10 Ways to Create an Unforgettable Villain or Antagonist in Your Novel | Explained by UK Book Editor
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Professional book editor in the UK lists the top 10 ways to create an unforgettable villain for your novel!
The hero, usually the main protagonist, is often the primary focus during the character creation and development stage, but it's equally important to give your villains just as much attention. Otherwise, you'll have a one-dimensional character who's flat and unrealistic.
However, it's understandable that creating a villain can be a challenge when you don't think or behave like a criminal, so this post will give you 10 ways to create an unforgettable villain for your novel.
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you decide to make a purchase through the products and services I recommend. I only recommend things that I truly love and use, so I hope I can recommend something to you that you can love too! :)
1. Create a Detailed Backstory
Like your protagonist, your villain needs a backstory to make them more realistic, three-dimensional, and understandable, which could also help to explain why they've become who they are in the novel.
As a result of giving your villain a detailed backstory, your readers may even feel unexpected sympathy for them, making their harmful motives more believable. For example, you could delve into their childhood, family, and life experiences, or a particular event that has contributed to their troubled mind.
Related Post: 4 Ways to Make Your Bland Protagonist More Interesting
2. Give them a Convincing Motive
Villains are desperate to control, kill, or destroy for multiple reasons, so make sure their motive for committing terrible acts is convincing, otherwise your reader won't believe them as an antagonist.
Think about what's made them evil or troubled.
What horrors have they suffered in the past?
Do they seek revenge for how they've been treated by family, friends, a lover, society or government forces?
What will they gain from the pain they wish to inflict?
Do they believe they are genuinely doing the right thing, or do they know they're wrong?
What is their why? Why are they doing bad things?
3. One Step Ahead, One Step Behind
Whichever genre you're writing, it's important to always keep your plot exciting by making your villains one step ahead throughout the majority of the novel. This may sound counterproductive when the hero is supposed to come out on top, but your readers are more likely to root for your protagonist if your villain is one step ahead until the final moment.
Ironically, no one wants your hero to have an easy ride. They want to see them struggle like hell at the hands of the villain, so make sure they are one step ahead until your hero finally defeats them.
Related Post: How to Create Characters Who Have Suffered Abuse
4. Make your Villain Clever
Your villain has probably had years to plan the death of your hero or the destruction of the world, but doing so takes a certain level of intelligence, especially if your protagonist has protection, works with a group of people, or is equally as intelligent.
Think about the villains in other stories and the criminals in real life; their IQ is generally quite high and they can plan & get away with heinous crimes in their sleep.
5. Give Your Villain a Fatal Flaw
A villain's weakness is not only the key to the hero's victory, but a flaw also makes them more believable as an antagonist and relatable as a person. Not that many innocent readers find themselves relating to the evil character in a novel, but having a flawed villain humanises them and shows that even the toughest challenges can be defeated!
For example, Lord Voldemort's fatal flaw turned out to be his inability to feel, accept or express love, which is the one thing that kept Harry Potter alive throughout the story.
Related Post: 12 Tips for Writing a Gripping Fantasy Novel
6. Give them Positive Traits
Although your villains oppose your hero and create fear and terror, they need to have positive traits as well. Their positive characteristics obviously won't make them a good person, but it's a great way to create a rounded villain who makes the reader question them and their intentions.
For example, your bad guy may be charming and charismatic like many real serial killers; they may be great with young children; and they may even donate to charity.
7. Are they Mentally Unstable?
Not all, but a great number of fictional villains and criminals in real life, particularly killers and sex offenders, are mentally unstable, with conditions ranging from psychopathy, personality disorders and narcissism, to more common conditions such as psychosis, bipolar disorder and depression.
By no means do all criminals and villains have such illnesses, and people with these disorders aren't automatically destined to be evil, but you may find it fitting to give your villain a mental illness of the sort to complement their character.
For example, in the Killing Eve books by Luke Jennings, the unpredictable assassin, Villanelle, has Antisocial Personality Disorder and is labelled a Sociopath.
8. Use the Sympathy Card
Making your readers sympathetic towards your villain is a brilliant way to grab their attention and keep them reading, and doing so all comes down to the positive traits and backstory you give them.
For example, some readers may feel sympathy and a little guilty for disliking your villain if they suddenly carry out a good deed, and others may unexpectedly empathise if they have had a rocky childhood or suffered a traumatic past.
So, when you're creating your own villains, consider how you can use the sympathy card to make your readers question their character.
Related Post: 6 Elements You Need in Your Gothic Novel
9. What's their Philosophy?
The idea of creating a character's entire philosophy may seem like too much of a mountain to climb, but it's a lot simpler than you might think, and it's a good way to discover what your villain truly thinks and believes.
An easy way to establish your antagonist's philosophy in life is to delve into their mind and think about the ideas, beliefs, ideologies and mottoes they may have, whether it relates to politics, religion, social affairs or something completely different.
For example, Tyler Durden from Fight Club has a complicated philosophy on life due to his character embracing ideas and theories his alter ego later disagrees and struggles with, which creates an intriguing character for readers and viewers.
10. Gain Ideas from Real Criminals
As mentioned previously, creating an evil or troubled character can be a challenge if you're an innocent, law-abiding citizen, so I strongly encourage you to read a variety of novels, short stories and graphic novels that contain a wide range of villains, and research an ample number of real life criminals who have committed an array of different crimes.
By reading and researching relevant works and sources, you will learn more about different criminals, crimes, motives, weapons, methods, sentences and punishments that you can realistically incorporate into your novel.
Thank you for reading to the end of this post, it really means a lot and I always try to produce helpful content for writers like you! :)
If you found it helpful, please like, comment and share so more writers can use the advice!
When you're ready to have your manuscript professionally edited, please get in touch with me here and we can have a chat about how I can best help you.
Here is a list of the editing services I offer:
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!