How to Write a Good Villain: Full Recipe

Doug Landsborough
April 6, 2022
April 20, 2023

It isn't easy to write a good villain, but it is immensely rewarding. Gone are the days when readers are content having a baddy who is just illogically evil, who wants to destroy the world for no other reason than “because.”

A good villain can take a good book and make it great. With an awesome antagonist, you have the capacity to not just tell a story about your heroes, but to weave together both sides of the coin. Writing a good antagonist means you are adding more depth and enjoyment to your novel.

I’d argue that you owe it to your reader to write a good villain.

In fact, Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and other bestsellers, claims that villains are what define your hero and argues that you should write your villain first. It is, after all, the presence and force of the villain that makes your protagonist heroic.

But this isn’t a food blog, so I won’t insert a few thousand words between you and the recipe for writing your best antagonist. The perfect villain recipe consists of:

  • Believable motivation
  • Proactivity
  • Power
  • Immorality
  • Tragedy
  • Madness
  • Empathy (optional)

Okay, let’s break down each ingredient of this recipe so you can write a great villain.

Two Cups of Believable Motivation

Every villain has a goal, but what would they say if you asked them why they have that goal?

Believable motivation plays a huge role in turning a boring villain into a great one. It reveals so much about a character–their backstory, their traits and flaws, their desires–but is often neglected by writers.

Like I said before, it isn’t good enough these days to write a villain who wants to blow up the moon, unleash a virus, kidnap orphans, and so on. If they don’t have a reason–and a dang good one at that–to do what they’re doing, then they aren’t a good villain.

Now, I’m a Marvel fan, so let’s think about Thanos. The big purple guy wanted to erase half the life in the universe. Tall order, right?

The Mad Titan himself. Image credit: Film Frame/Marvel Studios/Walt Disney

But his motivation stemmed from his own life. He witnessed his entire planet waste away because there were too many mouths and not enough food. His motivation wasn’t killing half the universe for the sake of killing half the universe. It was to save the other half of the universe.

So ask yourself, what’s your villain’s motivation?

Two Packets of Proactivity

In most stories, your protagonists are reactive until the later parts of the book, meaning they are simply trying to keep up with what’s going on. This isn’t the case for your villain.

Antagonists start the story with not only a surprising amount of control (think corrupt governments, a powerful wizard, a high school bully), but they are obsessed with maintaining or increasing that control. They are actively making life harder for your would-be heroes, even if they don’t know it.

This is because, unlike our heroes, villains are proactive in reaching their goals. They will work tirelessly and mercilessly to achieve what they want rather than sitting around and waiting to react to the events of the world.

Back to Thanos. He made a plan to eliminate half the universe and actually acted on it. He traveled across the galaxies and sought out the Infinity Stones he needed to bring his plan to fruition. Imagine if he had been too unsure of himself and just sat around and waited for them to fall into his lap?

A stagnant, reactive villain is a boring one.

A Tablespoon of Power (for Larger Stories, Add to Taste)

Power is something most villains crave but also something they likely already have a decent amount of. And when I say power, I mean any of the following:

  • Physical strength
  • Intelligence
  • Political capital
  • Magical abilities
  • Social pull
  • Excessively sized bank accounts
  • Basically anything that would allow one person to do something others usually can’t

When it comes to writing good villains, though, it’s important to keep a couple things in mind when dishing out their power.

First and foremost, their power should be directly and uniquely suited to hurt your heroes or prevent them from reaching their goody-two-shoes goal. This will allow for a lot more cause and effect actions, more drama, more tension, and an overall more interesting relationship between your protagonist and antagonist.

Second, size matters. The amount of power your villain has will directly impact how vast your story is, how long your series might be, and how realistic it will be for your hero to rise to the challenge.

Think about it: will a teenager with no physical, magical, or social talents be taking down the greatest sorcerer ever known?

No. Not without a lot of time to learn and grow.

Come back to Thanos again. Even without the sparkly stones in his gauntlet, he was still powerful enough to hold his own against Earth’s mightiest heroes. As he gained more of the Infinity Stones, his power grew, forcing our protagonists to greater extremes to try and stop him.

Thanos opening a portal for him and his friends like it's no big deal. Image credit: Film Frame/Marvel Studios/Walt Disney

When he finally got all the gems, it took another movie (and five in-movie years) to find him, kill him, and put a plan in place to reverse the damage he had done. Not to mention the build up through more than a decade of MCU movies.

Keep the power of your villain realistic in relation to how grandiose you want your story to be.

A Dash of Immorality

The interesting thing about morals is that they aren’t binary. While you and I can think certain things are very good and other things are very bad, someone else might believe the opposite. Use this to your advantage when you write a villain.

Take the ideas of morality you and your readers hold and turn them on their heads. Give your villain their own code of morals skewed from our own. Based on how motivated they are and how much power they hold, what they think is right and wrong could be very different from what your hero believes.

Make their morals very clear for the reader. This doesn’t mean that they have to be coldblooded, but clearly defining their immoral beliefs cements your villain into your reader’s mind. Just remember it’s best to show rather than tell.

Okay, Thanos time. Clearly, the Titan’s moral code was different from most of ours. After all, he participated in genocide and wanted to kill half of everything. He refused to let anything stand in his way of that, even sacrificing his adopted daughter to achieve his goals.

While Thanos was clearly evil, he didn’t think he was evil. He was so convinced of his motivations that killing trillions was a small price to pay for everyone else to be happy.

So, when you write a good villain, try to remember that, in their minds, the villain should think they are the hero.

A Touch of Tragedy

As we continue tossing these villainous ingredients into our pot (by the way, the Character Notes in Dabble is a great place to toss them into), we need to think about what drove our villain to this point.

As I’ve said before, gone are the days when you can write a baddy who is evil because that’s how they woke up. Very, very few people are evil without cause, and that doesn’t end with your first page.

Tragedy is the strongest force that can push a normal person (albeit sometimes alien, magical, etc.) to become a villain. What happened in their past that shattered their world forever?

It’s often these world-shattering moments that decide whether a person becomes a hero or a villain. Use a villain’s backstory–whether you share it in a flashback or simply allude to it here and there–to add meaning and understanding to their terrible actions.

When we listen to Thanos, he shares that his planet was once prosperous and thriving. Despite his warnings, Titan eventually collapsed due to a lack of resources, leading to the destruction of his people. Through experiencing this tragedy, he truly wants to stop the same thing from happening to other worlds.

A touch of tragedy is a great way to humanize your villain so we can almost see ourselves in their shoes.

A Pinch of Madness, if You Like Spice

There are so many different ways you can flavor your villains as you write them. Different motivations, power, backstories, and so much more all come together to create a, dare I say, delectable antagonist.

But one of the optional ingredients you can add is a little pinch of madness.

First, let me be clear: madness is not a mandatory ingredient in your villain and mental health is something that should be handled appropriately and respectfully. Just as we writers are past making villains evil for the sake of being evil, we’re also past villainizing mental health.

That said, madness doesn’t have to stem from mental health challenges.

Madness can take the immorality of your villain and spice it up to nearly incomprehensible levels. Think of someone who is obsessed with a K-Pop star to the point they have a shrine and a lock of hair from the dark web. Imagine the cult leader who has written their own gospel of extra-dimensional beings. Think of, honestly, the Joker from Batman.

These are all characters that exhibit madness because they accept or act on things considered unacceptable.

And I know I just made you think of three different types of villains–one of them quite specific–but I get a gold star if I use the same villain example in every ingredient, so let’s look at Thanos again.

He is called the Mad Titan, so there’s that. But his label doesn’t come from nowhere. His goal of saving worlds is admirable. His experience has been tragic. It is the extent that he is willing to go to in order to accomplish his goal that gives him his madness, though.

Something else to keep in mind: most people are realizing that words like crazy and insane are harmful to those with a disability or experiencing mental illness. There are plenty of more appropriate and effective words out there you can use.

Madness, when done right, can make your villain over the top in all the right ways. And who doesn’t like that?

For a Sad Aftertaste: A Sprinkling of Empathy

Okay, my favorite seasoning to add when making a villain: empathy.

Empathy is another one of those optional traits you can include when creating your villain. It doesn’t fit with all stories. That said, a sprinkling of empathy can take your antagonist from someone the reader roots against to someone they consider rooting for.

It takes some delicate handling to add empathy to your villain. If you don’t take the time to carefully craft this important character, your read will never empathize with them.

If you want your reader to empathize with your villain, make sure to really drill down on the character’s backstory and put us in their shoes. What happened to them that made them choose to be a villain rather than a hero? Was that choice realistic?

Even in genres like high fantasy or space operas, your characters should make realistic choices. Without that, you won’t get any empathy from your audience.

Let’s revisit Thanos one more time. On paper, empathizing with a giant purple alien who wants to kill half of all life sounds tough. But because Thanos was given time to develop, as all good characters should, we see him struggle for his goal and agonize over the pain that fuels him. We see how much it hurts to sacrifice his daughter, who is possibly the only person he loves.

Thanos shows real emotion after realizing he must sacrifice his daughter to reach his goals. Image credit: Film Frame/Marvel Studios/Walt Disney

Sacrifice, determination, conviction, and pain all make it easy for us to empathize with a villain. These are relatable to most people, so we can see a bit of ourselves in your baddy… even if they are monsters.

Combine All Ingredients in Dabble and Voila!

There are many flavors that you can pull from all the different nasty ingredients you can combine to write a good villain. The quantities and types of each are what will make your villain unique, but all good villains:

  • Have strong motivation
  • Are proactive
  • Are powerful
  • Hold their own moral code
  • Have faced tragedies that sent them down their current path
  • You can also add some madness or empathy to your villains for a little extra salt.

    When you’re writing, bear in mind that your antagonist is just as important as your protagonist. You must give them the same love you give to your hero or your story will suffer as a result.

    Managing that level of detail can be difficult, though. That’s why Dabble makes it as easy as possible for writers to create amazing characters, hero or villain. With Character Notes, it’s so easy to keep everything you need to know about your villain in one place.But I’m also going to let you in on another way you can craft amazing villains in Dabble using the Plot Grid.

    Expert Dabblers know you can use two different types of Plot Grids: the Manuscript Plot Grid and the Generic Plot Grid. If you didn’t know that before, now you do and you’re an expert. Great job! To craft a villain, we’re going to use a Generic Plot Grid.

    To create a Generic Plot Grid, click or tap on Plot on the Left Navigation Bar in Dabble. From there, click or tap on the + symbol beside Create a New Plot Grid under the heading Create a Generic Plot Grid.

    You’re doing great so far. That will create a new Generic Plot Grid for you, which isn’t attached to the scenes in your book.

    Now, title the first Plot Line Villains–don’t worry, this isn’t actually a Plot Line, but bear with me. Then click or tap on the + button to the right of the Untitled Plot Point to create both a new Plot Point and Plot Line.

    Title this one Motivation.

    Repeat this process six more times and title the Plot Lines Proactivity, Power, Immorality, Tragedy, Madness, Empathy.

    A generic plot grid with headings of villains, motivation, proactivity, power, immorality, tragedy, madness, and empathy.

    Now it’s up to you to fill in the blanks! Under Villains, click or tap on the Plot Point and title it with your villain’s name. Then click or tap around the Plot Point Card to exit it. Under Proactivity, click or tap on the Plot Point. Name it with a short title that reminds you of what is in the card, then add all the notes about how your villain is proactive in their actions.

    Do the same thing for the remaining ingredients, adding a short title and all the info you want to help you write a good villain.

    If you have more than one point to include under one of the headings (i.e., your villain has both political and magical power), you can add another Plot Point below it.

    A completed generic plot grid showing all the villainous ingredients of Thanos

    When you’re all done, you can drag this Plot Grid and drop it right into your villain’s folder under Character Notes.

    Now you’re equipped to write a good villain–dare I say a great villain. Go forth and be evil.

    And if you haven’t given Dabble a try, here's a free 14-day trial, no credit card required. Our Plot Grid, Character Notes, Goal Tracking, and so much more make writing more fun and writing your book easier.

    All with a clean, modern interface to make sure you can focus on what matters most: your book.

    Happy writing!

    Doug Landsborough

    Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.