An all-important truth has become clear to me recently. The hero of your story isn’t the most important character. Your villain is.
Villains drive your plot forward, not the protagonist. Sure the protagonist has to accept the challenge that your villain issues, but without that push back from the villain, they have nothing to do.
Their life has no meaning, which makes things dull for your reader. And we don’t want that to happen. So we need to craft a fantastic opponent for our main characters to duke it out with.
To do that, we need to know what a villain is and how to make them worthy of a story. Let’s start by defining what our villain is.
What is a Villain?
Here’s our definition of a villain:
Villain: is a character working actively against the protagonist. They’re malicious and devoted to wickedness or crime. Villains constitute an essential evil agency in the plot.
Does this definition sound a little familiar? It did to me too.
A villain is a little different than our antagonist. While they both like to give our hero grief, antagonists typically are not evil. They want to make things difficult, but they aren’t going to do something to cause harm specifically.
On the other hand, villains want to cause harm and chaos while also making things more difficult for our protagonist. They are more intense than our antagonists. They’re smarter, more cunning, and want to rule the world.
And there are several archetypes we can use.
7 Popular Villain Archetypes You Can Use
There are so many different types of villains that it can be hard to choose which archetype to use in your story. If you’re stuck, there are seven well-loved archetypes you can use:
The Mustache Curler
This villain makes sure that you know they are a villain. They’re always taunting and challenging the hero to do something about his evil plan. But that’s all there is to this villain. They have no backstory and remain flat. The hero always overthrows their bid for world domination.
The Mustache Curler loves to seep his way into children’s stories to scare them for a time before diving under their beds in shame after their defeat.
The Ancient Evil
The Ancient Evil is sneaky. It likes to hide in some object and entice the weak into doing something they shouldn’t, like unleashing this villain type on the world. Or they have a devout follower that they have convinced to do their bidding.
This villain wants to destroy everything, get revenge, or plunge the world into darkness under their reign of terror. You can’t reason with them. No one can, which means your hero will need to do something amazing to beat them.
The Ancient Evil likes to lurk in epic fantasy novels and comic books. It’s even infiltrated the big screen. The best example of this villain would be The Mummy franchise, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz.
Every Mummy movie starts with someone purposefully or accidentally releasing the power of the Mummy. The characters then spend the rest of the movie trying to trap the villain in his sarcophagus again.
The Bully makes frequent appearances in children and young adult (YA) fiction. These villains like to throw their weight around, but rarely cause any lasting harm to the hero.
This villain is almost defeated and can be a henchman for a bigger evil within the story. The Bully loves to force the main character to grow in some way.
Harry Potter faces many battles with bullies on his quest to get through school and defeat Voldemort. His aunt, uncle, and cousin make his life miserable at home. And Snape and Draco Malfoy make life difficult for him at school.
The Mastermind is always one step ahead of our clever hero. This villain doesn’t need to get their hands dirty, but they will do so if it benefits their plan. They want to match their wits against a worthy adversary.
However, this marks the beginning of the end for this villain. Once The Mastermind meets our quick on their feet protagonist, they have to come up with more clever and sinister plans to keep their advantage.
This villain is a familiar character across genres, but you need a hero that is eager to cross paths with The Mastermind. Professor Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes is the perfect villain to test Holmes’s powers of deduction. He is more than capable of keeping two steps ahead of our favorite detective.
The Dark Lord
The Dark Lord is all about pitting the forces of good and evil against one another. This villain is relatively new to the world. They’ve had something happen to them that made them choose a life of crime and pain over one of light.
They are either a contemporary of the hero or a generation older and heads a powerful organization that they rule with an iron fist. They have hired others to do the dirty work for them, keeping them just on the right side of the law. And these henchmen are sent ahead to “soften up” the hero before The Dark Lord arrives on the scene.
The Dark Lord is also another familiar villain in fiction. We’ve battled alongside Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker as they fight Voldemort and Darth Vader.
The Mirror villain is an interesting one. The mirror our hero in every way imaginable even looks but differs in what they believe. There is some difference in morals and philosophical outlook between the two characters that will play out in the final battle.
And when your hero and villain fight, it’s epic. They are putting everything on the line for what they believe in, including their lives. And because they’re so evenly matched, we’re forced to reflect on what heroism is and what it means to us.
In the land of comics, General Zod from the Superman comics matches Superman in strength and ability. When the two go to war over Earth, they have to fight out who is right and fit to “rule” the planet.
Someone Else’s Hero
Your hero is right, right? Not according to Someone Else’s Hero. Their way is the right way, and they’ve got a following to prove it.
This villain isn’t fighting against the hero; they agree with them. However, how they want to bring about their goals or ideas is what sets them apart. And if you switched their roles, you could understand what the villain is trying to achieve.
X-Men heroes (or villains) Xavier and Magneto have this dynamic down to a science. They both want to bring peace and harmony to the mutant community. However, Xavier thinks that it can be done through peaceful means, while Magneto believes that peace can only be achieved by wiping out the humans.
This video by Sage’s Rain breaks down the Magneto-Xavier dynamic well:
Other Villain Types
While the seven archetypes I’ve given you above are the most popular types of villains that writers use, there are many more villain types that you may want to use. Here is a list of nine other villain types that you can use:
- The Traitor: This villain betrays those close to them or their country. They turn their backs on their beliefs.
- The Matriarch/Patriarch: They see themselves as the head of the family or group.
- The Tyrant: This villain doesn’t take crap from anyone and has no qualms about killing.
- The Outcast: The outcast wants revenge for being shunned from society.
- The Devil: The Devil is evil incarnate or the Devil himself.
- The Evil Genius: The Evil Genius is highly-intelligent and thinks they’re superior to those about them.
- The Schemer: This villain loves making diabolical plans and carrying them out. Whether they work or not is another story.
- The Lunatic: This villain is crazy and does things with little to no recognizable motivation. Their beliefs are out of line due to some industrial accident. The Joker is an excellent example of this type of villain.
- The Fanatic: This villain takes strong beliefs to the max, genuinely believing that they are doing what’s best. Some Criminal Minds episodes featuring religious fanatics is an excellent example of this villain type.
The Characteristics of a Great Villain
Before we get into the tips on how to write a great villain, we need to know the characteristics of one. They’re little things that you may not necessarily think about until it’s pointed out.
When you’re crafting your villain, think about including some of the following characteristics in their makeup:
- Your villain is convinced he’s the good guy
- He has many likable qualities
- He’s a worthy enough opponent to make your hero look good
- You (and your reader) like when he’s on stage
- People must lend him begrudging respect because he’s intelligent and accomplished
- Your villain can’t be a fool or a bumbler (this is not a hard and fast rule, depending on your genre)
- He has many of the same characteristics of the hero, but they’re misdirected
- They should occasionally be kind, and not just for show
- He can be merciless, even to the innocent
- They’re persuasive
- He’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants
- He’s proud
- They’re deceitful
- He’s jealous, especially of the hero
- He’s vengeful
How to Write the Perfect Mustache-Twirling Villain
We have our villain archetype. We have the type of villain we want to portray, and we’ve made sure we have all 15 characteristics. Is there anything else that we need to think about when crafting our formidable foes?
You bet there is!
And to make things more exciting, I’m giving you some options today. You can listen to the lovely Jenna Moreci tell you how to write a villain, you can read my write up below, or do both. It’s up to you!
It’s all about motivation.
I know, I know. You’re sick of me telling you to think about this, but it’s essential. Your villain doesn’t do anything for no reason because no one does something for no reason.
So give them a reason to act maliciously. This motive can be something that happened to them in their tragic backstory or is based on how they see the world. It has to be something that drives your villain to action.
Put yourself in the bad guy’s shoes.
I came across this tip on Jerry Jenkins’s website, and it makes a lot of sense if you’re stuck coming up with evil thoughts or deeds for your character. We’ve been conditioned by society to be the “good guy,” which means when we do have “bad thoughts” we squish them into a deep dark hole and hope they never see the light of day again.
But for this, you want to bring those bad feelings and thoughts to the forefront. Put yourself your villain’s shoes for a minute.
Think about that horrible thing your friend or loved one said about you behind your back. Bring all of those feelings into the now.
Do you feel the rage choking your throat and that fist clenching in your gut? Good. Now what thoughts come with those feelings? Did you want to hurt them back in some way? Good, now use that *fictionally* for your story.
This technique will help give you that motivation you need to make your villain believable, but it also gives you some ideas on how they would act and feel.
They deserve a great backstory.
Villains are real people to whom terrible things have happened. At some point, they stopped learning and growing and decided to take the path less traveled.
Maybe roots of bitterness and anger sprang up in them. And perhaps they possess many of the same attractive qualities of your hero. But those less desirable traits lie just beneath the surface, waiting to be unleashed in their full, terrifying glory.
While this may explain your villain’s actions, it doesn’t excuse or forgive them. He’s still evil, and he must always be brought to justice. But giving him motivation will make him more than a cardboard cutout.
So conjure a backstory for your villain. Make him real and believable and credible—even attractive in many ways.
Make the conflict specific.
We have no story to follow if the villain and hero don’t butt heads several times throughout our tale. You need something that keeps them in each other’s lives.
That’s what’s going to create your conflict and hook your reader.
Let’s look at X-Men again. Xavier and Magneto keep coming into contact with each other multiple times because their goal is the same: get to a troubled mutant before the humans do.
Why they want to get to those mutants first differs. Magneto wants to recruit for his army, and Xavier wants to show them a less destructive way to live.
Your villain needs to be tough to beat.
It’s annoying when your hero trumps your villain every time they meet. You also lose your tension if you do this. So make it near impossible for your hero to defeat the bad guy.
You can do this in several ways. It could be that your formidable foe has a lot of henchmen or superior intellect, or he’s got a death ray that vaporizes people instantly. Or he always has a fantastic escape plan that your hero can never foil.
For instance, Thor is nothing without his hammer, and as punishment for being reckless and selfish, Odin casts Thor out of Asgard and bewitches his hammer. The only way Thor will get it back and defeat Loki is by changing his ways.
Watch your language.
This tip comes at you from the NY Book Editors. They’ve noticed that your villains can sound a little too villainy at times, which means you’re giving them too much flowery prose.
Yes, they’re evil, but they shouldn’t be too out of this world. Your villain should sound like the rest of the characters in your world.
Feel free to make them sound unique, but make sure that it fits the villain’s circumstances and environment. If he’s a mob boss from Italy, make him Italian by using Italian expressions and words.
Regardless of what you do, you need to craft a villain that readers love to hate. So choose your archetype and villain types carefully. Watch your language, and don’t be afraid to put yourself in the villain’s shoes.
Villains and heroes are only as good as their counterparts, so make sure that you’re spending an equal amount of time developing both characters. All that extra effort will pay off later when you’re raking in the rave reader reviews.
Who’s your favorite villain? Is there a villain archetype your interested in trying out in your next story?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.
Maguleth is a schemer, mastermind and dark lord all mixed together. He spent decades establishing his resources and enacting his scheme that takes place in Jagged Coast. If he hadn’t done that, Fawnlum would have nothing to do, and have no great victory.
The villain IS more important than the hero, in terms of the story.
And he’s an undead lich. If he can’t out fight Fawnlum, he can outlive her.
But he’s goin’ down!
Lol. It’s actually surprising how many villains can fall into multiple categories like that.
It’s good that he’s keeping Fawnlum busy! That’s what he’s there to do. 😋And I’m glad that she’s going to take him down!
Check out the Wikipedia page for Evil Overlord Advice. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil_Overlord_List
A long running collection of advice for the successful evil overlord. Your villain column reminded me how much fun villains can be.
Thanks for passing along the link! It looks quite interesting.
Lol. I’m glad. Villains are very fun. I’ve always enjoyed them.
oh this is a great point! Yes- the villain is often the hidden hand driving the story forward. and the protagonist reacting. Personally my favourites are the mastermind, the mirror and someone else’s hero. And the traitor, the lunatic and the fanatic are all good as well. Excellent advice on how to write a villain too!
I love the mirror and someone else’s hero. I find them so interesting and it’s a great way to talk about politics or philosophy without it getting preachy or annoying, especially if it’s done right.
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