Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Create the Perfect Villain: a 6-Step Master Plan

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

In my last article here on Fiction University, I laid out 6 Ways to Make Readers Fall in Love With Your Characters. You can use the opposite of those exact same methods to create a villain that your readers will love to hate.

Building empathy in your readers gets them emotionally involved in your story. They start to feel what your characters are actually feeling, making the story a shared experience. That's why, when you set out to build empathy in your readers, I suggest using the acronym SHARED:
  • S is for Skill  
  • H is for Help
  • A is for Affection
  • R is for Raw Deal
  • E is for Entertaining
  • D is for Danger

Here's how it breaks down:

S is for Skill

Why are so many heroes “the best” at what they do? Because a character who operates at the top of their field is automatically interesting to watch. (You can also take the opposite approach: put your hero at the bottom and you’ll have an appealing underdog story.)

But no hero is without weakness, and that's the key to capitalizing on your villain's skills. Make your villain strong in the areas where your hero is weak. That way, when they come into direct conflict, the reader believes your hero won't stand a chance. That makes for a truly terrifying villain.

It also forces your hero to grow and change over the course of your story. Your hero must step out of her comfort zone in order to win.

In my latest book, A Kiss Before Doomsday, the heroine is Dru Jasper, an amateur sorceress who’s in way over her head. She faces an experienced villain with otherworldly magical powers and tremendous resources at his disposal. In a head-to-head clash, Dru would lose in a heartbeat. So in order to prevail, she needs to think outside the box. She must learn, grow, and take her sorcery to a higher level.

H is for Help

One of the fastest ways to build empathy for a hero is to show them helping someone in need. This is what million-dollar screenwriter Blake Snyder called a “Save the Cat!” moment.

Imagine there’s a cute kitty stuck in a tree. Your hero saves the cat. Now everybody loves the hero. Easy peasy.

So what do you do with your villain? The exact opposite. Let's call it “Kick the Dog.”

Instead of saving someone, have the villain cause harm, through words or deeds. Or have the villain refuse to save someone who clearly needs help. Or make her just downright mean. In every way possible, your villain should make the world a worse place.

You can also create a more complex villain by having her choose to help one person, but not another. That gives you an opportunity to showcase the villain’s cold code of honor, ruthlessness, or twisted view of the world.

A Kiss Before Doomsday features a villain who, in the face of impending apocalypse, decides to save only those he deems worthy. The rest of the world can perish in the fires of doomsday, and he's OK with that. Dru, of course, wants to save everyone, and that puts them in direct conflict.

A is for Affection

Readers will quickly warm to a hero who is beloved by other characters. Show how much affection these other characters have for your hero, and the reader will start to care about them.

With a villain, you want to do the opposite. Instead of affection, show other characters reacting to the villain with fear and hate.

Then, immediately show why they feel that way. Have the villain demonstrate a dark side, so that readers understand why this person is bad news. Otherwise, readers may feel that the villain is being unfairly ostracized. If that happens, readers can quickly develop sympathies that throw your story out of balance. So show the fear of others, and then justify it through the villain’s dark actions.

By the way, you can make things even more interesting by introducing a character who unconditionally loves the villain. This could be a family member, a love interest, a protégé, or anyone who has a reason to show genuine affection. Does this character know about the villain’s dark side? How do they justify their continuing relationship? These are questions you can explore to create richer characters.

R is for Raw Deal

One of the most common ways to create a sympathetic hero is to saddle her with undeserved misfortune. Something terrible and unfair happens to her, and immediately we empathize with her.

You can do the same thing with a villain. It's a common technique in origin stories to show how two similar characters react differently to misfortune.

One character decides that she will never let this terrible thing happen to anyone else, and she sets out to save others from the same miserable fate. The other character decides to save only herself.

Guess which character becomes the hero, and which one is the villain? Exactly.

You can also create a villain by giving someone the opposite of a raw deal: present a character who has been given great power and privileges without earning them. Then show that character abusing her power and causing harm to others. Voila, instant villain.

E is for Entertaining

Readers quickly grow to like a character who is fun to watch. If your hero is smart, charming, and quick with a joke, you can bet readers will look forward to seeing the character again. They will be delighted to find out what happens next.

But when your villain steps onto the page, you want readers to be terrified. You want them to worry about what will happen next, because that will keep them turning pages.

Make your villain a constant threat. Have something ominous or terrible happens whenever the villain appears. Then, crank up the tension in subsequent scenes. Before long, the reader will be chewing their nails every time this villain shows up.

D is for Danger

When someone that we know and like (for example, your hero) is in danger, we’re automatically worried about them. We want them to survive, escape, and triumph. They have our sympathy from the moment they encounter danger.

The best way to create an intriguing conflict is to make the villain the source of that danger.

All of the major conflicts arrayed against your hero should lead back to the villain, directly or indirectly. If the villain hasn't outright created the problem, then she should make it worse. When you sit down to figure out the overall arc of your story, look for ways that you can have the villain create dangers for your hero.

You can also increase the tension by having the villain threaten some fundamental aspect of the hero’s life: job, home, marriage, family, and so on. Have your villain threaten someone or something that the hero cares about, and it creates instant conflict.

Your Turn: Create the Perfect Villain

Open a new document on your computer or grab your notebook, and spend time thinking deeply about your villain. Consider who they would be, and what they would be doing, if the hero didn't exist. Then go through the SHARED checklist:
  • S is for Skill. Can you give your villain skills that your hero lacks? 
  • H is for Help. Can you show your villain “kicking the dog” somehow? 
  • A is for Affection. Early in the story, can you show another character hating and fearing the villain – and show the reader why? Can you include a character who has true affection for the villain? 
  • R is for Raw Deal. Can you afflict the villain with undeserved misfortune, or give them great power and privilege to abuse? 
  • E is for Entertaining. Can you make your villain frightening to watch? 
  • D is for Danger. Can you make your villain the source of the biggest dangers facing your hero?

If you can pull off even one or two of these methods, you'll make your villain more interesting and improve your story. Do all six, and you'll create a villain your readers will never forget.

Who are your favorite villains of all time? Leave a comment below.

Laurence MacNaughton is an urban fantasy and thriller author. His recent books include It Happened One Doomsday and A Kiss Before Doomsday. Find out how you can get a free ebook at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About A Kiss Before Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 2)

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo


  1. I've been really enjoying your guest post series. :) This post is lovely. Villains are a weak point of mine -something I'm working to overcome. I am happy to see that my current villain hits several of the points you suggest.

  2. Glad to help, Chicory! I had to learn how to write villains the hard way – through many, many rejections. Now you can learn from my mistakes. See if there's a way you can work in all six elements into your villain. That's the kind of hard work that really pays off. Have fun writing!

  3. I mark the worth and success of writing advice by how many times I stop reading to make notes, and changes to my story. It took me an hour to read this post. Thank you, Mr. MacNaughton. My antagonist thanks you.