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What Makes a Villain?

Designing an authentic 'bad' character is no longer as simple as dressing them in purple and green.

By Call Me LesPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 3 min read

Anyone who writes fiction is likely familiar with these five thoughts:

1. Dear all things above, I hope no one ever reads my Google search history.

2. Is it even a fantasy if I don't include a map?

3. I can't design a map.

4. Oh, no! I've got a plot hole that can't be solved. Ok, huh...magic! But wait...nope, magic.

5. What makes a villain do bad things? Like WHY are they evil? If you kill everyone to remake the world, like whatyagonna do now, Sauron? Hope your songs made ya happy.

It's the last one I frequently ponder.

In my opinion, a lot of it seems to come down to how we view people or objects from a moral perspective at the time of the book/films' release. Meaning, who is it acceptable to hate? And, wow, does that change over time.

Ewww. Did I just write hate?

No...we can't have hate.

Well, unless you're going to suddenly turn them around through character evolution - think Gru from Despicable Me - yeah, we need to hate them to a degree.

Because people don't like it when someone dies or gets punished that they feel emotionally connected to in a positive way.

It's just icky.

And even if the villain is say a creature, like Jaws, who naturally murders things to survive, (I have a small rant on that since technically nothing except plants produce their own food...but saving that for another day), we still feel the urge to demonize it.

Jaws isn't some ordinary shark; he's a violent, deliberately malevolent brute!

By Alex Steyn on Unsplash

So what has been acceptable to 'hate' over the years? No, it's not pretty. But then, when has hate ever been pretty? Oh wait, Regina. Right.

Oh boy, I'm gonna say it. There's the obvious trope that's lasted far too long in our society: diversity, the invoking of "otherness". But no one would ever use it to incite 'bad guy feelings' in this day and age, right?

Umm... I dunno. There's still a lot of dog-whistling going on in that area. The minions had frizzy hair when evil and sleek when cute. Blondes are good, red heads are good, but evil temptresses should have darker locks (Swan Princess). Let's not forget that the go to evil colour combos Disney and Marvel have relied on for years are purple, BLACK, and green.

Aside from...the above, there's:

  • Location and origin: think Russians for James Bond.
  • Historical: think Nazis for Indiana Jones.
  • Monsterization: King Kong, Godzilla
  • Mythology: Werewolves, Vampires
  • Crone/Witch lore: Snow White

Now, to me, some of these aspects are not only incredibly discriminatory, they're just not all that creative (except the Nazis; no one is going argue you they're not villains).

When I consider designing a true villain, as in not a magical entity or creature per se, but a human-ish/anthropomorphized villain, I always aim for three aspects.

1. Contradiction:

They can't be ALL bad. You have to root for them to some capacity, AND hate their actions. You need to fully feel the turmoil of emotions connected to bad events. Think the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera: He's a total psychopath and yet most of us would be lying if we didn't admit there is a tiny part of us that wishes he'd have ended up with Christine. Or Golem: he's a classic contradictory villain. Just, I'd rather see a gif of Gerard Butler.

2. Motivation:

It doesn't matter how you get there, but the ultimate evil doing usually involves stripping freedoms and imposing control. Freedom is a fundamental human value. Step on that, and even if your contradiction is there, you'll end up with an unforgettable evil doer. Think Nathan Holmes from Postman. The atrocities he commits stay with you. Honestly, I'd rather not list them. And it's all the more scary because it's completely plausible and based off the common goal of control pursued by all the world's worst dictators. I can't see including a gif of Nathan so how about a Stockholm Syndrome blonde instead whose parents' motivations remain a mystery to me. Yes, I wrote parents, not abductive "mother", because to be honest, the fact they killed a magical flower and fed it to the richest lady in town rather than propagate it for everyone kinda makes them bigger villains in my eyes.

3. Confusion:

Instill a sense of the unknown. The scariest monsters are always that which we can't see. Think Bird Box.

So, when you're designing your next villain, I encourage you to let go of some of the tropes listed in the first half of this article and instead delve into the murky waters of confusion, contradiction and control. I think you'll be surprised at the backbone it gives to your tale and the lasting imprint in your audience's memory.

There's still time left to tweak your Fantasy Prologue!



Cover image art purchased through Shutterstock.


About the Creator

Call Me Les

Aspiring etymologist and hopeless addict of children's fiction.

If I can't liberally overuse adverbs and alliteration, I'm out!

Instagram @writelesplaymore

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Comments (2)

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  • Steve Lance2 years ago

    Very interesting. You have me thinking about my villains, I have the motivation, even if it is a common one, desire for power. I'll have to think if there is a way to layer in some other aspects. Anyway thanks for the article.

  • Gerald Holmes2 years ago

    Loved this Lesley. Well thought out.

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