Monday, January 27, 2014

How to Write Good Bad Guys



by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

A writer emailed me to ask, "How do you go about writing bad guys? I know that they need to have a goal, but I don't know how to show them taking steps to achieve it when they're always off somewhere plotting and my main character is off doing their own good guy thing. Do you have any ideas on how to fix it?"

Writing bad guys can be tricky for lots of writers, so you're certainly not alone. First let's clear up a couple of common questions about villains:



Can I have more than one bad guy in my story?

Sure. In the Harry Potter series, Harry has Voldemort, but he also has Snape, Draco, Dudley, all of Slytherin. Often the bad guys are in cahoots with each other, but not always.


In a book that doesn't have bad guys in the traditional sense of the word, we still often see multiple characters working against the main character. Like in a romance novel where the heroine is the main character, the hero may often play the antagonist role at times, along with the heroine's mother and a jealous friend or two.

Can my bad guy be an idea or a force rather than a person?

Technically, yes.


In 11/22/63, which tells the story of a man from 2011 travelling back in time to stop the assassination of JFK, you can make the argument that the villain is the past. When Jake tries to change things, he always senses a force working against him. While there are several antagonists (characters who work against the main character) in the book, they’re usually only around for a brief period of time, whereas Jake is always working against the stubborn past.

But here’s what I would say about that—it was written by Stephen King. The guy knows what he's doing. I think it’s harder than it looks to make a faceless force as scary or intimidating as a person. (In the TV series Lost you’ll notice they finally gave us a person to root against [Benjamin Linus] instead of continually asking the audience to fear the island itself.)


But how do you go about creating an villain audiences will love to hate?

Start by spending time with them.

You spend most your time with your main character, so of course they have your allegiance. In order to understand your villain, you must spend time with them too. Like in Ender's Game when Ender expresses, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” 

How do you do this? For me, it happens on the page. I can do lots of exercises for developing characters, and those are helpful, but nothing replaces time on the page. When I read through my first draft, most of my characterization edits ("Hey, that doesn't sound like something Bob would say") happen in the first half of the book, because when I wrote it, I was still figuring out these people and their motives.


While I recognize that writing a first draft is a very time consuming way to get to know your characters, in my opinion it's still the best way to understand your villain and how he or she ticks. 



James Scott Bell is who introduced me to the idea of
character journals, one of my favorite character devel-
opment exercises.
If your books don't have scenes that are told from the villains POV, then I would strongly encourage you to do a character journal. This is where you just let the character talk in their "I" voice. I try to give them a starting place ("Did you have a happy childhood?") and then they take off for a few pages.

Here's a quick example.



My childhood was a very happy one. The house often smelled of my mother's famous sunflower seed bread, which she baked several times a week so we could have fresh bread for lunch. Sometimes she would let me help her. But I haven't been able to stand the smell of fresh bread since that day when I came home from school and found her...

It's crazy, but the characters really take over and seem to tell you their story.

But why are you so evil?

I've only seen "evil for the sake of evil" done well once and that's in The Dark Knight with the Joker. And while great writing certainly helped, I think Heath Ledger's brilliant acting sold the character. I'm not convinced you could get away with it in a novel. (Though if someone wants to suggest a book where evil for evil's sake is done well, I'd love to hear.)

Even in The Dark Knight you'll notice that twice (if I'm remembering correctly) the Joker tells stories for an audience about how he got his scars/why he's evil. And then both times he laughs and says he made those stories up. The audience wants to know why, and the Joker understanding that his audience wanted to know why and playing on that makes him all the more creepy.

But for most villains, you'll need to at least hint at a root cause for why they do what they do, same as your fears and decisions and ambitions tend to have a root.  Like I have trouble trusting friendships because I've been burned several times times by girls who I thought were my best friend. And I have a phobia about public bathrooms with those push-button locks because of an embarrassing I-thought-the-door-was-locked-but-it-wasn't moment in my life. Not sure, exactly, where my irrational fear of spiders comes from, but your villain's backstory is critical to breathing life into them.

Why me?

Make sure you know why your bad guy has engaged in battle with your hero. Bad guys tend to be busy people and they don’t want to waste their time with those who are beneath them, so you need to make sure they have a reason to take notice. 

Like in The Hunger Games, you'll notice President Snow doesn’t pay extra attention to Katniss until her defiance becomes a threat to his way of life.

If you're having trouble creating active bad guys, this might be the first thing you check, if you've made your hero enough of a threat.

Your bad guy should be active


A great example of active antagonists is in Divergent by Veronica Roth. The bad guys are so active the reader can hardly take a breath. You’re too worried that Tris’s eye is going to get stabbed out. The bad guys in that book seem to be constantly scheming and waiting for a moment of weakness, but like we just talked about, they don't target Tris with serious danger until they perceive her as a threat.

Let's briefly look at a book that isn't high action, just to get a peek at how this can be done in a more character-driven story. The "bad guy" in Pride and Prejudice is Caroline Bingley. She wants to become Mrs. Darcy, and once she's discovered that Mr. Darcy has a bit of a crush on Elizabeth, Caroline tries to make Elizabeth look bad whenever she can. She mocks Elizabeth's family and points out flaws that she knows Mr. Darcy can't deny. 


Consider showing the hero and villain as two sides of the same coin.

The best example I can think of is the Harry Potter series. As the series goes on, Harry realizes that he and Voldemort are extremely similar. They even look alike. 

Another example of this is Lightning McQueen and Chick from Cars. They're enemies because they want the same thing and only one of them can get it. At the end with Chick, we see what Lightning could have become had he stayed on the same trajectory.  

Having your hero recognize the villain within themselves is a great way to make both characters more real to the reader.

Just like your main character shouldn’t always be right, your bad guy shouldn’t always be wrong.

Have you ever done something good but for the wrong reason? Well your bad guy can be doing wrong things, but for good reasons.


In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy advises Bingley against pursuing Jane Bennett because he doesn’t think Jane loves him. He's wrong, but in his heart he’s trying to do a good thing by preventing his friend from a difficult marriage.

Something else that can be effective is when an antagonist calls your hero out on something. In The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, Ellie is told by the antagonist that she's difficult to be friends with. It hurts Ellie's feelings, but she also knows it's true. And the message wouldn't have been as effective, wouldn't have hurt as much, had it come from another character.


How do you feel about the antagonists in your novel? Do you feel like you've done a good job with them?


FYI, Stephanie is at her grandmother's funeral today and will respond to comments when she can. -Jill





57 comments:

  1. My favorite of my baddies, Nightshade, started out as not-so-good, but I think she's gotten better.

    My other baddies . . . they need work. Sadly, my best antagonists are in the novels that I don't think I'm likely to publish.

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    1. Maybe someday your good antagonists will get transplanted into a more publishable novel :)

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  2. I love my villains. I find the best way to develope them is to give yourself a reason to feel dramatically sorry for them and then you suddenly care so much that you can't leave them as flat "baddies"

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  3. I agree with Anne-girl. I've writing a contemporary middle grade novel so my villain isn't walking around all day screeching "MwahHaHa!" or turning people into toads. Instead, she's actively trying to foil my main character's goals and sometimes succeeding. I hate-to-love Zoe.

    -Sam
    Also, I'd love some advice on my young writers blog from other bloggers or anyone who is interested. You can read it at:

    www.youngwriterscafe.wordpress.com

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    1. Zoe sounds like she fills her role well. Great work!

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  4. Thanks for the post. I think I actually might have a problem with making my bad guys too good. Like it's way too easy for me to make a rich snob be a snob only at school and as a cover-up for something. Or maybe I just haven't found the real bad guy in my story. Does one's mom count if she's intolerable?
    Stephanie, I asked to join the GoTeenWriters facebook page. Can you please let me join? Thanks

    http://teensliveforjesus.blogspot.ru

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    1. I can't speak for Stephanie, but personally I don't feel like that's a bad thing. An antagonist has to be someone who opposes your main character and prevents them from reaching their goals; they don't have to be evil or totally immoral. As long as your antagonist is making life difficult for your MC I think it should be okay :)

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    2. I agree with Maya's opinion on this. Not every story needs a bad-in-his-bones type character :) And, yes, thank you for letting me know, Sofia!

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    3. I agree too. In Flora and Ulysses by Kate Dicamillo, the mother is the antagonist, because she doesn't want Kate to keep her squirrel, Ulysses, who has super powers, and, I won't spoil the plot, but nearly does something dreadful.

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  5. My favorite bad guy is Loki. He is bad, but he actually has a personality. So many antagonists are only a conflict creator rather than a person. If people would treat antagonists like any other character, I think they would be more interesting.

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    1. That's a great point. Let's try to avoid mere conflict creators in our novels!

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    2. I concur! That's one reason why I like him better than the other Marvel villains. He's more interesting.

      ~ Gracelyn

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  6. Great post! Writing complex villains is lot of fun! I'm pretty pleased my own. My first novel I'm writing has a villain that's pretty evil for being evil, but I think he's charismatic and creepy enough to be really interesting. And some of my other stories have villains who are drawing a lot of unexpected sympathy from me.

    One villain in a book I've encounter that it is TOTALLY bad but still incredible, is the The Dragon Father from Anne Elisabeth Stengl's Tales of Goldstone Wood. And his creepy sister, the Lady of Dreams. She might be even worse. They're the embodiments of evil and the characters they corrupt are some of the most complex, compelling villains I've ever encountered. In the 5th book, Dragonwitch, I was literally sobbing for the villainess.

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    1. She is still on my to-read list. Glad to know I'm in for some good villains!

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    2. I definitely recommend putting her at your top of the to-read list! The series is absolutely incredible.

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  7. Oh villains, how we love thee! Good villains are so hard to write, but oh so chillingly magnificent when they turn out right.

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    1. Nice to see you here, Gillian :) We've missed you!

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  8. My all time favourite villains come from the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Azula is a freakishly good villain. She's super creepy and ends up totally insane after being betrayed. And then Zuko, who ends up becoming one of the good guys, was so complex and had an amazing back story. It was great that we got to see things from their point of view too. The show is amazingly written.

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    1. A:TLA has some of my favourite characters and character development of all time! The writers were brilliant.

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    2. EEEK! I just recently watched that show for the first time and I am so impressed! Zuko was amazing and his transition to a hero was wonderful. And Azula has become one of my favorite villains of all time. Her journey and final fate is still in question in the continuation of the series in the graphic novels, which I think are really good. The Legend of Korra: Season One also had some pretty terrifying, yet complex bad guys.

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    3. Sounds like I'm missing out! Thanks for the recommendation, guys :)

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    4. My sister has been completely obsessed with Avatar for the past week. She's watched like 48 episodes or something. But whenever she watches it she squeals all the time about Zuko and how amazing he is. I've heard quite a few spoilers, because she shares my room and her computer is like three feet away from me. XD I've watched Avatar too, but only a little bit... I just haven't gotten around to watching more, but from what I've seen and heard from my sister, Zuko is a pretty amazing antagonist/hero.

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    5. Ha, ha! Yeah, Zuko is pretty amazing. If you watch all the seasons from beginning to end, his change is incredible.

      And his uncle. His uncle who happens to be on the side of the bad guys (or is he...?), is one of the most noble, hilarious, and wonderful characters in the snow.

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  9. This is interesting! I like the show Once Upon A Time the villains, I feel, can be well developed. At first you don't them much, but when you get the back story you can understand them better. Thanks for the post! :)

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  10. Good timing for this post! I'm in the middle of my 3rd revision/edit for my WIP, and now I realize I should work on my villain more. I though her backstory was sufficient but when I think about it, I have no idea why she's such a sociopath. Well, this should be fun!

    Also, I wrote a book where the main antagonist is the environment, and I just HAD to throw in some more antagonistic characters. Definitely made the book 210% better and 310% more fun to write! I can't imagine the story without them now. Actually, I can. It would be garbage.

    Thanks for the post (and the perfect timing)!

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    1. That's interesting, Jessica. I love the idea of an antagonistic environment, and I'm proud of you for recognizing on your own that you needed a few more antagonists. Nice work!

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  11. Thanks for the great post!
    I'm beginning revisions on a first draft at the moment, and my villain really needs some fleshing out. Time to go work on that...

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  12. Great post, My villain just wants power and to watch the world burn. I agree that this is a hard villain to write. It has been done well in books like,
    Lord of the Rings (Sauron)
    Sherlock Holmes ( Moriarty)
    It's my favorite kind of villain, because it's supposed to be the very essence of evil. It makes it much more satisfying when the Hero has to contend with it.

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    1. I do love a totally bad villain when he's done well. There's just something that feels good inside when they're totally crushed. Other examples include the villains from Chronicles of Narnia and the Dragon King from The Tales of Goldstone Wood.

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    2. Lord of the Rings and Narnia! How did I forget those? They're really cool. And the fact that the bad are just bad doesn't make them worse. It makes them better even, probably.

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  13. Loki and Azula are the best villains ever.... The Joker just gives me the creeps.

    I do have something to add about villains though. A lot of villains that I see anymore are 'insane'. I would be wary of making any character, villian or otherwise, mentally ill. It's getting cliche fast, and worse than that it's highly offensive when done wrong. Mental illness is a real thing. And it's not something to throw in for no reason. And if you're going to use mental illness. Please, please, please do your research.


    Sorry. That's just a pet peeve of mine...

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    1. That's a great caution, I'm glad you mentioned that. We want to be writers who can be trusted.

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  14. Thanks so much for this post, Stephanie! I'm terrible with villains, I think. Jose is always getting me confused and angry at him. And it's probably only because I haven't spent time with him. I need to do one of those character journals for him soon. And figure out why he's so stinkin' evil.

    TW Wright
    Ravens and Writing Desks

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    1. You'll get there, TW! It just takes some time :)

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  15. Wow, this was really thought provoking!! Never thought about a character journal. That might be very helpful. My villain, Sicarus, doesn't spend time worrying about my FMC because he thinks he's taken care of her. When she shows back up several years later (and still very much alive) he feels threatened in his current state of power (President of the United States in 100 years) because only she knows his real identity, which is when he pegs her on the America's most wanted list.
    A villain I thought that was really evil just for the sake of being evil was Taksidian from the Dreamhouse Kings Series (By Christian author Robert Liparulo). His overly calm demeanor about killing the main characters to destroy the future is the most disturbing I know from reading.

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  16. Thanks for the article! This is great!
    (By the way, a book that does "evil for the sake of evil" well is the Paradise Series by Ted Dekker.)

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  17. Sorry about you grandma, Stephanie. I have my grandpa's funeral tomorrow, and it is tough.

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    1. Thank you. It had been a longtime coming and she felt ready, which always makes it easier. I'm so sorry to hear about your grandpa :(

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  18. Praying for you, Stephanie! I'll be going to my grandpops memorial soon.

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  19. I'm constantly trying to understand how to do a good job on antagonists... I think I'm just starting to get a bit better.
    My newest pile of antagonists has been giving me a lot of trouble. Something that was supposed to be a subplot grew really complicated and started trying to eat up the rest of the story...It really didn't fit with what the story was supposed to be like so I've cut pretty much all of it. Now I just have to come up with some more things that have to do with my antagonist. His goals have changed so many times that I can't keep up with it.
    My antagonist is being difficult, but not in the normal way my antagonists are. Often they are boring and confusing. This guy is interesting and confusing. I was daydreaming about a scene after he'd kidnapped my MC and he said something and then suddenly I realized the kind of antagonist I wanted him to be. Sometimes he will be hilarious, other times he will be terrifying. At least, if I pull it off.
    This post was quite helpful because it reminded me of something I always need to hear. (though I really should remember it by now) I have to keep my antagonist active. But for once, I don't feel like that's going to be such a daunting task. I think that's a good sign.

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  20. I didn't understand the main antagonist for my first book for a long time. I went through several books with the antagonist, but beyond the fact that he went mad because of his mentor's death I couldn't figure out why he was evil. A week or so after I had finished the first draft the last book I intended to put him in, I was listening to the radio and this song came on. The song told me what he reason was.

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  21. I'm sorry about your grandma, Stephanie. It seems you've had a lot thrown at you lately. I'll be praying for you and your family.

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  22. My all time favorite Villian has to be Bellatrix Lestrange. She's perfectly insane and blindly follows Voldemort like a puppy dog even though he really doesn't care for her at all. It's kind of sad actually which makes her all the more complicated especially since in her mind the light side is wrong.

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  23. This post came at exactly the right time, Ms. Stephanie!! I finally read it early this morning and got perfectly excited and started writing my villein's back story in the character journal form.
    I have been having a terrible time trying to figure out why Owen is so full of hate for my MC, and why on earth he does the things he does, (usually one doesn't kill off people without a pretty good reason!). I recently found, when I couldn't avoid writing about Owen any longer, that it was virtually impossible to get along very far about the bad guy without knowing why he's bad. :)
    I just finished writing his back story about half an hour ago (3,000+ words later), and realized that it is the prologue I didn't know my novel needed, and I am absolutely thrilled!
    Thank you for posting this!!!!! :)

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  24. Oh my I absolutely love this!!!!! Exactly what I needed

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  25. My antagonist is Captain Gerald H. Scott... such a clever bad buy! He's smart, wise, composed, friendly, and handsome. He was even raised in a Christian home! He wants to be a ruler feared and loved. He's just using his God-given gifts for evil. I think that makes him more lovable despite his evil plot. It gives the reader a lot of "if only"s. :)

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  26. in my current story, sticky situations which is in progress, the two main (if main can mean worst) bad guys, are two loan shark dealers whos' expectations are not met and then there are some other people who cause trouble for the good characters in lesser ways. i will agree with anyone who says bad guys can do something good and good guys can do something bad

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  27. Is it okay if one of my main protagonist at he start of the series becomes the antagonist at the end after they (I have two protagonist in my story) defeat the first antagonist? Then the other protagonist has to kill the protagonist-to-antagonist?

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  28. This was a super helpful article! I'm in the middle of writing my first draft, and reading this helped me realize that my villain was "evil for the sake of evil". I've been thinking about how to do his back story, and I finally figured out a rather tragic past for him that connects to other parts if the story, so I hopping to out in a pretty huge plot twist at the end. Great post! Keep up the good work!

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  29. The villains in Sherlock are some of the creepiest and yet also complex and compelling I've ever seen. Particularly Eurus: you wouldn't believe some of the complexities. Plus Moriarty. SUPER creepy.

    Hey! The Art of War for Writers! I have that book! And I do that! With the character journal! Exclamation points!!!

    ~ Gracelyn

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