Before we get started, I want to clarify two things:
– Antagonists can be of any moral alignment. They can be also be non-human things, such as monsters, nature, inner demons, etc. The antagonist is simply the primary thing your protagonist fights against.
– For the course of this article I will be talking about villainous antagonists who are human or human-like. You could use most of these tips for villainous protagonists as well.
There are two broad categories of villains: sympathetic and unsympathetic. I’ll talk a little about both, but I primarily write and prefer to see the former, so that will be the focus.
Unsympathetic villains are evil for the sake of evil.
While these villains can be horrifying when done well, they tend to be the least intimidating type of antagonist. The most common mistake is to try to make an unsympathetic villain feel as heinously villainous as possible.
A villain who oozes darkness and villainy and nothing else will come across like a machine with a program that just reads: Be Evil. The genuine threat of these characters is often lost, because there’s no real life equivalent. In order to pull a villain like this off, the story must either perfectly suspend our disbelief or find a way to connect the villain to an antagonistic force the reader experiences in their own lives.
Often, the fictional antagonists you’ve sincerely wanted to murder are self-serving, hateful people you’ve met similar, real life versions of before, doing the things those real life versions continually get away with.
Since I don’t write unsympathetic villains often, I won’t write a more detailed guide on them, but I encourage you to think deeper into why some unsympathetic villains work while others don’t. Consider your favorite unsympathetic villains. How does the story present this villain? When have they drawn up intense emotions in you? Where did these emotions come from, and why?
The sympathetic villain is intimidating not because they’re evil, but because they’re both evil and human.
Note that you still need all these aspects for any sympathetic character you write, but the explanations are veered specifically towards villains.
Just like your heroes, your villains need an even dose of strengths and weakness, which should be no more villainous than your hero’s traits. Sympathetic villains aren’t people born with “evil” traits — they’re people who use their naturally neutral traits to accomplish terrible things.
It’s easy to look at the actions a villain must take and immediately ascribe traits like cruel, ambitious, vengeful, cowardly, angry, or crafty, to create a stereotypical slytherin villain. But villains can be soft, and humble, and forgiving, and brave, and quiet, and creative too.
Just as too much of any strength can become a weakness, all “good” traits can be used for an evil purpose if someone believes fiercely enough in what they’re doing.
Villains can also deny their natural, stereotypically positive character traits in order to achieve their long term goals. There’s nothing so heart-wrenching as a villain who know what they’re doing is wrong and is visibly hurt by it, who only keeps themselves in one piece because they’ve put all their faith in the idea that their end goal will be worth their current pain.
As a side note, stay away from traits related to “insane” villains whenever you want a fleshed out and sympathetic antagonist. While they have their place, they’re vastly overused, largely unsympathetic, and are generally an excuse to not bother writing a consistent character.
Since sympathetic villains aren’t evil for the sake of evil, they must have specific actions or goals which are villainous and something powerful driving their villainy.
Finding the right motivation for your villain can be tricky. Abuse and vengeance are rather popular motivations for antagonists and protagonists alike, and while they can still be done well, they are far from the only motivations a villain can have. Here’s an incomplete list of some, perhaps more interesting, motivations…
Keep in mind that these motivations can (and should) be combined to create something heavier and harder for the villain to ignore!
Stepping stones and goals.
For this section, we will refer to goals as the final, end result the villain wants to achieve, and stepping stones as the intermediate things the villain must accomplish in order to achieve that final goal.
Both of these may require evil actions, but it’s not necessary that they both be villainous in nature.
Evil stepping stones can lead to good goals. These villains are often the most sympathetic, because their end goal is the same as the heroes — the villain is simply willing to go farther and commit more heinous acts in order to achieve this goal.
Any stepping stones can lead to (misunderstood) evil goals. This situation is often created by a villain whose past pain or distorted view of life makes them believe strongly that their evil end goal is a good and worthy outcome. These villains often motivated by the same desires as the hero, but they believe those desires will be reached by this evil end goal.
Sympathetic villains are above all, human, (or at least, aliens and mythical species which reflect the basics of humanity.) They may have goals which are villainous, or they may be willing to do villainous things to reach their goals, but they have decent, even desirable qualities too. These can come across in the most insignificant places, or in small hints at humaness.
Some random examples:
They get tired, sometimes downright exhausted. They yawn. They wear bright colored slippers.They take naps in weird places. They drink too much coffee. They work themselves past their limit.
They get excited over perfectly human hobbies and likes. Maybe it’s a new ice cream favor, the premiere of their favorite soap opera, a sport, a book series, a cute pet. They have some normal and relatable desires on top of their primary, potentially villainous, goals.
They have lives they care about. This could be specific people, like their family, but it can also encompass more than that. Maybe they get along really well with old people or children. Maybe they go out of their way to rescue wounded animals. Maybe they have a vast group of people they want to protect or support. What it is, they have connections into the world and want to do right by them.
They have academic leanings. They have a deep love for something valuable to humanity: for historical sites and monuments, or pure-hearted scientific research, or libraries, or religious freedoms, or medicine, or art, or astronomy, etc.
They have quirks. They ascribe to their own style. They use funny words or phrases. They have nervous habits. They reference That One Show way too much. They sign their name with extreme care. They pour glitter on everything they own. They carry little mind teasers around, or accidentally leave their crossword puzzles lying everywhere.
They don’t always know what they’re doing. They get confused. They stumble to find solutions. They don’t always have the right thing to say or the answer to every problem. (They still get the slip on the hero, but they work for it, just like the hero does.)
They experience the full range of emotions. They’re deeply sad, and they cry when their heartbreaks. They laugh with affection and joy. They’re angry in a rush of pain and aggression. They tremble and scream when they’re terrified. They exist through a huge spectrum of emotions: joy, love, grief, fury, fear, melancholy, and more.
The best sympathetic villains aren’t static characters. They change, they learn, they develop. If your villain is heading for a redemption arc, that development may be positive growth, or if they’re heading for destruction, it’ll likely be a negative down slide.
As always, the key to character development is to present your character with hard choices and steep consequences. Allowing your villain to struggle with these choices — no matter if they choose to grow, stay the same, or become less moral — makes them more fleshed out and sympathetic.
Sympathetic villains are, first and foremost, fleshed out characters. They are not inherently better or worse people than the heroes, but they are driven to villainous actions because of complex and often genuinely moral motivations.
For fun, you might want to try this exercise: Think about your heroes. How could you turn them into the villain of the story? What motivations would they need to have? What goals would they take on? How would their fundamental humanity remain the same throughout the process, and what influence would it have on their actions? What choices could you present them with to either set them on a redemption arc or drive them to be increasingly more villainous?