How to Write Villains

Right, so I'm assuming that most of you reading this article aren't very villainous. (I know that's a serious assumption, and that some writers are serial killers making excuses for their search history.) Common writing advice suggests that writers should write what they know. So if you're not a villain, and you don't know any casual sociopaths, how can you write realistic villains?

For the purposes of this article, I'll focus on two types of villains: the believable ones, or true villains, and the not-so-believable but still useful ones, the psychopaths.

True Villains (Recommended)

True villains are everyday people gone bad. Anybody could become a true villain - the main character's friends, enemies, next door neighbor, and so on. All it takes to make a true villain is a combination of both positive and negative motivation.

1. Positive motivation is what the villain expects to gain from acting like a villain. Perhaps they want to get rid of a persistent feeling of guilt, so they accuse someone else of a crime they committed. Most authors remember positive motivations because, after all, everybody wants to gain things. The question is just whether they're going to do it ethically or unethically.

2. Negative motivation is something - usually an experience - that drives the villain to do things they otherwise wouldn't. In the example above, where the villain is experiencing a feeling of guilt, the negative motivation would be the guilt-causing experience. It's rarely possible to have negative motivations without positive motivations - the experience pushes the villain to act in order to get rid of the guilt. In the same way, it's rarely possible to have positive motivations without negative motivations - the villain wouldn't be guilty if he hadn't had the experience. Negative motivations are often underdeveloped because they're so obviously necessary.

The key to tying these two together without getting the "dramatic but totally expected backstory" effect is to realize that it's usually the little things that push people over the edge, not the life-changing events. Let's invent a villain named Conrad who has just been arrested for property damage and construct two different backstories for him, one using the "dramatic backstory" method and the other using the "little things" method.

Dramatic backstory:

Conrad's best friend died in a car accident because he was sold a defective used car. Shortly thereafter, Conrad went on a rampage, burning the used car dealership to the ground as revenge for his friend's death.

There's nothing wrong with this backstory - it's interesting. But let's stop to think about it for a moment. Unless Conrad is a psychopath - and this is the section for true villains, not psychopaths - why would he want to get revenge like this? A sane person would sue the car dealership, not burn it to the ground. This story is missing something. It's missing the straw that broke the camel's back.

Little things:

Conrad's best friend died in a car accident because he was sold a defective used car. Shortly thereafter, Conrad met the previous owner of that car in the grocery store. The owner, who didn't know about the accident, joked with Conrad that he made a profit on the car by selling it without making necessary repairs. This made Conrad angry, but he decided not to take action since he didn't want to go to jail. Later that week, he saw the owner driving a brand new, expensive car. Conrad knew the owner wasn't wealthy, so he jumped to the conclusion that the owner must have purchased it using the money he made from the sale of his friend's car. Conrad went on a rampage, burning the used car dealership to the ground.

This backstory is different in that Conrad did not burn the used car dealership because he wanted revenge for his friend's death. Instead, he burned it out of personal hatred for the dealer based on two very simple things: a joke and a new car. This takes into account two key factors that the previous backstory did not. One is the fact that people generally act based off personal grudges and will rarely seek revenge for other people. The other is that people generally hold themselves together when placed under severe stress - it's when they're recovering that they're most delicate and not thinking clearly. This backstory not only explains why Conrad acted, but also adds an important human element to the story. We learn about more than just the blank facts; we also learn about Conrad.

The combination of the two motivations and the "little things" approach usually results in a villain who is morally grey - one the reader can make excuses for. In fact, it often allows the villain to make excuses for himself. And since making excuses is human nature, the reader will be able to relate to them and even feel pity. When you've got the reader crying about the villain's death, you've won the war.

Psychopaths (Usually a Bad Idea)

First, let's define a psychopath. For the purposes of this article, we'll ignore the clinical definitions and simply say that a psychopath is a villain who acts with some motivation that wouldn't inspire an ordinary person to go to such extremes. 

A commonly cited psychopath is Jim Moriarty from the BBC's adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes story. It's entirely possible that he's a clinical psychopath, since they tend to be motivated by personal gain (and Moriarty certainly is). According to the definition used in this article, he would be a psychopath, because he has only a positive motivation: desire for profit. There aren't any negative motivations in his story, and thus, we can conclude that a normal person living a normal life wouldn't go to the extremes he does (murder, etc.) just for profit. There would have to be a negative motivation also - poverty or fear or something else - to inspire a rampage like his.

All fictional psychopaths have a key problem that's easily visible even in the well-developed character of Moriarty - they come across as paper-thin to the reader. Why? Well, because the reader, assuming they're not a psychopath, can't relate to anything the villain does. If they can't relate, they also can't feel sympathy. 

The only reason Moriarty's character barely escapes the paper-thin category is because he was never meant to be relatable. And this is the only time you, as a writer, should ever write a psychopathic villain - if you want to achieve something other than realism. Reasons to do this include:

- making a satirical point
- writing a comedic piece
- adding a psychological horror element where humor is mixed with fear (but be careful with this, as it can also turn out flat)
- writing a superhero story (be careful with this too, as even superheroes can rarely excuse flatness)
- writing some sort of alien being/AI mind

A psychopathic villain will always work just like an over-powered main character - unrealistically. Be sure that's the effect you want before you write them.

That said, the easiest way to write a psychopathic villain is to strip them of their negative motivation while keeping the positive motivation. For example, let's say your psychopathic villain wants to become president of his country. The only way he can see to do this is to kill the current president and his whole staff. He has nothing against the current president, so there's no negative motivation for his action. And yet, he does it anyway, and becomes a dictator. In this situation, the "little things" approach doesn't work. If it did, this villain wouldn't be a psychopath, since the "little things" approach requires negative motivation.

The most important conclusion to take from this article is that nobody, not even a psychopath, can act completely without motivation. Nobody does anything for no reason at all. Even if their reasons are strange, they still need to be made clear to the reader.

Comment below about your favorite villain from your own writing!