As readers, what inspires empathy for the hero and makes us root for him? Their flaws? Admirable qualities? Hopeless circumstances? Yes, to all of the above. But none of these elements would be effective without a worthy villain to complicate matters.
This is the real purpose of the antagonist: to make things unlivable for the hero and ramp up reader empathy. I mean, would we care so much about Snow White without the Queen? Maximus without Commodus? The Smurfs without Gargamel? Villains are important because they’re the ones who determine how bad things will get for the hero. It is fear of this antagonist that inspires empathy in readers, putting them firmly in the hero’s cheering section and ensuring they will keep turning pages. So it’s crucial you create a villain who is just as unique, interesting, and believable as the main character.
One way to do this is by including the Evil-By-Nature Villain. These are the antagonists who don’t have a backstory. They do what they do because it’s in their blood or their programming. The shark in Jaws. Ellen Ripley’s alien. The Terminator. Such a ruthless and seemingly unstoppable villain puts the hero in extreme danger because the enemy can’t be reasoned with or talked out of its determination to destroy. Villains like these, with little or no backstory, can be terrifying in their own right.
But there absolutely are worse bad guys. While a twenty-five foot shark might keep me out of the water, it won’t keep me up at night. The villains who accomplish this are the ones who feel real. They have morals—albeit skewed—and live by them. Though a nightmare now, they weren’t born that way; life, past events, and the evil of others have made them the villains they are today. They’re terrifying because they were once normal—just like me.
It is this kind of antagonist we should strive to create: moral villain who strictly adhere to their twisted moral codes. Here are some tips on how to bring them to life:
Know the Villain’s Backstory
We spend a lot of time digging into the hero’s history, but what if we dedicated even half as much energy researching our villain? Who were their caregivers? What were they like in the past? What happened that changed them? Who was kind to them? Who was cruel? Every villain has a backstory that should explain why they are the way they are today. Dredge it up and create a profile. Then dole out the important bits to readers so they can get a glimpse of who the villain used to be and how they became a monster.
Tip: The free Reverse Backstory Tool can help you achieve this!
Know the Villain’s Moral Code
We don’t tend to think of villains as moral individuals, but they usually are. They just live according to a different set of values than the rest of society.
Morals have to do with our beliefs about right and wrong. To make your villain truly ominous, give them a reason for doing what they do. Make her believe there is value in their choices. For example, through her abusive past and twisted religious beliefs, Margaret White (Carrie) finds it acceptable to verbally and physically abuse her daughter. Anton Chigurh, the heartless villain from No Country for Old Men, adheres to a moral code that isn’t explained; the audience doesn’t know why he chooses to let some people live and others die, but whatever his reasons, he believes firmly in them and acts accordingly.
It’s one thing for a character to engage in reprehensible behavior. An element of creepiness is added when they defend that behavior as being upright and acceptable. To pull this off, you need to know your villain’s moral code.
Know the Villain’s Boundaries
Morality isn’t just about what’s right; it also includes a belief that certain ideas are inherently wrong. Are there things your villain won’t do, lines they won’t cross? Why? Show their human side and you’ll make them more interesting. You might even manage to create some reader empathy, which is always a good thing.
Give the Villain Someone to Care About
Love is a moral concept—the idea that a person cares more for someone else than they do for themselves. Show that your villain is capable of caring, and you’ll add a layer of depth to their character.
On the TV show The Blacklist, serial criminal Raymond Reddington seems to have no boundaries. As long as it suits his purposes, he’ll sell out anybody—except FBI Agent Elizabeth Keen. This obsessive attachment not only gives him a human side, but it’s intriguing to the audience, who wants to know why he cares for her when he’s so ruthless in every other area of life.
No one’s going to cheer for a hero whose adversary is superficial or unrealistic. Turn your villain into a truly horrific creature by giving them a moral code to live by. Unearth their backstory and show readers that, at one point, they were human. It’s a good reminder that we’re all just one bad experience away from becoming monsters ourselves.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
That backstory for the villian is so important! Great article!
BECCA PUGLISI says
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Karen!
Jennifer Pierce says
My book features a MC and antagonist from the same family. They share a common backstory. One chose the path of virtue, the other chose the path of vice. It is a common scenario, but it has been fun developing these characters. It is easy for the antagonist to push buttons and cause tons of havoc in the protagonist’s life.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Family always complicates things 🙂
Raymond Walker says
I like things to be ambiguous, where you are unsure of who is the villain and who is the hero. This comes from writing too many mysteries back in the day, but I find it difficult to pull myself away. Anyway, I do like the format where each character could be obvious or….
Of course, this leads to difficult writing, telling the tale whilst giving nothing away. Not even the true characters. Yet they must be likeable/ Difficult/so many other traits (lol- choose) and all the things a normal character would be without giving anything away at all whilst the story goes on around them. All leading up to a reveal in the concluding chapter. I know this idea is not for everyone but it has served me well over the years.
V.M. Sang says
A fabulous post, Becca. In my Wolves of Vimar series, I know, and have from the inception of the series, the backstory of my antagonist. Yes, he was a normal little boy, but circumstances in his life made him what he became. He is also charming.
Mike Van says
In my sci fi trilogy, I have several antagonists. I hesitate to call them villlains:
– An Army general who’s pushy in going after what he wants, skirts the law, threatens my protagonist. But he’s just doing what his job requires. No violence, just nastiness and harassment.
– An astrophysicist hired by the government to wheedle and threaten secrets from the protagonist about the alien spaceship she has hidden. But he’s torn. He takes her to the desert to see a concealed alien artifact. And he loves her music, and secretly records bootleg copies of her performances. At the end, he begs forgiveness.
– Other governments try to destroy the alien spaceship with her in it. They want its technology; but if they can’t have it, nobody can. Her spaceship outsmarts them.
– On the alien world, she is confronted by the massive Elder, who is threatening and intimidating her allies. It has a horrible reputation, but when it finally sees her, it stands up to its full height, loses balance, and tips over. It fears she has an alien horde to come invade their planet.
Her allies are equally diverse.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Sounds like you’ve got a good cast of antagonists to make life difficult for your hero. And you’ve illustrated a great point: that not all antagonists are villains. There are so many different kinds of adversaries you can use to block your character—so many, that we devoted a chapter to this in the 1st volume of The Conflict Thesaurus. 🙂
Jan Sikes says
This is SO good, Becca. I backed away from writing a series because the MC was a villain, and I needed a hero. But I saw the antagonist perfectly and have to wonder if readers would read a story where the antoginist was the MC. Thank you for sharing this and I totally agree that the most terrifying villains are the ones who were once normal like me and you but life twisted them. Thanks for sharing!
BECCA PUGLISI says
Jan, so many people really like anti-hero stories, where the hero is kind of a bad guy. So I wouldn’t shy away from telling this kind of story if you’re passionate about the project. There are lots of resources online (we even have a few posts here) on how to write antiheroes well. I say go for it ;).
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Hi Jan. If done well, readers will enjoy a story where the antagonist is the MC! Alex Flinn does an amazing job of this. Beastly, which was turned into a movie, is told from the Beast’s point of view.
Alex Flinn’s book, Breathing Underwater….which has been extremely popular, is told from the abusive boyfriend’s point of view. I’ve seen it on tons of school reading lists through the years.
Becca’s amazing post shows why books like these can work well. I think you should write that story!