Writing A Scary Villain | Between the Lines Editorial

Hello, writer, and welcome back to The Novel Series, a multi-part blog post series about writing novels and other forms of fiction. I’ll be posting at least one, if not two, blogs from this series every month until it’s complete.

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Today, we’re talking all things villains. Whether you want to write a solo bad guy or make your villain some kind of group entity, here’s what you need to know about writing a scary villain.

// What is scary?

The first thing you need to ask yourself is what scary means.

Personally, when I hear the word ‘scary,’ I first think of something from a horror or supernatural movie. You know what I’m talking about–the killer in the mask, the person from calling inside the house, the demons. And yes, those are all scary, but your villain doesn’t need to be evil just to be evil.

The scariest villains are the ones with motives, the ones with backstories, the ones who we can almost understand.

A recent pop culture example would be Killmonger from Marvel’s Black Panther movie. In case you don’t remember or didn’t see the movie, the basic premise is that T’Challa’s dad killed his own brother, Killmonger’s father, and Killmonger is out to avenge his father and take the throne for himself. Understandable, sure, but not all that sympathetic. What was sympathetic was that he was mad that T’Challa wouldn’t use Wakanda’s technology to help other POC around the world. Killmonger was fighting T’Challa so that he could ultimately help other people.

Yeah, of course his methods weren’t great, but the audience can understand his reasons. He wants to avenge his father and help others, even if his means to the end aren’t ideal.

The scariest villains are the ones we understand and relate to, because we then understand that anyone could be a villain.

// Writing a Scary, Relatable Villain

Because you want the audience to understand your villain, you need two main ingredients:

  • Backstory
  • Motive

Backstory is where you want to start, even for your villain. This is the foundation upon which you can build their motive and actions.

Most villains have experienced some kind of tragedy.

  • Killmonger from Black Panther: His dad’s murder and his own subsequent experience as a young POC
  • Thanos from Avengers: Witnessing the effects of overpopulation
  • Darth Vader from Star Wars: His wife dying
  • Voldemort from Harry Potter: His father betrayed his mother, and he subsequently had an awful childhood
  • Loki from Thor/Avengers: His father died and he was treated as ‘other’ in Asgard

These tragedies make us empathize with the character. Poor villains!

But we all experience tragedy, and it’s the decisions and motives that come after that can make a truly scary villain.

Take Thanos again, one of my favorite villains of all time. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer, which is in itself a very noble motive, right?  The problem is, he takes actions so drastic and evil that he isn’t helping anyone. He’s making people in his suffer in a quest to end suffering. 

// Actions vs. Backstory

I said it before but I’ll say it again: we all experience tragedy.

Our pasts may set us on our current paths, but it’s how we react that really determines if we’re a villain or hero. Your characters should be the same way.

Every time I watch the Avengers movies with Thanos, I think about how he could have used the glove and Infinity Stones to create any number of solutions to the overpopulation and suffering issues in the universe. Killing half of the universe obviously wasn’t the solution a hero would have chosen.

// Traits of a Villain

If you’ve never noticed, there are a few traits that most villains have, and they’ll probably serve your characters well, too. Weave these into your villain as you’re writing:

  • Proud
  • Deceitful
  • Persuasive
  • Smart
  • Jealous
  • Vengeful

Of course, those aren’t traits that only villains can have. Many heroes are the same way, but it’s how these feelings and traits dictate their actions and motives that distinguish a hero from a villain.

That is, after all, a very thin line to walk.

// Villains as Non-People

So far, we’ve looked at the keys to writing human (or humanoid) villains. However, you can also have non-humans act as the villain in a story.

For example, you might have:

  • A collective/group, like a government or society
  • Intrinsic traits
  • Inanimate objects/concepts

These can be just as scary as people. Some common examples include:

  • A collective/group: Think of the Capitol in The Hunger Games: These were the people who supported a tyrannical government that forced children to kill each other (to say the least). The Capitol symbolized evil.
  • Traits: Things like prejudice can act as a villain, too. We all have inner demons to battle. Any trait or force that forces the protagonist to battle with themselves can function as an antagonistic force.
  • Inanimate objects/concepts: Just pick any story where robots try to destroy humanity and take over the world. 😉

Consider mixing in one of these with your main villain to increase the conflict in your story.

// Your Next Steps

If you’ve already written your villain, read back through your story. Do they have a solid motive that’s noble and/or relatable? If so, do their actions clearly cross the line?

If you haven’t already written your villain, take some time to consider how you want to portray them and make them relatable to readers.

Remember, the best villains are the ones who take horrible action but have relatable and noble motives. 

If you have more questions, leave a comment, email me at hannah@btleditorial.com, or reach out on social media @btleditorial.