How to Write a Believable Baddie

Updated on May 25, 2017

We all love that spine chilling sensation of deliberately induced fear. The back-of-the-neck tingling ghost stories that we swapped as teens, the rising terror as Brody battled the great white in Jaws, and the horror of Carrie’s public humiliation. It’s the same with novels. Whether it’s a thriller or a romantic suspense, we all love to be frightened. And what’s the best medium for giving your readers chills? Well, the bad guy, of course. The villain. The boogieman.

Fear of the villain taps into one of our primal responses. Most of us have to get that adrenaline-pumping rush vicariously through movies, TV and books. We love to put ourselves in danger by living the fear through the protagonist. The hero who, to all apparent appearances cannot possibly outfight, outwit or overcome his or her adversary.

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It helps if the hero displays some sort of vulnerability that reminds us all of a time when we were scared as children. The very fact that we are still here, living a decent life, tells us that we overcame the bullies and defeated our own bad guys. We are all heroes. And now and then, we like to be reminded of those victories… but, before we can experience them, we have to revisit the fear. Think of it like a bungee jumper making his or her way up the steps. Each leaden footfall increasing the sick feeling of terror in the pit of their stomach. Their guts churning and roiling as they face the prospect of possible death, and feeling like a condemned man being led to the gallows - well that’s me imagining how I would feel. That mounting fear is the price we pay for the exhilaration rush, the victory, vindication, even revenge. And that fear makes winning all the sweeter. It’s all about the contrast. All that comes to life with your villain. The villain mirrors your hero’s fears, magnifies them, grows them and throws his shortcomings back in his face.

Portrait of a Villain

Writers spend an inordinate amount of time creating the hero. The character that they (and we) fall in love with. Complex, flawed, and often vulnerable. Heroes are carefully and artfully sculpted. Their back-story constructed down to the tiniest details. Yet the villain should also be given as much, if not more, attention. We need to be suspicious, wary, alarmed, and then to finally hate the bad guy or girl. In truth, most of us love a good (bad) villain. Or love to hate him, perhaps.

A villain can never be a cookie-cutter, typecast baddie unless you are writing for a four-year old or perhaps a comic script. Your villain needs layers of complexity. She needs a fatal flaw in just the same way that your heroine does. She needs to induce an emotional response in your reader. She may also have an awful lot of good points, or a talent such as being able to play the violin with Lindsey Sterling-like aplomb.

What Makes a Villain a Villain?

Everyone of us, heroes and villains alike, occupies a point on a spectrum of morality. Where your characters fall on this spectrum will determine their ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’. Just like your hero, your villain is driven by his motivation to get what he desires. The difference is, that there is a moral line that your hero will never cross, whereas yer baddie will do what it takes to achieve his nefarious goal.

Types of Baddies

  • Adulterer
  • Bully
  • Shallow cad
  • Control freak
  • Liar
  • Narcissist
  • Psychopath/sociopath
  • Manipulator
  • False friend
  • Nosy gossip/meddler
  • Obsessive
  • Stalker
  • Violent man or woman
  • Gas lighter
  • Someone with a secret
  • Predator
  • Uncontrolled addict
  • Accidental villain

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Super Villains

Super villains are nasties in socks. They are pure evil. Think Voldemort. They have no empathy or sympathy. One could never feel sorry for them or consider that they could be redeemable. They are baaad. These characters work well in pop culture but less so in stories where a character needs to be developed. They rarely have nuance or complexity, which makes them less interesting. They are really a plot device, rather than a fully drawn character.

Having said that, in recent years, screenwriters have taken on board their viewing public want a full love/hate relationship with the baddies. We are beginning to see more characterful villains emerge from the Marvel Comics stable, complete with back-stories and believable motivation.

Sacha Black, author of 13 Steps to Evil
Sacha Black, author of 13 Steps to Evil

13 Steps to Evil - How to Craft a Superbad Villain

by Sacha Black

Sacha’s new book covers the delicious process of creating a villain in loving detail. From choosing the perfect traits to deciding what kind of baddie fits your chosen genre, Sacha covers it all. Not only that but the book is worth reading for the entertainment value alone. I found myself snorting and sniggering all the way through. As a YA fantasy/dystopian writer she’s brilliant, but she’s also an accomplished comedic writer too. Hear that, Sacha?

Anyway, I asked Sacha a few questions about creating believable baddies and this is what she had to say (no point me writing it all when I can get someone else to do the hard work, eh? Not stupid, me… Muhwahah!):

I encourage readers to visit Amazon and pick up a Kindle copy of 13 Steps to Evil: How to Craft Super bad Villains. Go, you wonderful aspiring baddie creators, go now!

Hero to Villain?

1. Is it possible for a hero to transform into a villain?

Of course, anything is possible if you can dream it up, you can tell the story. Snape is an interesting character because despite the way he’s portrayed, he isn’t actually a villain. He’s an anti-hero. Deep down he’s a good guy who does the right thing in the end, he’s just got a bad attitude and takes more pleasure in torturing Harry than he should. The thing with anti-heroes is they tend to make bad decisions but for the right reason. Snape thinks by treating Harry badly he’s protecting him on behalf of Dumbledore – and there you have his bad decision but for the right reason.

Villain to Hero?

2. Can the villain ever redeem himself, perhaps becoming less of a villain and more of an anti-hero? In other words, if the protagonist can change – so too can the hero?

*Spoiler Alert* Once Upon A Time – The TV Series

One of the more modern examples I can think of for a villain redeeming themselves is Regina The Evil Queen in the TV Series Once Upon A Time. The show, if you don’t know it, is set in Storybrook, a made up town in America that merges with the fairy tale world. Every fairy tale you were ever told is real and all the characters live in the town. Including the Evil Queen who is one of the bad guys. As the story begins, Regina is hell bent on revenge and destroying the village and all her enemies. But through the series she grows and changes and redeems herself becoming a hero. The script writers kept her integrity and credibility as a villain by ensuring she always has to fight her inner demons in order to stay good. But for all intents and purposes she’s a fully-fledged good guy at the end.

So, to answer your question, can a villain go good? Yes. In theory, any character can either fall from, or rise to grace. But it’s the consequence of that, that’s important for a writer. If you take away the villain, you take away the conflict and that has an impact on the plot. Because conflict is the source of story. How do you retain conflict if your bad guy goes good?

Two ways:

  • Introduce another source of conflict or another villain
  • Retain an inner conflict for the now ‘good’ villain.

Crafting Villains: Begin Here

3. What’s the first thing you decide on when creating a villain?

That’s really hard because every story is different. More often than not it’s the locations in a story that appear to me first. I guess that’s because a) I’m a visual person and like to know where the story is set and then create a mood board for it, and b) I tend to write fantasy so the locations are always prominent. Once I have a location the characters and plot tend to grow out of them.

I digress! What’s the first thing I do specifically for a villain? Hmm.

Two things more or less simultaneously –

  • One – I find an image of a face online that depicts the character closely enough in my head I can visualise them. (There’s that visual storyteller in me again).
  • Two – I work out his or her ‘why’. Why is he a villain? What happened in his past? How is he tangled up with the hero? What happened in his past that made him this way. If you don’t know that, your villain ends up flat or clichéd.

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Sacha’s Pets

4. Who is your fave villain ever and why?

Can you ask me that? So mean!

I have a slight leaning towards anti-heroes over villains. The first anti-hero I ever fell in love with was Beetlejuice, I secretly wanted to wear his stripy suit. It’s a bizarre film for an 8-year-old to like, but that and the Addams family were my faves, which might explain why I was the weird kid at school.

At the moment I love Deadpool, his ego is outrageous and his sense of humour is right up my street, plus he’s responsible for converting me to a fan of 4th wall breaks. (Note: yep, people, I had to Google it. The ‘fourth wall’ is the invisible wall presumed to divide actors on stage from the audience. Think of it as a two-way mirror. 4th wall breaks is when the actors ignore this convention by interacting with the audience or referring to their performance as fictional. Think Blazing Saddles).

Other faves include Loki from Thor, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Dexter, Maleficent, Regina The Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin actually from the same show, Once Upon a Time... the list is endless I’d actually be here till next week if I wrote all my faves!

If we’re talking pure villain, then one of the best ‘classic’ villains has to be Hannibal Lecter. His perfection lies in his consistency. Even though he helps Clarice, he’s still an evil mofo at the end. How terrifying is that? A psycho that knows exactly what they’re doing… Knows that helping Clarice is the right thing to do, and yet, still chooses to chow down on a human for dinner! *eek*

Finally, a shout out to Moriarty from the recent Sherlock Holmes BBC TV series. He’s utterly insane and I can’t help but love that!

Questions & Answers

  • Can our hero fall in love with a villain whilst the villain is still evil; without redemption?

    Absolutely. Think of being smitten by someone who is not who they say they are. Or falling in love with a liar who is married. Or maybe she only sees him as a meal ticket. Or he only needs her as a front to hide his evil deeds. Falling in love with a villain is the basis of so many stories.

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