It’s Good to Be Bad: Writing a Villain Protagonist
Let’s be real, writing not-so-virtuous characters is a lot of fun. I mean, we’re good in our everyday lives, right? Well, most of us, anyway. So you’re allowed to indulge in being vicariously bad through your characters.
But that usually means being the antagonist. After all, heroes are supposed to be moral and just and blah blah blah.
Today, we’re going to talk about taking those fun, morally ambiguous villains and making them the star of the show.
To do that, we’re going to look at:
- What it means to be a protagonist and an antagonist
- Creating villainous protagonists
- Villain protagonist character arcs
- Some examples of infamous villain protagonists
By the time we’re done, you might never want to write a goody two-shoes hero ever again!
What Does it Really Mean to be a Protagonist?
Maybe you’re thinking that villain and protagonist don’t really go together. They almost sound like opposites.
Sort of, but not quite.
See, protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean hero. In most stories—like 99% of them—the protagonist will be the hero of the tale. That might not mean a superhero, but it could be someone trying to find love, start a charity, or really any other goal that us good folks might have.
In reality, a protagonist is the lead of the story. Protagonists are who we are following as they’re trying to accomplish their goal. They are the main character… and often the main character is the “hero.”
But, using the simple definition of protagonist = lead character, then your main character doesn’t have to be virtuous or moral or good.
If our main character is “evil” and has a goal that doesn’t necessarily align with our common sense of good, they can still be a protagonist.
Which means yes, we can have villain protagonists.
Before we get too deep into writing these types of main characters, though, let’s talk about antagonists and anti-heroes. Sometimes knowing what something isn’t is just as good as knowing what it is.
Aren’t Villain Protagonists Just Antagonists?
In short, no. An antagonist is different from a villain protagonist.
So, if protagonists are the lead of the story trying to accomplish a goal, antagonists are the counterforce getting in the way of that goal.
Traditionally, it’s easy to see why villains are usually the protagonist. If we’re rooting for the main character and their “good” goals, anyone who opposes that is likely an antagonist, and a villainous one at that.
We’re going to get into the weeds of writing a villain protagonist later in this article, but let’s flip things around. If we have a villain protagonist, perhaps the antagonists are actually heroes. Or maybe the antagonist is an even worse villain.
All this to reinforce that protagonist doesn’t mean good, and antagonist doesn’t mean bad. Instead, remember it this way:
Protagonist = main character
Antagonist = obstacle or counterforce to protagonist
Are Anti-Heroes Villain Protagonists?
Again, in short, no. Anti-heroes aren’t villain protagonists. While both might start being evil, amoral, or do things heroes normally wouldn’t, it’s almost guaranteed that anti-heroes change their tone throughout the novel.
An anti-hero will either become good or rise to the occasion and be uncharacteristically good to save the day. Maybe they’re reluctant about it. Maybe they still do some morally questionable things after showing us how they save the day. Whatever happens, they become the hero.
But remember, being a protagonist doesn’t mean being a hero.
So, while a villain protagonist can save the day, that’s not their objective. Instead, our villainous main characters are out to get what they want. Their goal is more important than the greater good. There’s a chance they’ll save the world or a few lives to make that goal a reality, but they still aren’t “good” folks on the inside.
Creating a Villain Protagonist
We’ve established what a villain protagonist isn’t and understand these characters can exist. Now let’s get into the good stuff and create our baddest main character.
Make Them the Protagonist for a Reason
First things first, you better have a pretty good reason to have a villain protagonist. Honestly, there’s a reason almost all main characters are the “good guys.”
When you’re using an evil lead, you automatically narrow your audience and run the risk of turning off readers. Evil characters do evil things, and not everyone likes that.
So why are you choosing to tell the story of a villain and how is that better than a traditional protagonist?
Maybe you’re doing it to really drive home a theme or discuss the gray area of “evil.” Maybe you’re looking for a good redemption arc, which we’ll discuss later. Or perhaps you want to explore the story from a different, more complex point of view.
But if you can’t come up with a good answer, you’re starting on rocky ground.
Make Them the Way You Would Any Other Character
Once you’ve made sure you want to go down this route, the next step is to start building your villain protagonist the same way you would any other character.
If you’re rolling your eyes at that, I get it. It’s kind of a copout answer. But it’s also the truth.
Your villain is now the single most important character in your story. This story is literally about them. So, if you want your story to be good, you need to craft a good character. At their core, all good characters have a few common threads.
Goals - This is the most important element for any character but is especially true for main and secondary characters. And extra especially important (that’s the technical term) for villain protagonists. Why are they doing what they’re doing? What is their biggest want? How will success or failure shape the character and the world? If you need some help, try adding a villainous spin to any of these goals.
Motivation - While a character’s goal is the why behind their action, their motivation is like their why behind their why. What is pushing them towards their goal? Did something terrible happen in their past? Are they out for revenge? Motivation is so important for villain protagonists; we don’t like rooting for evil people or evil acts, so you need to nail this motivation. Get to the bottom of character motivation with this article.
Character arc - A character arc is the internal journey your made-up people take. We’re going to look at some arcs specifically for villain protagonists in a bit, but understand the basics: your character either becomes morally better, morally worse, transforms in other ways (like the princess goes from royalty to a warrior, but her morals stay the same), or no change whatsoever. Understand character arc basics here.
Flaws - Do you know what’s super boring? A character without flaws. Villain protagonists have innate flaws (because, well, they aren’t good people), but flaws extend beyond just being evil. You can add flaws to their personality, their powers/abilities (if that works with your genre), their relationships, and more. Learn all you need to know about flaws here.
Flesh them out - Once you’ve got all that deep stuff down, you need to flesh out your characters. No, you don’t need to include fifty different character traits throughout your book, but you can, as the author/god that created your characters, know what those traits are and how they affect behavior, actions, etc. If you need some help, check out this massive list of character traits.
Okay, so those are the foundations you need for any character that plays any real role in your story, regardless of their hero, villain, or sidekick status. For our villain protagonists, though, let’s chat about three more elements.
Make Them Relatable
This might sound easier in theory than in practice, but you have to make your evil main character relatable.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not personally a fan of robbing banks, ruling the world, or murder. But maybe your main character is. Whatever their evil goal, we’re starting a few steps behind other main characters because evil isn’t relatable.
So look elsewhere in their design. Perhaps they’re a parent who will do anything for their kids. Maybe they have lost a loved one. Or they work a dead-end job with a power-tripping manager and feel like they’re going nowhere in life. We’ve all been there, right?
If you’re going to hand your story over to a villain, you need to figure out a way to connect them to your readers. Otherwise we’re going to have a really hard time rooting for them.
Make Them Despicable
Once you’ve made them relatable, it’s time to do a 180 and make them awful. I know it seems contradictory, but hear me out.
If you’re writing a villain protagonist, you need to make them a bad person. If you don’t, then you aren’t writing a villain protagonist. Maybe you’re writing an anti-hero or a morally gray hero, but you aren’t writing a villain main character.
So think of ways to highlight just how bad they are. They pushed over an old person for no reason or hacked a company just to get rich. Do they value other human life? Do they value their own?
Consider their moral code. Most of us will draw the line somewhere, but that line will be much different for your evil lead, if it exists at all. Here are three quick tips to make them extra bad.
1. Show the despicable acts early. There shouldn’t be any question about who your lead character is. In the first chapter or two, the reader should have a clear understanding of how terrible this main character is. Don’t be gross or too over the top… we don’t want readers dropping your book because they’re so turned off by their actions. But they shouldn’t think that the protagonist is heroic, either.
2. Keep early consequences to a minimum. Do you know what makes a bad act worse? A bad act with no consequences. Your villain protagonist knows they can get away with these things fairly easily (at least for now). Maybe they even have some fans or acolytes.
3. Sprinkle in some villain-specific traits. Take things from villain antagonists that worked and use them to refine how bad your protagonist is. As a D&D fan, I like this list of 100 villain traits that ranges from “never works off the clock” to “is an empty conduit to a demonic portal.” They might not vibe with you, but let the list help you brainstorm your own traits.
Make Them Realistic
So you’re already balancing a character who is relatable and despicable. The last step is to make sure they’re still realistic, too.
This doesn’t mean they have to abide by real life laws of magic (or lack thereof). They can be half-alien, half-human. They can have tentacles that speak and think for themselves. They can be a mad genius who invents things that really shouldn’t exist for another few centuries.
When I suggest you make them realistic, I’m talking about their choices and actions.
It’s unrealistic to respond to the fridge being empty with gun violence.
But approach this from a villain’s perspective, too. Where you and I might choose a safe option in any given dilemma, a villain protagonist might embrace danger to show off, get a butt-load of money, or to simply express how untouchable they are.
This all goes back to the foundational elements of their goals and motivations. Make sure your villain protagonist’s actions synchronize with these elements.
Villain Protagonist Arcs
Recapping: our villain protagonist needs the effort and love every other character needs, but they also need to balance the fine line of being relatable, despicable, and realistic.
That’s all some behind the scenes stuff, though. That’s what will make your character think, speak, and act the way they do.
In this section, we’re going to move into those villain-specific arcs mentioned earlier. This is the internal journey your villain protagonist goes through while moving along the plot of your story.
Bear in mind the following arcs are not the only ones a villain protagonist can go through. Use them to spark your story or maybe even an arc idea of your own!
Turning to the Light
By far the most common villain protagonist arc, “turning to the light” means they’re changing from evil to good over the course of your story. For nerds like me, this is a moral ascending arc.
It’s tough not to over-explain this one. “Turning to the light” is your classic redemption arc; something causes your villain to forsake their evil ways and become nicer than they started. Ew.
Here are a few quick tips to redeem your evil main character:
- Make them extra bad to start. Limp noodles are more interesting than a character who goes from kinda-sorta bad to accomplishing one good act. The change should be big.
- It’s all about conscious change. Your villain has to decide to go from good to bad. They shouldn’t stumble into that revelation.
- What will they lose? This change should come with a sacrifice. Money, power, even their core beliefs. It shouldn’t be an easy decision for them to make.
- Don’t forgive their past. It’s such a copout for a villain to turn good and suddenly be embraced with open arms. They were bad people, so don’t let the other characters or your readers ever forget that.
The Sweet Taste of Evil Victory
Let’s look at the opposite: villain protagonists who get worse!
In this moral descending arc, our baddie accomplishes their goal. And guess what? They liked the result and want more.
Remember how we’ve been talking about balancing on a fine line with your villain protagonist? This is an arc where you really need to be careful—you are telling a story where someone becomes worse, after all.
Here are some tips for this kind of arc:
- Ease up on the brutality. It’s a lot easier to root for someone’s malignant goals if they start by stealing candy from babies than if they’re a murderer. Remember, your main character’s morals will be worse at the end of this.
- What’s the cost? If we’re going to watch someone stray further away from the light, give us some payback by making their victory come at a personal cost. Who did they lose or turn their back on? Was the price financial, physical, mental, or emotional?
- Focus on their motivation and relatability. If we’re watching someone go from bad to worse, we need to really understand why. Make it justifiable for the reader. Better yet, make it so convincing they could see themselves do the same.
Exploring the Gray Area of Villainy
What does good and bad even mean? Or, more fitting for our main character, are there varying degrees of villainy?
Exploring the morally gray area of villainy can be a transformative arc. It might mean your character is kind of evil, but explore the depths of depravity they must go through to accomplish their goal.
Oppositely, is there wiggle room for some goodness in their sense of evil? How does their character balance that?
Quick tips for this arc:
- Realism is your friend. This is the most realistic of the arcs we’re talking about, because it’s less about extreme villainy. It’s subjective, sort of like real life. So play into our own moral gray areas.
- Lean into the motivation and goals. These two things might even change, depending on how our protagonist’s view of their actions changes. Don’t feel like motivation or goals are static.
Destroying a Bigger Baddie
What happens if they must rise to the occasion to defeat a bigger baddie?
This can be a flat arc (meaning the protagonist doesn’t change at all) but doesn’t have to be. In an ascending arc, the character can only defeat the worse villain by going good and embracing friends. Or they have to get even worse to gain the power they need in a descending arc.
Whichever route you take, make sure to keep these in mind:
- The goal isn’t about the bigger baddie. Odds are your villain protagonist’s goal isn’t to be top dog. Make it more personal, more important, and have the bigger baddie as the antagonist that’s preventing that goal.
- Contrast how bad they are. Make sure the bigger baddie is just that… a worse villain. But don’t let that muddy how despicable your villain lead is. We don’t want them looking like a goody-goody, after all.
Examples of Villain Protagonists
Are those villainous ideas churning in your head yet? Just for some extra help, here are some well-known examples of villain protagonists.
Zuko, Avatar: The Last Airbender
Alex, A Clockwork Orange
Amy Dunne, Gone Girl
Crowley, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
The list could go on. Think about a villain protagonist in stories you like. What traits do they have that make them work so well?
Write Your Best Bad Protagonist
I’m not exaggerating (more than normal) when I say your protagonist carries a lot of weight. They’re the focal point of your story. They’re the one your readers will latch onto until the last sentence of the last page.
And if you want to go and make that VIP a villain, that’s no small task.
I hope you’ve taken some helpful pieces of info from this article to make that task a little easier. But I have one more thing in store for you.
Managing your villain protagonist, their arc, how their devious acts influence the different story lines… it’s enough to make your head spin.
So let Dabble help you out with that. With homes for notes about your characters, worldbuilding, or anything else you need just one click away from your manuscript. It makes writing such a complex protagonist a breeze.
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Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.
If you’re a regular writer of romance or are looking to dive into this popular genre, you might be on the lookout for some stellar plot ideas. Spend any time reading and exploring the genre and you’ll know that romance is just one word for dozens of different subgenres all with their own tone and style.