A Villain’s Mind: Part One

A while back a friend asked, “You know that quote that floats around, the ‘every villain is the hero of their own story’? Do you think that’s true?” More recently another friend mentioned he’d been reading a book on writing and the author had claimed,

“The antagonist needs to be developed well enough that you can understand how he thinks and what motivates him, but he doesn’t need to have a full character arc and undergo transformation, like your protagonist does.”

If any of you know me at all, you know that dug under my skin like a red-hot needle. Doesn’t need a full character ark? Developed ‘well enough’? I don’t just disagree, I disagree vehemently and I’m here to tell you why.

The world of entertainment overflows with examples of poorly-written villains. Shallow, one-dimensional characters with nothing better to do than take over the world, get rich, or kill the Hero for that one slight that one time fifteen years ago. Pick a standard villain from any Tom Cruise movie (if you can remember them). Did they leave much of an impression on you? Did you care about them? Were they anything more than a plot device, something for the Hero to overcome with cool gadgets and witty banter?


How about any James Bond film? It’s the same problem, dressed up in even cooler gadgets and even more monologues (and probably the same nuclear codes).

Did you care about any of these villains? Probably not (if you did, I don’t know whether to feel bad for you or be impressed at your ability to care for all and sundry). ‘Okay, but Mirriam,’ you might say, ‘it really didn’t matter. I still enjoyed X movie.’

Fair point. BUT. Think about a movie or a book with a villain that was so complex, so well-written, so three-dimensional, that he stayed with you. That he added to the story, that you were almost disappointed to see him foiled or defeated. (I’m saying ‘he’ but this post could also, obviously, go for any villainess you think of.)


You can sit through and relatively enjoy any new Tom Cruise action flick, but when a villain is written with care, you take a ‘fun’ story and turn it into something emotional that stays with you, because it creates emotional conflict inside you, the reader/viewer. You become attached to the hero (hopefully he or she is well-written) but you’re also attached to the villain, and you anticipate and dread the climax of the story because you know one of them has to go down and it probably ain’t the hero.


Or say you felt no sympathy toward the villain, not really. Their actions were evil; you wanted to see them gone. You hated them. They were everything you despise and you railed against the book every time they succeeded or gained an upper hand.

Villains should make you feel something.

They should be more than plot devices. They should be more than factory-processed clones of one another, spouting the same dialogue and acting on the same motivations.

Your villain is also one of your characters. He’s not exempt. I hear young writers talk about their characters ‘and the villain’ as if he’s in some other box in a corner, not really part of the main crew, and that mindset is extremely detrimental to writing a good antagonist.


He is a different type of character. He’s there for different reasons. But without him, you would have no story. Without him, your hero would have nothing to fight for and nothing to overcome.

When you write a shoddy, one-dimensional, lazy villain, you insult your hero and your own writing abilities. Your hero should have what it takes to go up against the very worst. You should have what it takes to write the very worst. Otherwise it’s a sign you don’t believe in your abilities – or the abilities of your main character.

Over the course of several upcoming blog posts, I’ll be talking about different types of villains – the good, the bad, the beautiful – and discussing what makes a memorable addition to your cast of characters. In the meantime –

Who is your favorite (or most hated) fictional villain of all-time?


  1. Thank you!!! Can’t wait to read what else you have to say on the matter. My favorite villain is probably Monroe from Revolution. My most hated is a tie between Ben from Lost or President Snow from HG.


    1. I am ABSOLUTELY talking about Monroe, by the way, very soon! Although he’s antagonist turned protagonist and I wouldn’t classify him as ‘villain’ (HE’S TOO G O O D) but yes. He’s definitely getting discussed.


      1. That is true, he’s not truly a villain. For the first season he is at least. Yay!! Can’t wait!! I’m trying to plot out my next story, I want the main character to be the villain. Should be interesting. If I can pull it off right.


  2. Hmm…Most Hated…. I’ve probably hated plenty that I just can’t think of at the moment. But as I was just flipping through the channels and was reminded of “Pitch” in Rise of the Guardians. (I know I can be a pretty generous critic of movies, and more sensitive then the average person) but that characters left me scared good.


  3. I love villains, so much so my mother worries about me. My favorite villain as a child was Scar… and then Frollo came along and was awesome. I like the new Khan from Star Trek into Darkness, I like Loki from The Avengers franchise (he’s the only reason I keep watching, to be honest with you), and I ADORE Cardinal Richelieu from The Musketeers (BBC). So intelligent, so ruthless, so lacking scruples, yet I understand every decision he makes from a tactical perspective.

    Most hated?

    Grandcourt from “Daniel Deronda.” I never want villains dead, but I wanted him DEAD. Felt the same way about Tulkinghorn from Dickens’ “Bleak House.” And… you know what? All of Dickens’ villains. He knew how to craft truly despicable, unforgettable human pieces of slime.


  4. Grand Admiral Thrawn, though I sometimes think he’s more antagonist than straight up villain, especially in the current Star Wars canon. But comparing Legends Thrawn to canon Thrawn and book canon Thrawn to Rebels Thrawn is always interesting. In Rebels he’s a straight up villain and not done as well as he is in the books.


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