The Guide to Writing Fantasy: Believable Villains


Every good story has some sort of antagonist, usually a maniacally laughing villain when you consider fantasy. What would the story be without outward conflict? So, here comes the tough part: creating a villain that isn’t evil just for the sake of being evil.

Yeah, it’s kind of hard.

I almost did it in Marked For The Hunt. Nearly three years of revisions were spent taking my villain from bloody killer to someone with a vision. It’s hard to keep in mind that our villains are people, too. That being said, go back to my character creation post, copy and paste the interview questions, and really get to know your villain.

All people have desires, needs, dreams, and tragedies in their lives. That means your villain does, as well. First, address what your villain’s goal is through the book or even the series. Now, why do they have this particular goal? Remember, the villain always thinks that what they are doing is for the better good. If they think their goal, be it systematic culling or long-term emotional abuse, is good for everyone else, then that makes them all the more creepy. Right?

We now have a goal and a really creepy, yet defined reason driving that goal. Good. This is what is going to propel the villain to antagonize and provoke your hero. How, exactly, is the villain going to do that? What steps are they willing to take toward achieving their goal? Is there anywhere that they draw the line? Or, are they willing to push any boundary to get what they want? How do they go about that? Are they bullish and run toward the objective head on? Or, are they manipulative, making others do their work for them? Do they work in secret, putting on a face to confuse the world?

We’ve done Motive and Means. That’s all in the present, though. Let’s run backwards for a hot minute and look at the villain’s past. How did your villain grow up? Was there a breaking moment that turned them toward the dark side, like Padme’s death for Anakin? Or, were they always just a loveless monster, like Voldemort? Building this past will help you fully realize who the person is and how they got to where they are today. You will find dark secrets, triggers, and, sometimes, things that they cherish.

Take a step back. Look at the page. Is there more than just a villain? You see a fully realized person, right? That’s what we want! If you still have worries that you’re falling for too many overdone tropes, then do you research. Find out what readers are sick of. Then, go back to the page and start to tweak your villain until they become something fresh and new.

Female villains can often be unemotional or too concerned with their appearances. If you feel like you’re getting a little too Evil Queen a la Snow White, then look into her back story and give her some redeemable traits. For the movie Maleficent, a man had taken her most valuable item, her wings. For Once Upon a Time’s Regina, she sought revenge for her true love’s death (even if she blamed a child and not the real killer).

As you write, your villain might evolve along the way. That’s good. They should have some sort of character arc just as much as the protagonist does. Several things could happen. There could be an arc towards redemption, like Vader’s final moments or Regina of OUAT. Then again, they could just get meaner, and badder, and even more tough to beat. That’s up to you, the writer.

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