When it comes to writing villains, it can be easy to fall into some bad habits. Here are my top tips for creating a worthy opponent to your fabulous lead character:
Give the villain strong motivation: Why is your bad character a bad character? Sure, you could fall into the all-too-easy “because he/she is just evil”, but how realistic is that? There are true psychopaths in life, but truly memorable villains tend to have reasons for their bad behaviour. Did they suffer during their childhood? Perhaps they don’t have a support network and have battled mental health? Or perhaps again, they’re not really a bad person, simply someone who wants something that puts them at direct odds with your protagonist? Whatever the reason, make it clear to help enhance your villain as a character and make him or her a real person/creature.
Give him or her at least one redeeming quality: Just like your villain should have a reason for his or her bad-assery, he or she should also have at least one redeeming quality. How many people do you know without at least one positive personality trait? Whether you only give us a glimpse of this or you show the quality in its full glory, this can make your villain not just lifelike, but possibly the tiniest bit likeable, creating a very memorable villain indeed.
Avoid the villain reveal: We’ve all seen it. It’s the climax of the story. The bad guy has the good guy trapped, tied up in rope, and he’s about to slit our hero’s throat! Calamity! The end is in sight!
And what better thing to do when you have the hero completely in your clutches, ready to die a slow and painful death, than launch into a monologue, explaining your motivation to date and exactly why you did what you did? This is a cliched action performed by many villains, and outside of scenes in Inspector Gadget (where they also use the infamous “I’ll get you next time, Gadget” line) I don’t think it flies. It’s not realistic. And not only that, but there’s no motivation for the villain to tell the hero all that information, making the villain less life-like and therefore less scary in a time when you want him to appear all powerful and ferocious.
Offer up a worthy opponent: Is the villain in your story all powerful, the strongest man in the universe–but a bit low in brainpower? Often, we can get carried away creating a heap of braun to combat our good guys and leaving our villains lacking in one major department–mental strength. This doesn’t just apply to villains involved in a physical showdown with our hero–whether your bad guy is a land developer with cold, hard cash to your hero’s tree hugger, or an opponent vying for a job at the same company, fighting your hero by dismantling his or her computer and leaving her stranded at the copy machine, you want to make sure your villain has the smarts to help create believable and truly deep drama.
Yes, some villains are perhaps unintelligent, bumbling idiots. Yes, these sort of people do exist in real life. Do they make a worthy opponent for your fabulous lead character, however? And are they helping to create the maximum amount of tension between your hero and themselves by giving readers the notion that perhaps they could win? I don’t think so.
Bring the villain into your home: Bringing your villain into the “safe” place of the hero can up the tension and raise the stakes. This can work in multiple ways: you can physically bring the villain into your hero’s home ground, or you can take someone close to your hero and turn them into the antagonist. This is particularly useful in contemporary reads. Think of things like the child putting the mother in the nursing home; the parents telling the child they can’t run riot in the rain late at night; a loved one not believing the hero when he or she tells about the fantastical thing he or she has seen. Having someone close to your hero display villainous traits or become a villain by offering an opposing viewpoint he or she feels passionately about can sometimes result in the most tension-filled novel of all.