An effective villain can drive a story. Done right, they create tension, danger, and complication. It’s also not uncommon for the villain to be a major anchor point for the plot as a whole.Below, I discuss what makes an effective villain, and some tips for writing them.
Three Traits of Highly Effective Villains
They are capable of creating a plan and following through with it. They know what their powers are. They know how to use them. Given time and means, there is a very real chance that they will accomplish their ends
They have the potential to do a large amount of damage to the hero, or something that the hero cares about. They are more powerful than the hero, and going after them puts the hero at significant risk.
They are a being of agency, capable of enforcing their will on the world. Their interests run counter to those of the heroes, and they intend to harm the heroes in some way. Their villainy is not an accident.
Most books have more than one bad guy. For series, more so. Since the main villain is generally stronger than the hero, there needs to be some way of bridging this gap and providing direction while the hero works their way up to the final battle. A series of lesser villains is one way of handling this.
Put your big bad on the top rung of the ladder, and your heroes on the bottom. All of the lesser villains and their henchmen stand between the two. The hero moves up, amassing more power, and at each step the bad guys that they fight are a more threatening than the last. What’s important here is serial escalation. The stakes rise. The fights get harder. The odds get longer.
Tips For Effective Villains
Introduce them early.
Whether they show up by name or by action, it’s usually in your interest to start hinting at the villain early in their arc. This allows you to establish them as a threat and to start building up towards them. If readers have a sense of the villain, the plot gets a bit more direction since they know what the hero is working towards, and where the trouble is coming from. Late arrivals are harder to invest in, because they tend to go one of two ways. Either the main villain is revealed in the last couple of chapters, in which case the climax of the story is the hero fighting with a stranger, or the main villain is introduced in the last couple of chapters, in which case they come across as tangential to the rest of the story.
Treat your villains like any other character
Give them an entrance. Give them some depth. Give them the same level of backstory and development that you would give any other character. Decorate their lair, and make use of effective descriptions. Often, the most human villains are also the most interesting.
Villains who are powerful but distant often read as a force of nature. The closer that the villain is to the plot, the more likely they are to be perceived as an active player, and as a malevolent force rather than one that is merely indifferent to the harm that it causes.
Show them at work.
Establish that your villain is the bad guy. Telling the reader that they’re evil is lukewarm at best. Whether or not your villain is one to get their hands dirty, give readers a glimpse of how they operate, and what the effects of their actions are. This gives everyone a better understanding of who the villain is, why they’re dangerous, and the fact that they are a threat. Otherwise, no one knows what makes them so awful, and henchmen/lesser villain start to get all of the credit.
Let the other characters regard them as a threat.
If no one treats your villain as dangerous, readers are unlikely to perceive them as such. When the characters disrespect the villain and get away with it, it suggests that the villain shouldn’t be taken seriously. Readers take their cues from the characters. If the characters fear the villain, readers will too.
Give the villain a shot at winning.
They may even succeed a few times. Nothing demonstrates effectiveness quite like victory. If the villain defeats the hero a few times along the way, that suggests that there is a chance that the hero might not win at the end. And if the hero fails a few times along the way, the stakes only go up.
Don’t let the villain defeat themself.
I’d recommend checking out the Evil Overlord List for a humorous look at some of the common tropes that lead to ineffective, self-defeating villains.It’s one thing for the villain to slip up and create an opening. It’s another for them to succumb to rookie mistakes.
Writing Like a Boss: The Evil Alignments
These are the villains who are most comfortable operating within a structured environment. They often adhere to a behavioral code, even though their goals don’t align with conventional morality. Lawful evil is scary because it tends to be strategic, manipulative, and capable of maintaining alliances for its own benefit.
These are the villains who do what suits them. They will not go out of their way to break the rules, but if the law gets in their way, so be it. They look out for themselves, and do whatever it takes to accomplish their own interests, regardless of the harm that they do to others. Neutral evil is scary because it’s highly adaptable.
These are the villains who are most comfortable operating outside of the law. Chaotic evil flourishes in disorder, and may seek out disorder for its own sake. These tend to be the most violent and openly destructive. Chaotic evil is scary because it is unpredictable, unprincipled, and plays by its own rules.
Do any of these fit your villain?