Sympathy for the Devil: How to Write Killer Villains


I’m a sucker for a good villain. Just thinking about Szass Tam from The Haunted Lands makes my heart flutter a little bit. Darth Vader takes my breath away. Fascinating and devastating in their sharp suits, with their killer smiles, and their eyes that will eat you alive, they’re strong, smart, and motivated. They have that lean and hungry look. They stand alone. And say what you like about villains, but they know what they want. And that confidence is sexy. Especially to those of us tired of listening to the heroes whine about how tough life is and how they don’t know what to do or how to love or whether they did the right thing or not--again. Villain

I mean, heroes have some tough choices, to be sure, but so do villains. And villains don’t often have so many outs as the hero. Yet you don’t see villains going all emo. Villains get ‘er done--without the support from the hordes of friends or natural talents with which heroes are almost always blessed. Artemis Entreri is Drizzt without friends to teach him what family is. Gaara (as the antagonist) is Naruto without friends to stand beside him.

Without the villain, there is no story. Without the villain, the hero isn’t heroic. And without the villain, things are a lot less interesting. Villains make--or break--stories. What is Star Wars without Darth Vader? Who is Harry Potter without Voldemort?

I Wanna Be Evil, I Wanna Be Bad…

Every villain needs a good story. What was the moment when your villain went darkside? Was he just born that way? A sociopath-sadist with a history of violence? Or was it more gradual, the result of being a little different in a zero-tolerance society. Or perhaps it was simply an awakening--a primal flaw that calls to darker, baser instincts.

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Comments (6)


My most memorable villain, one that stood out beyond all the others I've grown up with, was Mr. Dark from the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes. In this case, I think the old the-book-is-better-than-the-movie issue is wrong. Jonathan Price portrays Mr. Dark with a charismatic, amiable, ambitious, and fun carnival promoter with this subtle streak of rage and hatred that only shows itself in the briefest of moments. When it shows it comes across as the two predominant traits that make up who he is and the other behaviors are simply masks he wears to blend in and lure souls to his carnival. This movie caused me to read Bradbury's story and find my first sense of disappointment with regard to a book. Usually I find the books more engaging and chock full of more content, but not this time.

Still, Jonathan Price does the most amazing job with Mr. Dark. Another, more memorable, villain is Paul S. Kemp's Rivalen Tanthul, from the Twilight War Trilogy. A most relate-able, in depth villain.

Posted by: Christian Langstrom | Monday October 3, 2011 at 1:37 PM

Some very good points here and loved the top ten list.

Randall Flagg from Stephen King's "The Stand" (as well as the "Dark Tower" books) is one that sticks in my mind who I can't get out. And a lot of his villains have a way of staying with you, whether they're just ordinary evil people, or something much more fantastic.

Posted by: Alex C. Telander | Tuesday October 4, 2011 at 9:42 AM

Thanks for the feedback, Christian! I've read Bradbury, but never seen that movie. I will have to check it out. Paul Kemp, I agree, is a fantastic writer of villains--both in his Starwars and in his Twilight War books.

Alex, thanks for the input! Villains don't get nearly enough love. Stephen King definitely has a way with evil.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Tuesday October 25, 2011 at 11:51 AM

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Posted by: personalised aprons | Sunday August 12, 2012 at 10:52 AM

While I often find myself intrigued by villains, I find it very difficult to write them properly myself - the backstory always feels trite, and they're not nearly as scary as I want them to be. I'm really looking forward to hearing more about this at PAX 2012! :)

Posted by: Madison | Tuesday August 28, 2012 at 8:37 AM

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