Monday, July 15, 2019

Writing a Good Villain

by Chris Pavesic

I like to read writing advice from other authors. Many times, I find really great ideas that help improve my own abilities. For example, in On Writing, Stephen King (2001) recommends listening to music to help a writer block out the world and focus on the work at hand. I have multiple dedicated writing playlists for just this purpose.

Certain advice, though, does not resonate with me. For example—certain writers suggest modeling villains after people in your own life that you dislike. I would find that difficult advice to implement in my writing.

First—there is the time factor. Writing a novel generally takes time. Even if a writer aims for a thousand words a day of good, solid prose, the writing stretches into months. Imagine this time actively thinking about people you do not like. This would not be an enjoyable activity in my perspective.

As a writer, I want to like my villains. Not everything that they do—many of their activities to me would be morally objectionable. But I need to understand them—to know why they are doing certain activities so that I can put this down on the page. I need to sympathize with their motivations and to realize that, in most instances, the villains do not see themselves as evil. These characters need the same depth as the heroes or, in my opinion, they will never be more than a caricature.

In Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett (1991, p. 185) has the villain of the story, Lilith, make the following comparison:

“She wondered whether there was such a thing as the opposite of a fairy godmother. Most things had their opposite, after all. If so, she wouldn’t be a bad fairy godmother, because that’s just a good fairy godmother seen from a different viewpoint.”

Later in the story, readers learn that Lilith firmly believes she is the good fairy godmother and is not the villain. It’s a matter of perspective, and in her viewpoint, those working against her are evil. She’s trying to improve people’s lives, and those working against her are trying to impede progress.

This is not the only type of villain in literature, but it is the type that I tend to find the most interesting. It is why I can sympathize with Khan in Star Trek (both in Into Darkness and in Space Seed) and Loki in The Avengers while at the same time being morally appalled by many of their actions.

There are obvious exceptions to this—Sauron in The Lord of the Rings trilogy does not generate sympathy for many readers, (although Tolkien does give him a fascinating history in The Silmarillion that explains his fall into darkness) but the Nazguls always had a touch of sympathy to their story for me because they were tricked by Sauron into becoming the Ring Wraiths. The detail and care that Tolkien invests into the story keeps these characters from being caricatures.

Allow me to introduce you to my villains. I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I did writing them.

4eee6-chris2bpavesic2bauthor2bphotoChris Pavesic is a fantasy author who lives in the Midwestern United States and loves Kona coffee, steampunk, fairy tales, and all types of speculative fiction. Between writing projects, Chris can most often be found reading, gaming, gardening, working on an endless list of DIY household projects, or hanging out with friends.

Learn more about Chris on her website and blog.

Stay connected on Facebook, Twitter, and her Amazon Author Page.


  1. What an incredible blog!Stephen King's book is brilliant and I get a lot of my inspiration while listening to music, but I have to write in silence.As for villains being people you know, the main villain and her cronies in one of my fantasy novels are based on people I worked with years ago who bullied and victimised me. Writing about them was a very cold dish and very very sweet!

    1. You are in good company. A lot of writers enjoy turning negative people from their lives into villains. Different techniques for different folks!

  2. Ditto what Carol mentions. Love On Writing! I too, have created a villain based on a real person. It was so cathartic! Wonderful post, Chris! All the best with your bevy of villains!

    1. I think I could do that with a minor villain, but not someone I want to spend time with and understand.
      I've been watching Nos4R2 with a friend and chatting about the series on AMC. It is based on Joe Hill's novel. (He is Stephen King's son.) We both agree that we like Charlie, the villain, more than the Brat (the heroine). His character has more depth. In an interview, Hill stated that Charlie thinks he is the hero and looking at it from this perspective gives a viewer/reader a lot of insight. Do villains all think of themselves as such?

  3. A lot of my villains seem to come out looking a lot like Trump. I seem to focus more on the cause than the individual. But, I agree, defining a villain's core motivation goes a long way towards making the evil more palpable, more meaningful. It's an important challenge for any writer.

    1. I recently re-watched Into the Woods. This movie/musical goes into depth about the motivation behind both the heroes and villains. In particular I felt the character of the "wicked" witch was well developed. If you follow her story and character arc, she could be a hero--except, of course, that her goals are not aligned with the Prince, the Baker, and so forth.