Three Steps to Creating a Complex Villain

Updated on May 6, 2016
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Writers often discriminate against their villains.

They write them off as psychopaths and sociopaths without developing the actual character. Yet, they admire villains like Hannibal Lecter and Dexter because of how complex their characters are. Villains like these blur the line between good and bad. They make you think about the true definition of evil.

It's natural to view anyone who opposes your main character in a negative light. Yet, its the development of these characters that makes your story more interesting. The best complex villains linger with your reader long after they've read your story.

The best part? These types of villain only take three steps to create. They just need more thought.

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1. Give Your Villain Purpose

Every villain must have a strong purpose. What drives them to work against your main character? Why are they willing to face conflict to bring their goals to life?

It's easy to say the villain's motivation is to oppose the main character. You know, villainy for villainy's sake. But, unless the main character did something horrendous and inexcusable to the villain (in that case, he shouldn't be your main character), your antagonist will have a greater motive. If not, your villain will be childish and underdeveloped.

Think about it: something else must be keeping him there. Their motivation-their purpose-must be so strong that they'd face conflict to realize their dreams. And something about complexity and depth goes here.

In creating a reasonable motivation, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Make their goal noble.

  • Everyone always thinks they are doing something right. No great villain (outside of James Bond films) believes that they are evil. So an easy way to make a complex villain is to give them noble goals. Making their intentions noble, while their actions are vile, creates a complicated situation.
  • Consider the classic Robin Hood scenario. Robin Hood steals from the rich so he can give to the poor. While he may steal, his intentions are so noble he's the hero of his stories! Try to capture a similar idea in your own villains.

2. Give them sound logic.

  • No one pursues anything without it making "logical sense" in their heads. Especially if their thought-process has the potential to create conflict. This adds an extra challenge for you, as a writer. You must think of your villain as a misguided hero.
  • Look at the typical hero profile. On a basic level, a hero is only trying to help. Your villain may want the same thing. The only problem is his methods of doing so are corrupt and unjust.

3. Make parallels to the main character.

  • Another way to make your main villain more complex is to find a similarity between him and the main character. This creates an interesting dynamic between the two characters. The lines between good and evil become blurred, leaving a treacherous grey area. By complicating the struggle to find what's right, you add interest and depth to your story.

When you give your antagonist a reasonable motivation and logic, he becomes much more compelling. His ability to complicate situations by being genuine will make your readers pause.

2. Make Them Human

At the end of the day, villains are still people. They have emotions, struggles, and interesting quirks, just like your main character. Even Adolf Hitler, one of the worst men in human history, loved his dogs.

Adolf Hitler was quite fond of his German Shepard. Her name was, of course, Blondi.
Adolf Hitler was quite fond of his German Shepard. Her name was, of course, Blondi. | Source

What does this mean for you? It means your antagonist needs to be more than the opposition. You need to flesh out his character. You need to make him more human.

There are some easy ways to do this:

1. Recognize that your villain isn't all evil.

  • Your antagonist wasn't born evil. No one is. There were a series of events and circumstances that led him down his path. By acknowledging this fact, you can begin to explore his backstory without bias. What makes him do the things he does? More importantly, why?

2. Give them a human face.

  • If your antagonist is a creature (like Frankenstein's monster), personify them. To have a complex character, your character needs to be relatable. This is why Frankenstein's monster experienced periods loneliness and depression. These are human traits that endear us to him.
  • If your character is an idea (like an evil corporation), create another character to represent this idea. Doing so gives you the opportunity to explore the pros and cons of this idea. A great example of this is in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In the novel, Mustapha Mond acts as the Controller of a dystopian society. Yet, by the end of the book, the reader learns he only runs the society to please its inhabitants. Even if it costs them their personal freedom.
  • It's this type of out-of-the-box thinking that will give your characters meaning. This "meaning" is what makes your characters complex.

3. Show your reader's their humanity.

  • So, you've personified your villain and gave them a backstory. You still need to show your readers why they should care about him. Is it something in his backstory? Is it his outrageous personality? Is it something about his goals? It doesn't matter what it is about the villain. As long as you show your villain's morality to your reader, they'll begin to understand why they should care.

Remember: no matter what, your villain is still human (or, at least resembles one). While they try to destroy the world, they might still play with dogs in their spare time.

Source

3. Make Them Create Conflict

While his intentions are noble, he still opposes the main character in some way. Since the existence of your antagonist won't create conflict, he has to initiate it.

Setting up conflict is a simple, three-step process.

1. Decide just how badly the antagonist contradicts your main character.

  • Sometimes, the two characters are completely different. Other times, the two characters would be allies if it weren't for a misunderstanding. Most of the time, it's a gray area. Looking at the relationship between your hero and your villain will determine how they interact.

2. Decide how your antagonist creates conflict.

  • Does your villain actively taunt your main before striking? Or do they attack without warning? Does he lie, cheat, and steal but under legal methods? Or does he go out of his way to create complicated, strange plots and schemes to catch your protagonist off guard? This adds a unique touch to each villain you create.

3. Decide how all of this affects your protagonist.

  • How will the protagonist respond to this conflict? Does he rise up to the challenge? Or does he shy away from the conflict until it's too late?
  • How high are the stakes if the hero responds? Does it only affect them? Does it affect a group of people? Does it affect the fate of the world? Will your hero respond despite these risks?

Once you know these things, creating conflict comes naturally. But, make sure that you keep his power reasonable. You wouldn't give a 10-year-old bully the ability to murder the 10-year-old protagonist. It still needs to make sense in context.

Great villains are just as complicated as the heroes of a story. As a writer, it's your job to soften the lines between heroes and villains. That's what makes them complex.

How do you make your villains complex? Leave a comment below!

Questions & Answers

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      • Faith Reaper profile image

        Faith Reaper 

        2 years ago from southern USA

        Congrats on a well-deserved Hub of the Day!

        This is so helpful to me as I am writing a novel and the villain is complex but you have given me a lot of insight as to uncovering why he opposes the hero.

        It is important that the readers care about them to some degree in understanding their motives in carrying out deeds in their unique manner.

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 

        2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

        Valuable thoughts and writing tips here. Thank you for this detailed and informative description on how to build our villains and make them believable. One of the best comments I received on my debut novel was that my main villain was "a jerk". That made me smile.

        Congratulations on a well-deserved Hub of the Day.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        2 years ago from the short journey

        Congrats on your award for this hub on how a writer can create a villain. Your post is a neat read and a useful guide.

      • profile image

        Julianne Henry 

        2 years ago

        Ineresting..

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        Nicole, great hub for us hub writers need to do for your stories. Precise and excellent information on how to make us care about them. Congrats on HOTD!

      • gmwilliams profile image

        Grace Marguerite Williams 

        2 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

        This is a well analyzed & written hub. To create good, believable villains, there has to be a multidimensional quality about them. Also, one has to make them repulsively evil or at least exude an aura which is negative in nature which makes the reader think very hard before encountering such a character. Some of the most heinous villains come in attractive packages. Excellent read, voted up.

      • HattieMattieMae profile image

        HattieMattieMae 

        3 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

        Very helpful hub. Thanks for the tips.

      • FatBoyThin profile image

        Colin Garrow 

        3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

        I really like the ‘noble intentions’ idea – makes a lot of sense. It’s also worth bearing in mind that no villains (if they’re truly human) are all bad. I remember a docu/drama about police tracking a dangerous villain and how one of the detectives remarked that this guy ‘might be an evil git, but he still buys flowers for his mother on Sundays’. Great Hub. Voted up.

      • Nicole Grizzle profile imageAUTHOR

        Nicole Grizzle 

        3 years ago from Georgia

        @DreamerMeg Thank you very much for the share + comment!

      • DreamerMeg profile image

        DreamerMeg 

        3 years ago from Northern Ireland

        That's a great hub, with very useful information. I am going to share this on some social media. Thanks

      • Nicole Grizzle profile imageAUTHOR

        Nicole Grizzle 

        3 years ago from Georgia

        @B. Leekley Your novel-in-progress sounds quite interesting. It's been a while since I've seen a much-beloved hero turn out to be the real antagonist. Or perhaps I'm reading the wrong books. It really does go to show you that the words "protagonist" and "antagonist" are highly dependent on how the author decides to write the story. Interesting thoughts.

        I've personally never made a distinction between "villain", "adversary", and "opponent". I can see why you prefer those terms, though. "Villain" can conjure up a cartoony, caricatured image of a "evil" man. I chose it nevertheless. Antagonist just doesn't have the same ring to it, now does it? ;)

        Thanks for the tip. I always appreciate seeing your comments, sir!

      • B. Leekley profile image

        Brian Leekley 

        3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

        I use all of these steps in my current novel in progress. The villainy of the villain is known to only two persons; to the rest of the world he continues to be a much-admired hero.

        In a war story, the villain to whom a city fell may also, to the perspective of the opposite side, be the hero who liberated it. I prefer the terms protagonist and antagonist or main character and opponent or adversary.

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