Saturday, December 22, 2012

How to Write A Good Bad Guy

Posted by: Regan Summers

I'm often asked by new and aspiring authors, how to write a villain. Not a stock figure with a dark mustache stomping around kicking puppies and doing obviously Bad Things, but a credible or sinister or surprising villain.

It's a good question and my answer is always: don't write a villain; write a person.

Construct the villain as you would the heroine. She has a body, a mind and a heart. She has pet peeves, deep fears and strong desires. Her past contributes to, but does not overpower her. While she is full color, her past - culture and heritage, important relationships and moments of strong emotion - trails her like a dimly-sketched river of ghosts.

She does what she does because she believes she must and she also believes, in the end, that it is right.

Here's the kicker: so does the villain. The bad guy can't exist only because the heroine needs a force to butt up against. And, while some bad guys - particularly in fantasy - can be beings of pure evil, it's difficult to get much mileage out of that. If the bad guy is PURE EVIL, the heroine doesn't have to be very complicated to oppose him. So, the villain believes that what he is doing is right but, unlike with the heroine, the reader does not root for him because his values are twisted. He is twisted.

He isn't just greedy; he believes he is owed or deserves his ill-gotten gains.

He wasn't born hating a group of people or creatures; he believes they did him insufferable harm or will turn his world into an unbearable place.

He does not hate the heroine; he is envious of her. So envious that he loathed himself for his jealousy, and that self-loathing made him lash out, and the more he struck down others, the more he believed he was building within himself something of the power he perceives the good guy as having.

That's a little bit scary.

The most insidious kind of villain is the character that is present throughout a book without the reader knowing he is evil, but the moment that fact is revealed, things become clear. The Usual Suspects is a great example of this. The villain is masterful, so intent on his goals (the only thing, in my mind, not well-revealed in this movie) that he disguises his brilliant mind and allows himself to be penned up with criminals who, if they discovered he was the cause of their incarceration, would likely kill him.

Author Raymond Chandler was also a master of the insidious villain. For one, he juggles fleets of distinct suspects without ever dropping a red herring, but he also allows the suspect to exist among the rest of the players. Chandler, of course, was writing mysteries so the emphasis is on discovering the bad guy rather than having to work against or defeat him, but I do recommend reading him. His stories are lessons in how to hide a bad guy as well as how to write a memorable character.

The exercise I use when I get stuck with a flat villain is to write from his point of view. If I'm halfway through a story and can't seem to get any further, I back up and write the most conflict-heavy scenes from the bad guy's point of view. It isn't always comfortable to step sideways into the mind of a monster. However, the less comfortable it is, the more compelling the character will hopefully be. And doesn't everyone love having someone to root against?

cross-posted at


Regan Summers lives in Anchorage, Alaska with her husband and alien-monkey hybrid of a child. She is a huge fan of the low profile. She likes books, ottomans with concealed storage, small plate dining, libraries, Corporal Hicks, some aspects of pre-revolutionary France, most aspects of current Italy, and books.

Her Night Runner series, including Don’t Bite the Messenger and Running in the Dark, is available wherever e-books are sold.


  1. Excellent advice on crafting a villain. We all want a villain who is worthy of our heroine (or hero) right?

  2. Good advice. Thinking about what the villain's goals and what she/he's actively doing to accomplish them often helps me fill in plot holes.

    1. Thanks, Nicole. When I write myself into a corner, I often withdraw to examine the story from the opponent's POV. It either gives me something to jumpstart the plot with, or expands what I've already got so that I can keep going.

  3. Ran across this quote on a different blog, which really resonated. Sheila Gilbert, DAW books editor: "If your character doesn't face a strong enough challenge or enemy, then she's not that strong and her victories don't mean as much."


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