niece.  And sent chills down my spine.

 Rebecca, I read in much more congenial surroundings.  At home.  On dry land!  The VILLAIN  here is Mrs Danvers, and a spookier woman you wouldn’t wish to meet.  After the heroine marries Max de Winter, and he whisks her away to live at his manor house, ‘Manderley’.  Once there, she is plagued by Mrs Danvers, the forbidding housekeeper, who keeps the memory of Max’s first wife alive by various means.

In both stories the villains drove the conflict and made life difficult for the heroines.  The villains also created an ‘on the edge of your seat’ experience for, me, the reader.

So, how do you create such powerful, three dimensional villains?  Here are some questions to ask yourself.

What traumatic experience causes my villain to act the way he/she does?

What is the connection between my villain and my hero?

What is my villains agenda?  What does he want?

Is my villain determined to win at all cost?

Is my villain equal to my hero in ingenuity, determination, courage, etc?

Does my villain have any redeeming characteristics or is he/she all bad?  (Perhaps he/she has a pet he/she loves.  There's got to be something, surely!)

Create a back-story for your villain.

You’ve more than likely created a back-story for your hero, and it’s probably a good idea to do the same for your villain.  Even if you never use this, you will be able to write with more surety about your villain if you know more about him/her.
Give your villain a gaol.

What does he want?  Is it the same thing that your hero wants or does he/she want to destroy your hero's goal?
Get into your villain's head.
You could interview him.  Find out what makes him/her tick.
How does he feel?
What lengths will he/she go to.
How does he/she plan to go about getting what he/she wants?
You may find out things you didn't expect.  They will pop into your mind like magic!

In fact, your villain is as important to your story as is your hero so don’t cobble your VILLAIN together as an after thought.  Make your villain the height of VILLAINNESS!

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  1. Y’know, I’ve written five novels and there’s not a single villain in any of them. I don’t even care for the term antagonist; I prefer foil. I see the relationship between my protagonist and their foil as analogous to that of a funny man and a straight man. My comedy heroes were Morecombe and Wise and what I liked about them was the way they blurred the roles; Ernie was never just the straight man and that’s the case more and more with characters in books—the whole black hat/white hat distinction’s long gone, hence the rise of the antihero I suppose. As far as Mrs Danvers goes I think writers can learn a lot by comparing the book and Hitchcock’s famous adaptation because although memorable Judith Anderson’s portrayal lacks depth because there’s no backstory; she’s just the mad, bad woman. Nowadays viewers look for a bit more I think; readers always have.

    1. Thanks, Jim, for sharing your thoughts on villains with us. I think when it comes to comedy you may not have an awful villain, but there are usually two opposites as in your example of Morcambe and Wise. Ernie a comedian who wasn’t funny and, as you say , Eric who was a straight man who was funny.

      As for Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, you’re right. Mrs Danvers didn’t have a backstory. I haven’t seen Judith Anderson’s portrayal of Mrs Danvers. The movie version I saw had Diana Rigg (of The Avengers fame) playing Mrs Danvers.

      Thank you again, Jim.

  2. How true that a fascinating villain is the character that most drives the conflict in a story. I read Rebecca many years ago and after reading your post, the character I do remember best is the chilling Mrs. Danvers. Great advice for writing a good mystery Jill.

  3. Great post with good reminders about creating villains. How exciting would Batman be without The Joker?

    1. An excellent example of why we need villains, Sandy. We'd lose interest fast if it was just Batman and Robin riding around in their batmobile.

    2. Actually it can and has been done, Jill. The science fiction novelist Harlan Ellison penned Detective Comics #567, a story called ‘The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks’ in which the Batman (no Robin in this one) spends the entire night not being needed. He spies a man with a gun heading into a late night store but by the time he gets there the proprietor’s disarmed him and all Batman has to do is call the cops; a man on a ledge is saved by a cop before Batman can reach him and one and on the night goes. In the final panel we have Bruce Wayne telling Alfred that this has been the worst night of his life. Okay, you couldn’t do that every week but it does show that you can write an entertaining story without a bad guy. Because it’s a comic Ellison can only go so far—at least back in 1986 that was the case—but the undercurrent here is deeply ontological. Without crime the Batman has no reason to exist—and that should be a good thing—and yet Bruce is miserable suggesting that he needs crime to give his life purpose. He doesn’t even wait for crimes to happen; he goes out actively looking for them. What if that was the last night of crime in Gotham? What would he do? Become like those firemen who start fires just so they can feel the rush of being a hero? There’s a lot more that could’ve been done with this one if Ellison had had free rein but the bottom line is that he didn’t need an external bad buy for the story to work. It would be enough to let Bruce wrestle with his own inner demons. In that respect no one is ever solely the protagonist; we all wander round with angels on one shoulder and demons on the other.

    3. Hi Jim, It's good to hear from you again on this. No villain for Batman to challenge! But perhaps in this case he is challenging himself. As you say, if crime stopped in Gotham, Batman would have difficulty finding another reason to get out of bed in the morning. Or, in his case, in the middle of the night!

  4. Hello Jill, my name is Carolie Grant and I am looking for blogs for my guest posts in which you would be paid for publishing them. Please drop me an email for further details.