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Guest Post: I’m the Bad Guy, Duh

Hi, I’m Kurt, and I’m doing a guest post here on Dawn’s blog. I write mostly sci-fi, most of it silly, and you can learn more about me here and here. Today, I’m going to talk about bad guys.

Let’s say you’re writing a story about a grizzled space marine saving the day from aliens. You need a villain. What do you do?

There’s a certain amount of needle-threading that goes into writing an awesome villain. You want them to be a credible threat to the protagonist, but if they’re too charismatic, there’s a very real chance that they’re going to overshadow the hero. We all dream of creating our own Hannibal Lecter or Joker, but those are the type of characters who can take over the story. Since they’re not bound by the same morality that governs your hero, they get to be flashy and ostentatious and, well, interesting in ways that a hero character typically isn’t. So what’s the secret to finding the right balance?

The secret is that you’re probably approaching your villains the wrong way. That’s the bad news. But it’s also the good news. Instead of thinking about making your villain the right level of “cool” you need to be thinking about what purpose they serve in the story. And to do that, we need to take a step back.

Let’s get something out of the way first, and that’s the difference between a villain and an antagonist. A villain is a character type. It’s a bad person doing bad things. An antagonist is a character role. It’s the person who is working in opposition to the protagonist. They’re usually the same person, but they don’t have to be. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that they are.

Next up, let’s take a quick peek at a typical story structure so we know exactly what role our villain needs to be playing. Here’s a very basic version:

  1. Hero wants something
  2. Hero is flawed and incomplete, which keeps them from achieving their goal
  3. Something is actively working against the hero achieving their goal
  4. Hero goes on journey to overcome flaw and become a complete person
  5. Hero succeeds or fails at their goal

The villain/antagonist is the force of opposition here. They are step three. And it’s key to remember that while they have an important role, they are taking on that role in someone else’s story.

Okay, the groundwork is out of the way. So what’s the secret to a good villain? Well, here’s my flaming hot take: It doesn’t actually matter how cool or memorable your villain is. All that matters is how effective they are at opposing the hero. They can be a milquetoast sop or a dashing rogue. As long as they are effectively opposing the hero, then they’re fulfilling their role in telling the hero’s story. That’s why Darth Vader doesn’t completely take over Star Wars from Luke. He may be the baddest of bad-asses, but he’s there to tell Luke’s story.

But what does “effective opposition” mean? How do we turn that idea into words on a page? Does that mean they’re thwarting the hero at every turn? Well, yes, but it means more than that. And here’s the next part of the secret to writing a good villain: The villain should be opposing the hero not just at a plot level, but at a thematic level. And that means that the villain should be a reflection of a different path your hero could have taken. They need to be a negative image as seen through the lens of your story’s theme.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

  • Harry Potter is an emotionally abused orphan who discovers that he has incredible talent as a wizard and he spends seven novels trying to connect with other people and this is all happening because of how much his mother loved him.
  • Voldemort is an emotionally abused orphan who discovers that he has incredible talent as a wizard and he spends seven novels trying to empower himself and murder people he doesn’t find “pure” and all of this is happening because of how much his mother hated him.

Let’s do another!

  • Clarice Starling is a law enforcement officer trying to understand a troubled serial killer so she can lock him up.
  • Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer trying to understand a trouble law enforcement officer so he can be set free.

Fun, right?

  • Batman is a costumed vigilante who wants to fix a corrupt world by upholding the law.
  • The Joker is a costumed vigilante who wants to fix a corrupt world by burning it to the ground.

So let’s go back to your grizzled space marine. What kind of villain should they have? Well, to know the answer to that, you need to figure out your theme. Is your story about self-sacrifice in the service of a higher cause? In that case, maybe your villain is a merc who made their first fortune by selling out the rest of their squadron. Is your story about rugged individualism? Then maybe your villain is an alien hivemind. Is your story about the indomitable human spirit? Then maybe your villain is a high-ranking military official who’s grown craven.

As long as you keep your villain effective in their role opposing the hero and have them doing so in a thematically relevant way, then you’ll be in good shape.

Thanks for reading,


Kurt Pankau is a software developer in St. Louis, Missouri. He loves board games, dad-jokes, and stories about time travel. His work has appeared in various and sundry places around the web, including Nature: Futures, Escape Pod, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. He tweets at @kurtpankau and blogs at kurtpankau.com.

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