What Makes a Great Villain? Your Checklist for Writing a Good Bad Guy

What Makes a Good Villain Image 1Nothing makes your hero more heroic than a worthy opponent.

So don’t shortchange your villain. Spend every bit as much time crafting him as you do your lead character, if you want your story to work.

(Though I will use male pronouns throughout, this applies equally if your main character is a heroine or your villain is female.)

Too many novelists give plenty of care to every other element of their story, then create what they consider a deliciously evil villain and wonder why the package seems to fall flat.

Often it’s because the bad guy is only that: bad. He’s from Central Casting and might as well be starring in a melodrama, complete with black top hat, cape, and handlebar moustache so we readers can boo and hiss his every entrance.

Every other character is real and nuanced and believable, but the second-most important lead spoils the reader’s whole experience.

Motivation: The Secret Sauce for Creating a Great Villain

Don’t let the word scare you. Motivation doesn’t have to be some nebulous theatrical concept tossed about by method actors trying to get into character. It simply means your bad guy needs a reason for being the person he has become.

If he isn’t working, it’s because you’ve made him the villain only because he’s a bad person. He does evil things because he’s evil.

That’s too easy. Change your thinking.

Try something revolutionary.

If you just can’t understand truly villainous people, try this: Put yourself in their place.

“Wait!” you say. “I’d rather see myself as the hero, doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, rising to the challenge, saving the day.”

Wouldn’t we all?

Well, don’t knock this till you’ve tried it. You’re writing along, and you’ve come to the place where your villain needs to act in some evil way. Your virtual online writing coach has urged you to be sure he has proper motivation.

What does this mean? He can’t be bad, do bad, cause trouble just because he’s the bad guy, so what’s made him this way? What’s behind it? You have to know before you have him do whatever it is he’s about to do.

Take His Place

“But I’m not a villain!” you say. “I’m no Dr. Moriarty or Dracula or Simon Legree.”

Yes, you are. You have your days. You’ve learned to control yourself, or maybe you’re a person of faith and have found control outside yourself. But you know your true nature, your old nature.

We novelists need to become our characters, from young to old, male to female, blue-collar worker to executive, and illiterate to educated. That’s part of the fun of it.

Now take that further. When a friend takes credit for something you accomplished, what’s your first private thought? You get over it, I know. You probably say nothing and let it pass for the sake of the relationship, and that’s great. But dwell on that initial visceral reaction a moment.

Someone you know well and love and trust lies to you, and there’s no question about it. You’re offended, hurt—crushed really. In fact, you’re infuriated. You bite your tongue because you’re a mature adult.

Maybe when you cool down you’ll rationally confront the lie and get to the bottom of it. But for now, entertain that immediate first reaction. Where was your heart and mind then?

I’m not telling you to become mean, rotten, and nasty when we’re all supposed to have grown out of that kind of thing by now. But I am telling you to tap into your dark side long enough to know what makes a good villain tick.

What Makes a Good Villain?

Villains are real people to whom terrible things have happened.

Maybe in childhood, maybe in adolescence, maybe later. At some point, rather than learning and growing, their maturation process stunted and stalled.

Roots of bitterness and anger sprang up in them. On the surface they may have many, if not most, of the same attractive qualities of your hero. But just beneath the surface fester the qualities you can access in yourself if you allow yourself to.

While this may explain the reasons for your villain’s actions, it doesn’t excuse or forgive them. He’s still evil, and he must still be brought to justice. But giving him motivation will make him more than a cardboard cutout.

So conjure a backstory for your villain. Make him real and believable and credible—even attractive in many ways.

And while you’re writing your story, see how many boxes you can check off on this list of characteristics that pertain to your villain.

The more that apply, the more successful your novel is likely to be. Because the more worthy his opponent, the more heroic your hero will appear.

Your Bad Guy Checklist:

  • He’s convinced he’s the good guy
  • He has many likeable qualities
  • He’s a worthy enough opponent to make your hero look good
  • You (and your reader) like when he’s on stage
  • He’s clever and accomplished enough that people must lend him begrudging respect
  • He can’t be a fool or a bumbler
  • He has many of the same characteristics of the hero, but they’re misdirected
  • He should occasionally be kind, and not just for show
  • He can be merciless, even to the innocent
  • He’s persuasive
  • He’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants
  • He’s proud
  • He’s deceitful
  • He’s jealous, especially of the hero
  • He’s vengeful

What would you add to this list of what makes a good villain? Tell me in Comments below.

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  • Janice G

    From the spiritual point of view, as the Christian at moments receives supernatural favor and help from the Lord and Heaven’s Armies, I think the villain taps into some supernatural help from the dark side and those enemy forces. I would add that as a characteristic, but it must be done in a subtle way to be believable.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      True, Janice, and to be fair, this would have to be very delicately handled in the general market where editors might be much less likely to understand a biblical approach to character motivation.

  • Karen Keil

    Interesting – I have been trying to do that with my villains from the start, and I think I’ve managed at least some. I wanted villains who were specifically “middle class,” regular folks, not master criminals or mythic monsters. So far, they have only been in a couple scenes (the one that showed one of them before it’s revealed that he’s a villain got cut). What’s known about them is from other people’s reports until The Confrontation. However, it comes to mind to do a sort of reverse. I don’t know how yet… that’s the problem with ideas, they only come a bit at a time. ;)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      How true, Karen. I like your idea about middle-class villains who aren’t always obvious monsters. Don’t you find it interesting that so many news stories about serial killers and the like begin with interviews from the neighbors who always say something like, “He seemed like such a nice guy…”?

      • Karen Keil

        Precisely. My heroine is the cousin of one villain, and the wife of the other. She can’t even really disagree with what she believes they hope to accomplish. It’s just the means. Ultimately, one could even say that they achieve their goal, just not in the way they intended. The world becomes a better place because of their villainy.

  • Elizabeth

    Ha, ha…I think you’ve covered it all. Who can add anything to your list?

    Very interesting perspective. We have learned to give some redeaming qualities to our villain, but this is the kind of approach that can be quite uncomfortable, but perhaps more efficient as well (what is life without a little discomfort?) :)

    I’ll give it a try ( I think you are describing a sociopath…he seems so much like the serial killer in my story :)

  • Craig

    The villain believes that he is the Hero of his own story.
    The villain believes that the way he has chosen is the correct way and that he must do what is best despite the limited vision of his detractors.
    The most disturbing villains are the ones you find reflecting your own beliefs whether in corruption or purity.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Excellent points, Craig. Thanks.

    • Nick261

      I know I’m late, but is that a reference to Borderlands? You know, Handsome Jack thinking he’s the “hero” of his story? In case it isn’t, I suggest you play Borderlands 1,2 and The Pre-Sequel to understand his psychology, since it’s majestic. Or, if you don’t like shooters and are more for the “Story” kind, check out Tales From The Borderlands. You won’t regret it, great story, great plot twists, great characters, and the soundtrack is just top notch.

  • Elizabeth

    Wow, Karen Keil hit the nail on this one. Well put…matter of fact, now that she brought it up, my serial killer is possessed (who can explain the fact that I am terrified of supernatural stories and ghosst and things of that sort, yet my story has a little bit of both…never intended this to happen…what a strange thing…did it come from my subconscious mind or from a paralell plan where the angels battle? I’ll give some thought to that, as well. Thanks for the post.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      You’d be surprised how much comes from your subconscious, Elizabeth. :-)

  • Judy Peterman Blackburn

    I think that’s a pretty complete list. I read a suggestions somewhere to write a short story about some of the main characters of my novel. Thought it was a fun idea and have written a few. My villain was one. I found out some things about him I didn’t realize while writing the novel. Cool. Thank you for a insightful post. We need to know the bad guy or gal as well as the hero/heroine. :)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Judy.

  • Lisa

    Love this thorough checklist!
    I am interested in signing up for one of your courses, but uncertain of the best fit. I am seeking to write fiction, have character profiles started, have a big idea and several small scenarios, but stuck at the start.
    Do I enroll in the Fiction course or the Art of the Start?
    Or is there a discounted price for more than one?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks for your kind comments, Lisa. And while I can probably make more money enrolling you in a course or two at a time, that would be disingenuous and I’m happy to say I have a much better offer for you:

      We’re opening a brief registration window next month for my Writers Guild, and to get your name on the notification list so we can tell you when you can sign up, just go here: http://www.JerrysGuild.com

      There’s no obligation, of course, but when the time comes, you’ll find that for a very modest monthly cost you’ll have access to a plethora of helps that will aid you in all the things you mentioned above. As part of the package, you get free access to both my fiction and non-fiction courses 24/7 for as long as you’re a member.

      Best of all, I am so determined to under-promise and over-deliver that the last thing I ever want to do is to lock people into agreements or subscriptions they can’t get out of, especially if they decide it wasn’t what they thought it was going to be, doesn’t still meet their needs, or they simply don’t want to continue.

      So, my Guild comes with an easy-out, and a no-questions-asked, money-back, guarantee. If, for any reason, you want to opt out within the first 30 days, you just let us know and that’s the end of it. No pressure, no hassle. And if, if you’re a monthly subscriber and any time after the 30 days you decide to stop, you can do that with no penalties as well.

      So, for much less than the cost of one of the courses you mentioned, I’d urge you to at least get on the notification list (course that’s free and without obligation) and then give us a risk-free try. We love to have you.

      • Laurie Kehoe

        Lisa, the Guild is so much more … you will not regret signing up. We have learned so much and made so many good connections, every penny spent is more than worth it. I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity when it comes up.

  • autonomous

    My villain eats cornflakes. I named him Kellog. He is constantly after my hero, trying to make him stop masturbating. His weakness is not that he is a serial killer, but that his bathroom is filled with porn, and all of his gloves are made of sandpaper.

  • Great list to round out the bad guys. Thank you Jerry.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Tracy.

  • Karen Crider

    I would add his mental constitution, how he buys a ticket for his quick flight into rage. How one second he’s laughing and the next, he’s looking for his gun. HIs actions determine his behavior. I like show don’t tell. He kicks the dog, kills the cat and plots to murder any who get into his way.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Right, Karen, which makes it so hard to write him without cliches.

  • Adrian

    All of this is very true. All of my early villains seemed to turn in in wheelchairs with scars down their faces, petting a black cat, surrounded by curiously dapper bodyguards with dragon tattoos. But a real villain is so much more. They care about material things, and people. They have to have motives, like everyone else. The motives don’t even have to be selfish. But they have to be evil.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Ha! That’s great, Adrian! I’d love to see you use that creativity to render a real villain now. :-)

      I never thought about it before, but you’re right. Why is it that so many stereotypical villains have “curiously dapper bodyguards”? Still chuckling.

  • Aria J. Wolfe

    Looove this, Jerry!
    The only thing I’d add to the list is the villain’s redemptive value. What I mean is, I love to have a bad guy that readers not only love to hate, but that they can maybe even feel something else for…understanding? I think it keeps the reader connected to every facet of the story.
    My current novel has a heroine who is compassionate & even though she’s not a push over she finds herself starting to see the villain as someone who can be redeemed. As she tries to ‘help’ him see that, she even falls for him a little, all while he’s out to get her.

    I can’t help but think that our own scandalous behavior was forgiven because Someone saw our redemptive value and decided we were worth His life.

    I love your resources, Jerry. They’ve helped me immensely. I missed signing up for your mentorship program. When are you opening up registration again?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks so much for your kind comments, Aria! And you make a great point. It adds a special layer of intrigue when the hero can see the redemptive potential in the villain. There’s hardly a richer theme to pursue.

      And thanks for asking about my Writers Guild. A short registration window will open again next month. We’d love to have you, and you can ensure you’re notified by putting your contact info here: http://www.JerrysGuild.com

      • Laurie Kehoe

        Aria, as I told Lisa – the Guild is such a wonderful resource. When the window opens up, you will not regret joining us. Jerry’s teaching is detailed, applicable and personal. Worth every penny and more!

  • Lucy

    Great post!! I am even more disgusted by a weak villain than I am by a cookie-cutter protagonist. I think that some of the most compelling/unusual villains 1) have a real, legitimate grievance, or 2) are a person that the protagonist used to love, trust and respect and still has feelings of compassion/affection for, or 3) are not actually evil but are compelled by duty or some outside force. As for thoroughly evil villains, they have their place in high fantasy, but they just don’t work in the real world. Good tips on how to make the bad guy/girl human!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Lucy, and good points.

  • Miss_Pshaw

    I wish the “Die Hard” writers had sought your help on the last film. Instead of giving us Hans Gruber, Simon Gruber, or Simonl Gabriel, they gave us a tag-team of villains we don’t even recall. At least you’re in MY life, and my novel will be better for it. http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Hans_Gruber?file=Hans_Gruber.png

  • Miss_Pshaw

    I wish the writers of the last “Die Hard” had asked for your help. They would have given us villains as fine as Hans Gruber, Simon Gruber, and Thomas Gabriel–not a tag team of villains we can’t even recall. Your post explains the problem beautifully. Thank you for all you’re doing to improve my novel. I see I have much more to learn about the stuffy, officious troublemaker my readers need to crave. http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Hans_Gruber?file=Hans_Gruber.png

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks so much. I appreciate your kind comments. And I agree: there’s little worse than a cast of villainous characters akin to a car disgorging a stream of clowns. That works at the circus, but not in a novel.

  • Kathy Shaull

    Great list! And at just the right moment. I’m in my rough draft and have been feeling rather BLAH about my villain lately. This will help me round him out. Wonderful resource – as usual. Thanks!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Kathy. Nothing worse than a block villain, eh? Have fun rounding him out. :-)

  • Earl O’Farrell

    Earl Thomas O’Farrell, ofarrellet@yahoo.com

    You know, I agree. The villain has got to be almost as important as the protagonist, and for the reader to become interested in him, he’s got to have some intriguing and/or likeable points. He can’t be all bad–or like you said–he merely becomes something to hiss and boo at. But, you know, I feel that the protagonist has to have some bad points also.

    ofarrellet@yahoo.com or http://earlthomasuniversepublications.com

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Absolutely, Earl. There’s nothing more boring than a hero with no flaws. Who could identify with him?

  • I believe the most intriguing writing comes from character-driven writing (don’t confuse this with a character study; you can still write an action-driven novel). If you set up your characters first, they write the story, acting according to their own character. If you’re lucky, you will be surprised by the ending, and your reader will enjoy the read.
    Extend this to villains. If your villain’s character isn’t firmly in mind, his actions will seem disconnected and predictable. You will discover twists and turns that surprise you, if you allow your villain to have a ‘real’ character.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Exactly, James. And, of course, if you’re surprised, your reader will be to. If you don’t know what’s coming, he certainly won’t.

  • Laurie Kehoe

    I wrote the villian in our third book like that – a bad guy who eventually is forgiven then becomes a good guy. But my first villian is a really bad dude.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good, Laurie. The worse they are, the better they can become. Redemption can be so powerful.

  • Darlene L. Turner

    Love this, Jerry! I’m starting a new book and just finished my character sketch for the antagonist. I did as you suggested and went through the exact same questions as I did for my hero/heroine. I did find myself feeling sorry for him as he told me what happened to him in his childhood. :-) Oh dear, my imaginary friends are talking to me again. ;-) Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Funny how that works, isn’t it, Darlene? When the book becomes personal, watch what it does for the reader. :)

  • Grace Potts

    He has an admirable talent the hero would die for but doesn’t have. Grace Potts

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Yes, Grace. Very interesting.

  • Thanks for another helpful blog; just in time as my bad guy has no redeeming traits and must gain some quickly.

    Here’s a few more bad guy traits:

    He is a distorted, disturbed, or evil thinker
    He is sociopathic.
    He’s psychopathic
    He’s a bully
    He claims he is the victim
    He blames others for his wrongdoing
    He claims he is the good guy, and that others are the bad guy
    He can never be wrong
    He is verbally cruel
    He is physically abusive
    He is a manipulator
    He has no moral values
    He is dishonest and lacks integrity

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Sheila. Especially love these two:

      He claims he is the victim

      He blames others for his wrongdoing

    • Kristi Moore

      I like your list, Sheila. “Manipulative” stands out as a great characteristic that is subtle, but oh so evil and harmful.

  • E.S. Connor

    The perfect villain ever is The Joker. In all the Batman saga where he is part of, he amuses himself (and us) with layers of pure madness and we love to read him.

    • Heather Hemsley

      XD

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      He IS a fun one, isn’t he, E.S.?

      • E.S. Connor

        Jeje. Just yesterday the international book fair started in Bogota. I’m running to the comics section to see if I can find “the killing joke”. ( shopping time!!!)

    • Laurie Kehoe

      Why so serious?

  • Heather Hemsley

    I am totally doing da checklist you made for my evil person!!! I never really thought about the bad guys that much, just the good guys. But then I realized that they are a huge part in the story, and they can’t just have a puny storyline! Thanks so much, Jerry!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you, Heather.

  • Lucille

    He believes he was cheated in life. He felt helpless at some point and is mad at the world and is getting his own back now.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That’s good, Lucille. Thanks.

  • Denise B. Holbrook

    He’s not easily converted in the last chapter for the sake of a happy ending. Closure for him is death, defeat, or a gradual scraping away of all that darkens his world view, which must take place over many chapters as an integral part of the whole story.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      You’re speaking my language, Denise. One of the things people said helped Left Behind succeed was that I included credible skeptical characters. Not every bad guy miraculously came around in the end. Excellent point.

  • Kristi Moore

    Great list and great discussion! Here is a real life example that has stuck with me from the book Eichmann in My Hands. The author is horrified when he begins to see Eichmann as a real person who cared about his family. (This is a shocking contradiction when you know his role in the Holocaust.) When asked about this massive inconsistency in his character, he justified the genocide by saying, “But those were Jews.” That scene is a chilling revelation that the real bad guys are fully human, but also mysterious and truly horrifying in their complexity.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That IS chilling, Kristin. To his mind, his victims were less than human, “so what’s the big deal?” It reminds me of the serial killer who was a Sunday school teacher, yet dispassionate about coolly explaining his heinous acts and showing disdain for the detectives who arrested him because only a stroke of luck led to it and he was disgusted because he still considered himself the smartest guy in the room.

      • Kell Willsen

        I think that’s one of the key traits in any villain: an inability to see other people as people. Whether that’s all people, one specific group, or all people _except_ one specific group, the villain believes that those people’s lives, their feelings, somehow don’t count.

        The more selective and bizarre this reasoning, the more chilling the villain. Compare Jess, from Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”. She gives to charity, she considers herself “a good person”, and yet she won’t stop to help a woman who lies bleeding in the street, because the woman is dressed like a begger. Also, stopping would have made her late for an important buisness dinner.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Sort of the ultimate social malady, eh, the inability to feel for others? Good point.

    • Ellysia Mason

      See, I don’t eat meat. I see animals as feeling, sentient beings so I avoid eating them. For me this mentality of “But those are just XYZ” is everywhere- even more so when people discover I don’t follow their behaviors. And you get the same with every minority group as well. This complete lack of empathy is perpetuated by our society and really is more commonplace than being a compassionate individual. I think a society where the villain is praised more than the hero is very chilling- because we create these villains by maintaining the status quo. Your story of Eichman really reminded me of my stepdad saying “They’re just animals. I’ve shot them-They’re my food!” Its the complete inability to consider the opposing side’s ability to feel that leads to this right winged authoritarianism. We are all villains- even by accident/ without awareness sometimes.

  • Robert Murphy

    Thanks, those are great points! My story is an ensemble of 9 people plus my main character, and the bad guy (girl) starts off as a nice lady whose evil side becomes apparent near the end of the book. It’s not openly apparent, but she has a negative effect on the others throughout the book and several of the people who are not bad guys, react in bad ways.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Wow, that sounds like a complicated effort. Your challenge will be making it clear to the reader who’s who and what’s what. They’ll want to know what the main character’s problem or gol is, what’s (or who’s) in his way, and who the villain is.

      • Robert Murphy

        I’m finding that what may look good in an outline doesn’t necessarily work in the story. I’m not going to end up with this many characters, each time I rewrite, I eliminate people who aren’t really contributing to the story.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Good, Robert.

  • Sid

    Once again Jerry, you never cease to amaze me. I’m on it.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Sid.

  • usadogs7

    I have a pet peeve about villains. Many authors make the villain’s backstory one of abuse as a child. That sometimes happens, BUT after spending the last 25 years working with the most courageous, wonderful best children on earth, who have survived and soared above horrendous abuse…over 1800 of them at last count…most of the time abused children overcome with great dignity and strength. Making the villain a poor, formerly abused child who repeats the abuse on innocent people, sends a sad, discouraging message to survivors. Our survivors worry that they will become abusers because that’s what so many other people believe will happen. I’ve seen the opposite… more courage, gentleness, advocacy, protectiveness shine throughout their lives as these “heroes, great and small” become adults. Villains become villains for all kinds of reasons. Get creative with their villian-ness. And heroes? They can come out of situations with a strength and goodness that change the world.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That’s an excellent point. My own father came from a fatherless home on the other side of the tracks and had every excuse available to be a reprobate, a bad husband, and a worse father. He became the opposite. He was a model in every respect: a Marine, a police chief, a churchman, a devoted husband, a loving father. He wanted to be for his wife and four sons what he and his mother and siblings never had.

      • usadogs7

        I love hearing about him.

    • Elizabeth

      I shared the same feelings. As a psychologist I had worked with people with severe traumas, matter of fact I also suffered a severe trauma, nevertheless this is never an excuse to viticmize others and I too feel that those messages are discouraging and shameful to victims because it tells society that traumatized people will become perpetrators and this is not true.

      • usadogs7

        Good for you, Elizabeth, You are a remarkable woman of great courage who has taken severe trauma and used it as a springboard. Fiction can have a huge impact on readers. I remember when I was in my own journey with breast cancer, it seemed that almost every book I read had a character who had died of breast cancer. I decided I was going to put some survivors in my stories. I’m 20 years out now. (Put that in a story.) We authors have a huge responsibility to our readers. The worlds and people we create with our words impact our readers’ lives. What an honor.

        • Elizabeth

          So true, I remember a book that set up a bombing story and right after that we had the Oklahoma bombing.

          But greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world, and battles such as you and I had only reassure others that we can do all things through Him who empower us.

          One night quite accidentally I read a testimony of a physician that suffered from Post traumatic stress disorder (like I do). Since his job was to determine the cause of death and he had prepared himself not to be traumatized by what he saw, he decided to watch the decapitation performed and filmed by ISIS (please if you read this, don’t, under any circunstances watch that movie) and as a result (there are some details he shared which were instrumental to cause the trauma first, then the post traumatic stress disorder), he stopped living and locked hisemlf up.

          I so wanted to help him and even though I don’t usually tweet, I replied to that open letter and shared my own journey with post traumatic stress disorder and how I not only survived but for the most part I have a normal life.

          It was a long letter in reply to the one he posted on a newspaper because I am convinced that we can and should put up a fight against satan and we will succeed.

          I hope that God will sustain, inspire and guide you to continue to reflect His Light in a desperate world that is full of fear and
          I’m looking forward to reading your book.

          You are right, it is an honor to love and help others and to use our gifts to share the Light of Him Who loves us more than we can love ourselves. Your testimony needs to be heard by anyone that faces a major battle and think that life is over.

          Want to be a Beta reader? I’m writing a thriller with a slant of fantasy (that letter from a relatively young physician–he says he is in his 40s– inspired me to write a chapter that relates to that).

          If you ever want to be a critique partner, know that I appreciate a critique and I’m objective when reading other people’s work. I’m also reliable.

          May God bless you immensely.

  • Cathy Gross

    Another nugget of priceless information for a new writer! I had intuitively added a bit of this to my villains background but not with the depth needed. Thanks again for using the Guild as an educational site on a professional level. Writing goes slow here but still dedicated to pursuing this new career. Being part of the Guild keeps me on track and helps me refocus when I am drawn away by life. Thanks again!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks so much, Cathy.

  • Debbi Vaughn

    Great post. Your mention of giving the villain a reason for being bad reminds me of an interview with Jack Elam I read many years ago. He was unimpressed with the trend to give a bad guy a reason to be bad. He liked bad guys to just be bad. He felt they were more scary!

    Here’s one such illusion to that belief: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001181/bio

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Debbi. I think you mean ‘allusion,’ but it IS interesting. Of course a bad guy robbing a bank because he wants the money is still a reason. I want the money too, but I wouldn’t do it, because there’s something different in our backgrounds, and I think today’s reader wants to know that difference.

      • Debbi Vaughn

        Allusion, yes. Drat! And I agree about today’s reader. However, I am intrigued with the concept.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Me too.

  • Randall Allen Dunn

    Great tips! Reply from
    Miss_Pshaw

    about the recent “Die Hard” movie needing your help reminds me of the “Karate Kid” reboot, in which all the bullying kids are one massive character with no clear motivation and no individual personalities, as was clear in the 1984 original film version. I’m unclear on one point, though, about the Villain sharing many of the same characteristics as the Hero. This might often be the case, as with Belloq showing the dark shadowy side of Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but what about the sharp contrasts where Villains are the exact opposite of the Hero, like Lex Luthor being mentally superior, funny and scheming in “Superman the Movie”, while Superman is physically superior, serious and honest? Does the Villian have to share any characteristics with the Hero in order to be a threatening and believable Villain?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I wouldn’t say it’s always the case, Randall, but when the hero and villain pursue the the same goal, challenge, quest, or love, but for competing reasons and motives, it can really add interest and spice to your plot.

      • Randall Allen Dunn

        That helps clarify it. In my examples, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” has several people fighting to win the same goal: possession of the Ark. In “Superman”, the goals of the Hero and Villain run completely counter to one another, one striving for a selfish goal that destroys other people while the Hero tries to stop it and protect the innocent. Thanks!

  • Oh my gosh, it’s uncanny that you posted this on FB today, because in three days my guest post on this exact same subject is going to appear on another blog. I’ve spent a couple weeks thinking over bad guys, and this is exactly what I believe (and what I said in the article). My favorite quote is by John Rogers: “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”

    Love this list and will definitely be referencing it. I’ve always had a hard time with my antagonists, especially the one in my novel, because he’s an atheist. As a Christian, I’ve found it to be next to impossible. But what I said in my post was that by identifying with him, I’m not agreeing with him or going against my beliefs – I’m validating them.

    Awesome post – love the checklist you included!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Reagan!

  • The description you gave for a villain sounds too much like my last two ex-fiancés! Those men though they were God’s gift to mankind. All I can say is praise God he got those men out of my life. The good outcome is that they made good subject matter for a couple of my books. Villains be they, for God smite them away. No longer do they haunt my life, my praises to thee oh God of Glory this day. :-)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Well, that certainly wasn’t the intent of the checklist, but whatever works, eh?

  • Mary Brown

    I just started writing about my villain today and here is your post! My villain faces events that twist his view of the world and his response towards hate and revenge change him from a hero to a villain. The twisted parts of him justify his own destruction of the innocent even though somewhere inside his heart, he knows the difference between right and wrong. Can a villain be redeemed? We all want to see them get their just deserts when they have destroyed lives. Sometimes our hero is one choice away from being a villain… Exploring all the questions and twists that everyone faces when confronted with choices and suffering. This is kind of fun.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Sounds good, Mary, though I’m not sure “somewhere inside his heart, he knows the difference between right and wrong.” Sometimes, to write a good bad guy, you have to write without mercy–with motivation and reasons, sure, but I believe that in his heart of hearts you want him to believe he’s right.

      I congratulate you on the correct spelling of “just deserts.” Not many get that right.

      BTW, a minor matter, but I think you wanted “to” rather than “towards,” and “towards” is the British spelling anyway. U.S. spelling leaves off the S.

      Thanks for writing.

  • anonywolf

    What about Delores Umbridge? I’ve rarely seen a villain so uniformly hated on such a deep, almost visceral, level – yet I don’t recall her being kind, even for show, occasionally.

    • That’s why that series will never sell. :)

      • Paige

        Uh, that series is Harry Potter, I think it’s selling just fine.

        • Ha, I do believe that was sarcasm on Jerry’s part, Paige! There are usually exceptions to every guideline in writing—HP broke a ton of rules, that’s for sure!

  • Nokia1994Black

    For me, a good villain is not a villain who’s threatening in any aspect you could imagine, but a villain that is relatable. A villain that’s feels like a villain without discarding them as a human being (or whatever race you’re into) and not a plot device.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I agree to point. “…not…threatening in any aspect you could imagine”? Yes, relatable, not discarded or other than human–or due to race–and yes, DEFINITELY not merely a plot device. But, if a villain is not threatening, what makes him a villain? Or am I misunderstanding?

  • Better yet, create a scenario in which there are two or more opposing forces, each with their own backgrounds, narratives, motivations and goals. Then pick one arbitrarily to be the good guy.

  • Kolton A.

    A trait that I believe makes a truly great villain are:

    Not just the ability to be persuasive, but also extremely manipulative. In my opinion a villain is at their best when they have the power to make even the most good-natured of people do their bidding, or tear them down to a point where the “good-guy” is willingly doing the wrong thing alongside someone who used to be their enemy.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good thinking, Kolton.

  • Brian Green

    Thank you for the thought provoking discussion. It has helped me create a character of great complexity. I find myself secretly cheering for my villain, as she has suffered great injustice, not unlike that of which she tends to inflict upon others in retribution, yet she doesn’t consider the innocence caught up in the carnage, as she once was. Ofcourse her amoral aspirations are misguided, but still I understand why she commits the otrocities, as she is blinded by her rage. The thing that I find most disturbing about my villain isn’t her chilling presence, but that she came from the darkness I found within myself.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good, Brian. We don’t need caricature villains who are villains because they’re bad and bad because they’re villains.

  • Matthew Landadio

    I know that revenge is a common motivation for villains, but that’s what my villain’s is. he works for a spy organization or he used to and on one mission, he was stranded and they left him behind. he made contact again to try to get rescue but they never sent any. is that a good motivation for him to want to destroy the whole organization?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Revenge is a great motive for a villain. I do, however, think you’ll find it more manageable and personal if the revenge is directed at one person or a small staff, because of what he believes they did wrong to him.

      • Matthew Landadio

        okay thanks! great tip.

  • Weirdanimalboy .

    Wow, I wonder if Tui T. looked at this, because the current villain of her series, Darkstalker, has ALL of the traits on that list. He’s extremely likable, intelligent, and cunning, but he also lacks empathy. He does many things that he considers good, but have a terrible impact on others.

  • This is great thanks. It also just proves that the Joker is the greatest villain of all time because I do believe he meets all these requirements.

    • J Richards

      I wouldn’t be so sure. The Joker is in a league of his own. Watch The Dark Knight and listen to Alfred’s words: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

  • zachary golden

    this works really well for a big bad but for the charcter im looking to create it seems to go against what i felt made the character good,
    she is supposed to be the body guard to the main villain who fits all those categories but acts as the main villains muscle, and even assistant
    her personality is rather lengthy but over all is
    1) uncaring about weather or not what there doing is right
    2) she isent clever
    3) the hero of the story is a very passionate and caring man but she is the opposite in every way
    4) persuasion is not her style at all
    5) and isent deceitful finding no pleasure in it, nor jealous

    the idea is someone who is extremely brutish and designed at a genetic level to be a mindless soldier but has instead devoted themselves to the single person in the world who they truly consider better then them because that person gave them a reason to live, a cause to give themselves to
    (sry for bad grammar)

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Bad grammar? And punctuation, and spelling, and run-on sentences. Why write me with less precision, I hope, than you would an agent or potential publisher? Put your best food forward, show me you’re passionate about this, and I’ll happily take a shot at these questions. Don’t mean to scold, Zachary, but this is like showing up to a business meeting in shabby clothes.

      • NAPOLEON THE 9th

        Sir please calm yourself. Not all us are top-notch Authors for crying out loud! Zachary is probably a young child and is just wanting to live up to his dream of crafting a perfect villain for whatever he is planning. I`m sure even you had bad grammar at one point, we all are human for a fact, and can`t be perfect which is why we all write a rough draft. He even said sorry and you just spat in his face. He has potential, he only needs practice and a chance from a “Real official” and does`t need info from a jerk. In other news I have my own villain which is blah blah blah I won`t tell you because their too good for you and I too apparently have hOrRid gramMaR. By the way, you sure do act and sound like a villain.

    • Ellysia Mason

      You should research Yandere. When this man came into her life- maybe it was like seeing in colour for the first time. Now, she needs him as much as she needs to breathe. She will do anything to have him. But maybe whilst protecting him she realizes the only real way to have him all to herself is to kill/imprison him. That is when she turns from obsessive bodyguard to villain. In a way, your plot is watching her become a villain? This seems to be very close to Yandere characters in any case.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Sorry, that’s too much bad grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It does not bode well for a pitch to an agent or a publisher if in five paragraphs you have have countless errors. Feel free to try again.

  • John Frerris

    Really useful list I must say! I’m making a villain for the story I’m making and I’m having problems wuth the motivation I gave him “In an ancient mystical land, there were two orphans, one of them eventually dissapeared and the other formed a family, this man lost his family to renegades, he set on a quest to revive them which led him to find a powerful beast that could do it, but the renegades found him and killed him. Days later, he revived with the beast’s power and killed the renegades. Terrufued of what he had become, he tried to suicide, but he failed; so he returned to his family’s tombs to find a town which he destroyed in anger. The man eventually found his brother who was apparently a priest and he blames him for everything that has happened for not being there; they battle and both die, but the evil brother revives believing that it was because he has become a deity of destruction”
    I’m still not convinced fully by this, would you help me?
    Sorry for the long comment.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      What specifically are you having problems with?

      • John Frerris

        Well, as I mentioned I’m not fully convinced by the motivation, I want him to be a psycopath that believes he is a god whose mission is to destroy everything, but I can’t seem to find a logical way in which he could gain that insanity. Also his behaviour, I wnat him to be cold and manipulative but sublty showing his insanity but not too over the top.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Maybe something he wishes would happen happens, and he thinks simply willing or wishing it made it so. The reader knows from he circumstances that either it was serendipitous or engineered by someone else, but he begins thinking he has a power he doesn’t really have.

          • John Frerris

            That sounds like a convincing explanation for my villain’s delusions, althought kind of difficult to perform in a serious way, I will do my best to do it.
            Thanks for the advice.

          • No, you should follow your gut. I’m just blue-skying.

          • Ellysia Mason

            He could hallucinate during his suicide attempt? Or when grieving? When people are their most vulnerable they are their most susceptible. Perhaps his family dies and he grows cold and distant- turning on the world?

          • John Frerris

            That also seems like a pretty good reliable option if I mix it with the aforementioned it may work. Just one thing, is it “logical” that he becomes a world destroying psychopath because of all of that? I’m still confused by that.
            I’m halfway through my story, dropping hints here and there about his origin, but nothing concrete to decide it later on.

  • Jared Gorrell

    I’m writing a villain who’s a literal WWII Nazi. I’ve become fascinated by looking up details for his backstory. From what I’ve read, it’s quite possible to write WWII German Army officers as sympathetic villains. After all, they are just doing their duty. Few of them actually liked or agreed with Nazi ideas, but as army officers they were loyal to a fault to their government. (My country, right or wrong?) They tried to be loyal and patriotic and fulfill their duties, but they ended up becoming some of the most hated men in all of history.

    One of the best sources I’ve read to understand how someone becomes a Nazi (and by extension a villain in general) is the memoirs of Albert Speer, a former top Nazi who wrote about how he became a Nazi while in prison, and why he slowly came to his senses during WWII and afterwards.

    • Ellysia Mason

      If you look into an experiment by Stanley Milgram- you will find him convincing participants to follow orders and “torture” another person. The results were extreme- all of them obeyed the authority but many were in tears- one man even had a fit. They were a wide variety of American men. Once there is an authority figure we can go against our very identities in order to obey.

  • Tara Crisan Sweatt

    I think the perfect villain-or even a well written one-believes he or she is the smartest person in most rooms; therefor, his or her way, however heinous is the only way and anyone who thinks he or she is evil is just one of the “sheeple” following the rules of society. When faced with a hero or heroine as intelligent as he or she, true hatred is inspired.

  • jacob

    what about a villain who realizes that the fractured world they live in could be brought together by a hero and

    then realizes that to give rise to a hero there must first be a villain

    • Vits/Vicente Torres

      Like UNBREAKABLE?

    • joker gamer

      like unbreakable

  • Jason Vonvilshmid

    what if the villain makes others believe he is the hero but he knows he’s the villain?

  • Jason Vonvilshmid

    what if the villain makes others believe he is the hero but he knows he’s the villain?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Love it, Jason, But it would be even better if he makes himself too think he’s the hero.

      • Tony Lane

        wouldn’t that be like the Jason Todd character from batman, Jason Todd who was Robin a good guy (turned bad by a villain
        in a way by the joker) becomes a villain who believes he is a good guy as the red hood even tho he is doing bad.

      • Jason Vonvilshmid

        Thank you. I i’m writing a Endtime series doyou havae any suggestions?I need tips on how to make great character personalities. Also it invoves WW 3 can you help me?

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          I i’m
          a Endtime
          doyou
          ?I…
          havae

          What’s happening here? 5 typos in one sentence?

          Then 2 more:

          invoves
          3 can you…

          Let’s start there.

          • Jason Vonvilshmid

            Yikes, I noticed the typos after I sent it.I was typing to fast. I was in a bit of a hurry.sorry.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Worth a try. But what is his motivation? If he knows he’s the villain, what’s his end game? He must at least justify the deceit in his own mind.

  • joker gamer

    the most important thing i feel like is to give the bad guy a sad back story. That could be a reason like he was bullied or was an orphan

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      As important as correct punctuation, capitalization, etc. :)

  • joker gamer

    i’m trying to write a villain but he is just supposed to be a monster or a distraction for the real bad guy.

    • Ellysia Mason

      Maybe he is being manipulated by the bad guy? Maybe the real bad guy causes some horrible events, but the heroes and the readers all think its the “Monster.” Perhaps the “Monster” dies for the hero, or once he is defeated the hero learns of the “Monster” having a sad past/ a family and feels regret. Maybe the “Monster” had an unfinished goal and the hero takes it on as part of a redemption for their mistake?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Interesting approach.

  • Joseph Ritter

    One of my absolute favorite antagonists is Ozymandias from Watchmen. He concludes that he can create world peace, unifying all of the nations, by creating a massive catastrophe and blaming it on a being so powerful, that the nations would have to work together to stand against it. In so many ways, you don’t want him to succeed because he plans to sacrifice millions of innocent people. However, millions of people have died in war and millions more will follow if we can’t find some level of world peace. In a way, his end goal is heroic and you can see that he is trying to do good. But then you must contest with the idea of sacrificing all those people. I love him because to this day, years after first witnessing this story and character, I still don’t know if I agree with him or not and I’m still uncertain if he’s a hero or a villain. That to me makes for an incredibly thrilling antagonist, and I hope to leave similar feelings and conflicted resolutions in my audience some day.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Great goal, Joseph.

  • Ellysia Mason

    Best villain I ever saw was in the Netflix Daredevil series. When I got to a point where I questioned whether Matthew Murdock was the hero or the villain against his foil- Kingpin- I new I’d seen a perfect villain.

  • Thank you for the reminder in The Novel Blueprint. I’ve failed in this area and you’ve added a whole new perspective to my novel writing. Now I need to go back and do some revisions.

  • Tammy Koschnitzke

    I’d add a need to control his environment and everyone in it. Maybe something happened in his past that he believes perfectionism can fix, if he can just get things right this time. Perfectionism could be pushed to extremes in a villain.

  • Cherokee Dawn Ibarra

    In my personal opinion, a well written villain is someone that the reader, themselves, can relate to and/or sympathise with, if only on a surface level. If your reader finds themselves making an excuse for the poor/horrendous behavior of the antagonist, based upon either their connection with the villain, or their backstory (for example, the events leading up to the big bad choosing to walk with demons rather than angels), you will have your audience not only intrigued, but engaged. This is not a suggestion to write and all encompassing or bland character for any position in your story. This is a suggestion to take a deeper look at your target audience, as well as dig deeper into the background of your character. No one wakes up one day and simply decides to end the world. There is always a reason. Find the method in the madness.