9 ways to create a compelling villain for your novel

Hannibal Lecter. Voldemort. Nurse Ratched. Kylo Ren. Cruella De Vil. All memorable villains who not only stand the test of time but who also play a huge part in turning a good story into a great one. Creating a memorable villain is one of the keys to a successful novel.

A great villain can make a reader cheer for the hero, create tension and drive the story forward. A poorly written villain can detract from the story and make it seem predictable or even a bit flat. So how do you create a villain who is going to make your story a cracker?

1. Your villain needs a clear motivation
A villain who acts without reason is less interesting than one who has a clear motivation for their actions. This can be personal – maybe they are avenging an act perpetrated on their family – or a more general goal, like world domination. Whatever their motivation, it needs to be consistent throughout the story and drive them to take action.

2. Make your villain three-dimensional
You can just create a baddie who does bad things – and whack them in your story. A villain who is one-dimensional, such as a moustache-twirling bad guy or a mercenary hell-bent on creating destruction – is less interesting than a well-rounded character with feelings, relationships and nuances. Give the villain a backstory, personality, and motivations that go beyond just wanting to be evil.

3. Give your villain a personality
A villain should have their own unique personality. This depends on how you want them portrayed. They can be quirky, humorous, or even charming. In fact, giving them soft skills and showing them to exhibit “normal” behaviour can make them even more menacing. It allows the reader to see them as a real person, rather than just an antagonist set on causing chaos.

4. You need a balance
Your villain – as well as your hero – needs to go through some level of struggle to achieve their aims. A villain who is too powerful or too evil can become uninteresting. If a character can summon powers that wreak havoc too easily, readers may turn off. Finding the right balance is key to creating a great villain.

5. Give your villain a plan
Your villain needs a goal or a plan. Readers don’t necessarily engage with a villain who simply goes around randomly causing trouble. Sure, they might react impulsively in some situations but their grand master plan should be clear, well-thought-out, and consistent throughout the story. Their actions should be in line with their plan, and the hero should have to work hard to thwart it.

6. Give your villain weaknesses
No one is perfect, not even villains. Give your villain a weakness. This makes them more relatable and adds depth and emotion to their character. A villain with a weakness can also become vulnerable to the hero – and this creates opportunities for you to develop conflict and drama.

7. Make them unpredictable
You want your villain to surprise you in certain situations. Why? Because a villain who is too predictable quickly becomes boring. The reader should never know exactly what the villain will do next. This keeps the reader engaged and on the edge of their seat.

8. Make them relatable
It’s not just the existence of weaknesses that make a villain relatable. Give your villain other qualities that make them like regular people. Like the contract killer, played by award-winning actor Scott Ryan in the hit TV series Mr Inbetween. He’s a killer who is engaged by many nefarious types to knock off people (mainly in the eastern suburbs of Sydney it seems). But he also has to do school drop-offs. He does things that are relatable. A villain who shares a trait or belief with the reader makes them more human, and can make the reader question their own beliefs and values.

9. Let them evolve
The most interesting villains evolve. A villain who remains the same throughout the story can become stale – or, at the very least, less engaging. Think about how you can let your villain evolve, either through their experiences or through their interactions with other characters.

Creating a great villain is essential to a successful novel. A compelling villain can create tension, drive the story forward, and make the reader cheer for the hero. It can make the reader turn the page and keep talking about your story well after they have read the final chapter.

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