The Secret to Creating a Really Good Bad Guy

12 pillarsBecca and I are welcoming Susanne Lakin today, who is a writing coach, author and editor all rolled into one. Susanne is our go-to expert for all things editing, and has a great new book out called the The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction: Your Blueprint for Building a Strong Story (The Writer’s Toolbox Series). I’m reading it now and am far enough in to say this is a book that you want to add to your collection. Susanne does a great job of showcasing each critical piece of storytelling, and explaining how they all fit together to frame the structure of a compelling and meaningful novel.

Today she has some great thoughts on how to build an memorable antagonist, so please read on! FleuronDon’t you just love to hate really great bad guys in novels? A list of the most intriguing villains in literature includes characters such as Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Long John Silver in Treasure Island, Edmund from Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.

Not every novel has a villain. Often many characters take on the role of an antagonist at various times —someone who stands in the way of your protagonist. They may be well meaning or not.

But if your novel features one specific character providing the central source of opposition for your hero or heroine—in other words, a villain or bad guy—take the time to craft such a character so that he or she will be believable and memorable.

hannibalThere are countless varieties of bad guys, but the best ones are memorable because of four specific traits:

  • They aren’t stereotyped. People are complex, fickle, selfish, self-sacrificing, and fearful. Depending on the situation and mind-set when something happens, each of us might react in an unpredictable way. The temptation, especially with a nemesis character, is to defer to stereotype. To make bad guys really bad to the point that they are comic-book cutouts. How can writers avoid the stereotype? Read on . . .
  • They have a reason they’re bad. Great villains are passionate about what they believe. They go after a goal much in the way a protagonist does, and believe that what they are doing is the right thing in the circumstance. They aren’t just bad to be bad. All characters, whether virtuous or villainous, need core motivation based on how they were raised and treated throughout their life, the lies they believe about themselves and the world, and the deep-seated fears that frighten them and cause them to act as they do.
  • They show a glimpse of vulnerability and inner conflict. The best villains in literature are the ones you almost like (but would never admit it!) and find fascinating. They are usually complex, full of inner conflict, but have moments of grace or kindness that seem contradictory. Those moments, though, turn a predictable stereotype into a riveting, believable nemesis. Give your bad guy a moment of doubt. Let your readers feel sorry for him . . . for just a second. Then get them back to hating him.
  • They are flawed, and they usually know it. Often a villain’s awareness of his flaws is what motivates him toward his goals. He overcompensates for those flaws with his negative traits: pride, impatience, cruelty, heartlessness, greed, lust—to name a few. Because he is unable to love, he hurts others. Because he lacks true self-worth, he hates to see others succeed and attain happiness. What has been denied him, he denies others.

Push Beyond the Stereotype

Life is messy, difficult, stressful. Everyone reacts to stress differently and often inconsistently. You may want to make your role as writer easier by manufacturing consistent, predictable, stereotyped characters, but I would like to encourage you not to.

Push yourself to create believable characters that are complex and sometimes unpredictable. If you can create a moment in your novel in which the hero and the villain agree on something and realize what they do have in common, you can have a powerful moment.

Likewise, those moments in which the bad guy is actually vulnerable and/or empathetic can go a long way to making your story feel authentic.

How Bad Guys Are Good for Your Story

 Even if you don’t have one classic villain in your story, be sure you have one or more antagonists in your novel in some form or another.

Antagonists are so useful in many ways. By providing opposition, the hero can voice and demonstrate what he is passionate about, what he’s willing to risk, and why he’s after that goal. Nemesis characters provide the means to amplify and showcase the themes in your story, for they often take an opposing view on issues.

Your nemesis character does not want your hero to reach his goal. He himself should have needs, fears, and goals he is striving for based on what he believes. He may be evil, greedy, psychotic, or a sociopath. Or he might instead be a friend who is fearful of losing something precious to her, and who believes with all her heart the protagonist must not reach his goal. It depends on your story.

If you don’t have anyone opposing your protagonist, spend some time thinking how to create someone. Make his needs and goals clash with your hero’s. Make him believe he is right and has the right to his belief. Then readers will really love to hate your bad guy. Which is a good thing!

Who are your favorite bad guys in literature and why? Do they show a glimpse of vulnerability or some empathetic quality in the midst of all their evil? Share in the comments.

susanne S. Lakin is the author of sixteen novels and three writing craft books. Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive gives tips and writing instruction for both fiction and nonfiction writers. If you want to write a strong, lasting story, check out her new release The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, part of The Writer’s Toolbox Series, which provides a foundational blueprint that is concise and practical, and takes the mystery out of novel structure.


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Guest Post, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Secret to Creating a Really Good Bad Guy

  1. Pingback: The Secret to Creating a Really Good Bad Guy – Wordpreneur • How to Make Money Writing

  2. H Gibson says:

    Very good post, thank you.
    “Push yourself to create believable characters that are complex and sometimes unpredictable.”
    In real life, sometimes the good guys are the bad guys. The Chronicles of Han Storm investigates real life situations with all the intricacies, sacrifices and compromises good people sometimes have to make, becoming the bad people, for a while. No-one is really bad or really good as the lines are blurred by circumstance.

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  4. Joe Kovacs says:

    The book I read back in high school that made me want to be a writer is Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevksy. I actually missed the deadline by which I needed to finish reading the book for my AP English test, flunked the test, got berated by my English teacher… and still kept reading until the end despite my damaged pride!

    A lot of the psychology that you describe regarding villains in this post, Susanne, plays very well into how Dostoevsky’s protagonist Raskolnikov is so idealistic that he misses his own flaws. He thinks he can take the laws of morality into his own hands and kill an unsuspecting pawnbroker lady. He is both protagonist and antagonist. I have never read a book like it–with the themes of suffering, redemption and idealism–that affected me so profoundly, even though I read it more than 20 years ago. Just thinking about the novel gives me the shivers.

    You are so on point in suggesting to writers that they build out the human characteristics of antagonists, give them an understandable if flawed sense of logic and even–gasp–agree with the protagonist at some key moment.

    Thanks for this very thoughtful post into how to create really “good” bad guys.


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  6. Great reminder to make our villains three-dimensional!!

  7. :Donna Marie says:

    What a great post! I just love all the info you ladies put out there for us, and this sounds like an excellent book, for sure 🙂

    For me, partly because I’m at the end of rereading the whole series, but also because they naturally come to mind are Voldemort and Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series, and also Gar Face from THE UNDERNEATH. I know there are many more, but these are the ones I thought of and I don’t remember anything redeeming about them! lol

  8. Thanks for a great post, Susanne! I was wondering if you have any views on having a single major nemesis character AND a proper top-shelf villain? Do you think it muddies the waters, or (like most things) does it just boil down to how you handle it? Thanks again 🙂

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Hi Angela, every component and character in a novel has to be considered in the light of the concept you are playing out, and the actual plot/story. You can have numerous antagonists in a novel, and numerous nemesis characters. The latest Hobbit movie came to mind, with five armies all fighting one another. A lot of nemesis characters there. I’m not clear on what the difference is between a nemesis and a “top-shelf villain. Bad guys come in all shapes and sizes. It may not be useful to have two bad guys that are similar and have the same goals, views, and issues. That would be redundant. But if they each have some goal and attitude that provides different obstacles for your protagonist, then that might be useful.

      • Thanks for your reply, Susanne – that does make sense. I guess I was thinking along the lines of a protagonist like Harry Potter, who has a ‘nemesis’ in the form of Draco Malfoy, as well as a proper ‘villain’ to face down the track (Voldemort). This is the distinction to which I was referring; Malfoy was almost like a warm-up antagonist, and later became a somewhat sympathetic character as he, too, fell victim to Voldemort’s cruelty. In this example, multiple ‘bad guys’ allowed for a much deeper exploration of what it is to be a truly bad person. There probably is no limit to the number of villains you have in a story, but as you pointed out, it would only really work if there was no redundancy/duplication…thanks for helping to clarify my thinking 🙂

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  10. I loved this. Thank you, Susanne. I read a lot of writing advice, almost all of it good, but it doesn’t always stick. Yours, though, resonated with me and I love that it dovetails well with the books Angela and Becca produce. I’m heading now to investigate your book further. Thank you again.

  11. Denise Willson says:

    Great piece of advice, Susanne! Gotta love the villains.

    Dee Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  13. Isabelle says:

    Just jumped on Amazon and bought Heart of your story and 12 key pillars… Off to the reading corner for me. =)

    Thank you!

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Thanks! I hope these books really help your writing. So much of what I put in these writing craft books comes from what I encounter in the hundreds of manuscripts I critique each year. I hope to save writers from making the kinds of mistakes in their novels that will cause novel failure.

  14. Susanne also has a workbook that goes along with her 12 Pillars book, which I’m pretty sure I’ll be using it when I write my next fiction book. Everything is broken down so simply to help writers lay the foundation for their next project. Very cool stuff. Thanks for being here, Susanne!

  15. Mary Jo Caffrey says:

    Thank you for such a useful article! It explains complexity of the bad guy and offers ways to crank up his behavior to make him memorable and strengthen the whole story.

    I’d say more, but I now must order S. Lakin’s new book to help writers perfect their craft.

    • C. S. Lakin says:

      Thanks, Mary Jo. My new book (and workbook) goes deep into all the primary and secondary character types needed to populate a novel. I hope it helps you write some really great bad guys!

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