How Can I Make My Villain Ruthless Without Being Insensitive?

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So, I want to write villains and want them to really play the part. But I read on this site that villains can still send harmful messages or be hurtful to the audience if you’re not careful. How can I make my villains really evil while avoiding such pitfalls?

– Thomas

Hi Thomas,

It sounds like you’re concerned about exploitation, which means using the pain of marginalized people for the benefit of privileged people.

Most types of sensitive things a villain could do in this category aren’t actually logical things for villains to do. A villain threatening to kill someone’s family is just fine and often a logical move for them, whereas the villain committing rape or threatening rape is insensitive, but rape also has very little tactical use. You don’t need rape to make your villain super evil, and your villain won’t have any reason to rape someone unless you specifically set out as the storyteller to give them a reason.

The same goes for most other kinds of hate crimes, bigotry, or other things that are particularly sensitive. Storytellers reach for those things because they’re shocking, not because it’s the only reasonable thing for their villains to do.

If you want to put in something that isn’t strictly exploitative but could be unpleasant for readers – for instance, your villain is going to torture a fake confession out of someone (not torture to get information, that doesn’t work and spreading the idea that is does is harmful) – you can just do that offscreen. Say it happened, but don’t show it. If readers don’t have to read about it in graphic detail, that makes it a lot less unpleasant for them.

If you do decide to have anything unpleasant depicted in detail, providing content notices will help readers who could be hurt avoid reading it. Just put them on a back page, and then provide the page number somewhere in the front pages where readers will see it.

That’s probably as much as I can say without knowing what you’re planning. The trick here is knowing what issues are sensitive for people. Once you know that, it’s unlikely you’ll have to choose between avoiding those and making your villain behave ruthlessly.

Best wishes,

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  1. Marina

    I wonder about the torture part.
    I have two cases in a medieval story: The first is a mean prison guard who hurts the prisoner because he likes violence (off-scene). And is later replaced by the villain because even he thinks that the guard is too cruel.

    The second case is with another villain who tortures someone to find out about the existence of magic (also only hinted afterwards, not shown) but the prisoner does not say anything. He would rather die than give him knowledge of magic, knowing what the villain could do with it.

    I don’t think this is promoting torture since no information is given and the torturer are clearly evil guys. I’d rather not rewrite the core element of my story. What do you think?

    • Kit

      The first one seems unusual for replacing an antagonist with another who’s less threatening, but I don’t think it promotes harmful ideas.

      With the second one, I’m not so sure. The reason torture doesn’t work is because people will say whatever they think the torturer wants to hear, true or not. The implication in your story that this character can ride it out due to sheer force of will indicates torture would be effective if the prisoner just had less willpower, so it still does sound like it’s considered a valid technique for gaining information. That’s what’s harmful – not just whether it’s antagonists or protagonists doing it, but if it’s shown as effective, or potentially effective, in its goal.

      Also – why are they torturing him to find out if magic exists? Surely if they’re asking that, they already suspect it does, and they’ll just torture until they get a ‘yes’. Even if torture did work on some level, it would always be useless with a yes or no question.

      • Marina

        Thank you for answering my question.
        I should have written the second part more clearly.
        The villain assumes that magic exists and that there is a place in the world were knowledge about it is written and taught (the knowledge is kept alive but not actively used outside of this place).
        The tortured one knows where that place is but will not tell the villain since his only remaining relative lives there, his stepfather. Maybe I should just let him say the name of another place instead of not answering at all.

  2. Angelo Pardi

    I’m ill at ease with arguments of the form “torture is evil and besides it does not work”. They always seem to implicitly accept that it would be less evil if it actually worked.

    Which is wrong : torture would be just as evil if it was efficient.

    • Cay Reet

      It would be as evil, yes.

      But showing something which does not work in real life as working in fiction constantly does come with consequences – such as well-trained interrogators of the FBI (who use psychological means) quitting, because their new colleagues, weaned on “24”, think hurting a suspect is a valid way to gain information in a pinch and undo the process of weeks or more of getting the suspect to trust them in the span of a few minutes.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      To add to what Cay said, I addressed this in my post on torture in the “How These Myths Promote Torture” section.

      • Angelo Pardi

        Yeah I’ve read that article too. I agree with the bulk of it too, I was mainly making a meta-argument about the dangers of using practicability issues as a short-cut for moral issues.

        Or to put it in the words of this site, if your essay on torture start with a disclaimer that torture is wrong no matter what, then follows up with a lengthy article about how it does not even work, well, authorial intent tends to be that torture is a bad idea because it does not work.

  3. Eli

    “The same goes for most other kinds of hate crimes, bigotry, or other things that are particularly sensitive.”

    Ok maybe I’m missing something but I’d like to just point out how their is a place for these kinds of villains, though you do need to play a delicate balancing act with it. Never deny that making a literal fantasy Hitler is an option for a villain.

    Just two things you’d need to look out for here: White Saviorism and The story should actually be around this element of the villain. A villain who just goes out of his way to murder dwarves but that’s never addressed would be pretty weird and unsatisfying. Then there’s white saviorism which I won’t really get into because Oren and Chris have done that enough here like in their problematic tropes posts (one of them)

    • Tony

      “The story should actually be around this element of the villain. A villain who just goes out of his way to murder dwarves but that’s never addressed would be pretty weird and unsatisfying.” Yep. If a privileged villain harms people from a real marginalised group, and the story just uses that harm for shock value (instead of making an effort to depict it with the gravity and respect it deserves), it tends to come off as exploitative.

      It’s less touchy if the villain is harming a fictional marginalised group, though going overboard with heavy-handed parallels to specific injustices in the real world can also come off as exploitative. If you’re depicting real events, it’s also less touchy if the injustice happened far enough in the past, like Roman imperialism or the massacre of France’s Cathars.

      Speaking of real events, it’s possible to use real villainous factions from within living memory even if you’re not prepared to tackle the atrocities they committed. For example, Indiana Jones used Nazis as villains without going into depth about the Holocaust.

  4. Tony

    Hell, implying that something happened offscreen can be at least as powerful as showing it. Mad Max: Fury Road established that Furiosa and company had been enslaved as Immortan Joe’s brides, and that was enough; the movie didn’t need to show him raping them. Ditto for Jessica Jones: we know that Kilgrave used his mind-control abilities to force Jess into a relationship with him for months, and their interactions in the present provide all the context we need to understand the horror of what Jess endured.

    Using Chris’s example of torturing someone into compliance, the implication that a character was tortured–say, if the villain is shown to have obtained a false confession from a character who’s clearly traumatised in the next scene–can be even more chilling than showing the torture onscreen. It leaves more to the imagination: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NothingIsScarier

    • Cay Reet

      Imagination is always worse than what you write … because every reader will fill in the blanks with the worst thing they can imagine and thus it will be more intense for each of them than a detailed description would be.

      There are some things which shouldn’t happen off-screen, but a lot of backstory (as with Furiosa) and a lot of things a villain does (as with the torture) can very well happen off-screen and still be effective, because the reader gets to see the results of it.

      • Bellis

        “Imagination is always worse than what you write … ”

        That’s true, which also means that implying something or having it happen offscreen/in summary can still trigger people who are affected by it, because they will be very good at imagining it in detail – or unable to stop images/memories from popping up.
        Whereas someone not affected by the issue could easily miss too subtle approaches. Which is why showing the aftermath in a realistic and sympathetic way is important: It’s validating to those who have experienced similar hardships and it is eye-opening and fosters compassion for everyone else.

        The examples you gave seem to have accomplished this.

  5. Erynus

    The only torture depicted in my book will be protagonist side, but not even for information, but for punishment. A “cruel and unusual punishment” against the villain, but i’ll need to fix that part later.
    From the antagonist side, my MC is threatened with torture as a mean to obtain information, it is implied as an usual tactic and it is outright stated that it don’t work. But secret services around the world have been doing it all the time, so it come in the package.
    Another topic would be the threshold of torture, yeah, skin someone alive sure is torture, but breaking a bone? kneecapping a thug? threating someone with throwing him out of the window? could an hostage situation be labeled as torture (not for the actual hostages, but for the target of the negotiation)? The line is blurred.
    As for the post question, i think you don’t need to depict everything the villain does as long as you set the reputation of the villain. He may not be a torturer, but if people believes that he is, they will be more prone to talk. Making some NPC kill themselves to avoid being taken prisoner would send a clear message of the antagonist’s reputation (or a henchmen doing the same instead of talking to the hero). But is up to you how deep you want to dig into the real doings.
    Think about Keyser Soze of The Usual Suspects and how much of what we know about him can be true.

    • Bunny

      Howdy! This caught my eye:

      “But secret services around the world have been doing it all the time, so it come in the package.”

      Hmm. I dunno if you want to present it like this. That sounds almost like it’s sending the message that torture is a foregone conclusion, like, “Yeah, it’s awful and it doesn’t work, but secret services everywhere do it, so what can we do? Better get used to it.” I’m pretty sure that’s a pro-torture argument used in real life, which isn’t good. “Everyone does it” when it comes to something like torture isn’t a justification, and considering that it doesn’t work as means to obtain information (which is outright stated!), threatening your MC with it would probably just make the antagonist look incompetent.

    • Cay Reet

      Torture has often been used in order to get people to say what you want them to. That’s its real use.

      For instance the witch hunts: Witches had to confess, otherwise they couldn’t be sentenced. The hunters also wanted to find more witches, so they also wanted their prisoners to tell them of others – sometimes they actually had a list with names and didn’t stop the torture until a witch had said that all of those people had also been at the witch meetings. That has nothing to do with information seeking – none of those people was a witch -, but all with legitimation. Because other witches said these people were there, those, too, could be arrested and tortured until they said what their torturer wanted to hear.

      Another example is Ancient China: in the legal code, the criminal had to confess the crime, so they developed many kinds of tortures (some not even that obviously ‘brutal’) to make them confess. Sometimes, you just want to present a guilty party to society – if they’re really guilty, that’s a boon, not a necessity.

      That’s the way different groups have successfully used torture (secret services have done similar things, too, in several countries). If you want someone to confess something they haven’t done, torture them until they do.

      How much pain is too much? Every time to hurt someone with the will to hurt them in order to intimidate them or force them to do your bidding, it’s torture. It’s one thing to kill, especially in a defence situation (given the situation, even attack can be defence), but to cause pain for the pain’s sake is a different thing. It doesn’t matter whether you skin someone alive or break some of their fingers. It doesn’t matter how much pain there is. If you use it to intimidate them, to force them under your control, to force them to say something you want to hear, it’s torture.

      And for most of the people who read your story, even a villain who has flown so far over the moral event horizon that they’re nearing it again from the other side doesn’t justify that kind of thing from a protagonist’s side. Kill the villain, make it messy, but leave out the punishment part. Punishment delivered like that is not justified when done by a protagonist, no matter what that villain did. An MC has to be better than that, no matter the world they live in, because otherwise they’re not better than the villain.

      • Erynus

        That is my point. When we hear “torture” we think in underground cells loaded with spicky things and chains, but close to noone would picture our hero punching a mook for information. Beating up the henchmen is almost cliche and is never frowned upon.

        What i mean is not “oh, it happens, so it’s ok” it’s “If you mess with secret services, being tortured is a posibility” the same as the way Carteles are linked to over the top brutality to send a message.Cross a thief and he will shoot you, but cross a mob and they will make a show out of you.
        Torture don’t working to gain intel don’t mean that it won’t work to instill fear in the enemy. KGB often tortured someone to make someone else talk, for example.
        In my specific example, my MC is expendable, as he is not the only source of the info, hence the antagonist thinks that as a last resort they can retort to torture (it fails in so many ways, though)

        • Cay Reet

          That is not the problem, though. What the villain does follows different rules than what the protagonist does.

          The antagonist can torture, if they wish. For instilling fear or even just for fun. If they’re not meant to be redeemable, there’s no horrible deed they can’t do.

          The problem arises when your MC acts the same way before killing the antagonist later. The problem is your ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ before the killing.

          • Erynus

            Yeah, your reply on the other topic made me rethink the whole thing,that’s why i’ll fix it somehow when i have the correct mindset.

          • Cay Reet

            If you want something of a more brutal death, then there’s no reason why it can’t be messy.

            Just because I’ve read the series today day (and it’s great), there’s a scene in “Moriarty the Patriot” where the three Moriarty brothers (the series is pretty much not Sherlock Holmes canon) are after a group of noblemen who hunt children for sport. The youngest catches up with one of the noblemen, stabs him with a dagger and leaves him in a burning room. Before he leaves, he tells the man he has two choices: pull the dagger out and die of blood loss or leave the dagger in and burn. The end result will be death, anyway.

          • Erynus

            The thing is my character has killed quite some people, sometimes fast and clean, sometimes messy, depending on the circumstances, but never with an ingrained personal motivation. The main villain is not just bad for what he does (he is a criminal, but my MC has met other criminals and is able to turn a blind eye if it is advantageous for his mission), he is unforgivable for what he did to HIM.
            I think for someone that lives by killing people and blowing up things, just killing the villian off is not enough, that is when the suffering come into play.
            He was suffering, stuck on denial for years and the moment he lays his hands on the person responsible, he just can’t let him go fast.
            I don’t want to go other way around and use a kind of Karmic death just to let my hero left unscathed. He takes the matter in their own hands and all the responsibility is on him. But if such visceral response will downplay him on audience’s view i must rethink that part.

          • Cay Reet

            He can kill the villain slowly, it can be painful. He just shouldn’t go ahead and torture before the kill. If the kill is slow and drawn out, it’s much less damaging, especially if you make sure the readers know what happened to the MC through the villain’s hands.

            There are quite some slow, painful deaths he could inflict on the villain, such as burning alive, drowning, or suffocating (hanging him and making sure that the neck is not broken right away, for instance). Radiation can provide a slow death, too, but is probably not something easy to do. There are also slow-acting poisons which cause a lot of pain. As long as your MC makes that happen, it will be on him, but it won’t be torture.

  6. Star of Hope

    Is Hans Landa Problematic? He is an Nazi who hunted Jews but he is unbearable Polite to people which makes him more likable as Villian than others. My Brother even said that he would prefer to be killed or tortured by someone who is polite to him rather than someone who is mean-spirited.

    I mean Inglourious Basterds is one of my favorite movies, but I get the fear that Hans Landa might just be a Draco in Leather Pants.

    • natew

      I don’t think it’s problematic to have a likable villain if the point is to show how charismatic people gain power. Not every villain has a snake nose and red eyes, you know.

      If people like Hans Lanza…that means the character is well-written. Imagine Inglorious Basterds if Hans Landa wasn’t likable. It wouldn’t work as a movie.

      • Star of Hope

        Not if you start excusing their actions, then you miss the point of their character, that happens to other Dracos.

        • natew

          If you start excusing Hans Lanza’s actions because he is likable, that’s your problem.

          • Cay Reet

            If you make a guy who hunts Jews and is a Nazi likeable, that is a problem in general, because there always will be people who excuse a likeable villain’s actions..

            There are villains who have an understandable motivation for their deeds. Their way is wrong, but their goal is not. They can be likeable, you can say ‘they have a good heart, they’re just doing the wrong thing.’
            Then there are guys like this one who shouldn’t be likeable. Besides, being polite and being likeable are two different things.

          • natew

            Star of Hope referred to their brother liking Hans Lanza due to his politeness.

            I think it’s more problematic to make Nazis NOT have likeable personalities. That perpetuates the SUPER dangerous myth that evil ideologies don’t come from likeable people. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

            Do you think that real Nazis weren’t charismatic and likeable on the surface?

            Hell, look at the alt-right today. A lot of gateway YouTubers have likeable personalities. “I’m not alt-right. I like video games, just like you! Super relatable, right?” Then they lead people deeper down the rabbit hole.

            One of the most damaging tropes in fiction is the need to make villains (especially ideologically-driven villains) obviously evil. Even when they are affably evil, you can tell that YOU wouldn’t fall for it.

            Most people understand that likeable characters can be evil. This isn’t like Birth Of A Nation, where the KKK is framed as heroic. Hans Lanza is clearly evil. Are we going to cater to people who don’t see that?

            This is why I think one of the best-written villains ever is JD from Heathers. It’s terrifying how likeable he is and how far he gets Veronica and the viewer to sympathize with him. Hell, it took me a while to realize he was the villain on my first watch. And the number of people who comment on YouTube clips that they still would bang JD is even more terrifying.

          • Cay Reet

            The problem is how far to go with the likeability of a villainous character.

            I’m not a fan of stereotypical ‘evil Nazis’, either, because it does make people think that only unlikeable people can be evil. A character whose bad sides are shown, even if they’re polite, certainly aren’t going too far down the likeability scale. Characters who are shown using their likeability to convert others to their cause aren’t too far down, either, provided they are shown to have some dark sides, too. I have a problem with calling a man who hunts other people (no matter their religion or ethnicity) likeable – no matter whether he’s a Nazi, from the KKK, or someone who just likes hunting people for sport without an ideology behind him. The moment that is out, his likeability should be revoked.

            The problem comes in when you take a villain and make them too likeable for too long (in other words, if you don’t let people in on how many dark sides they have until close to the end). Then the audience thinks they’re not that bad or they need to be redeemed or they’re even on the right side and just pretend. The moment you show the villainous side, then, will make them angry with you.

            If you’re making a likeable villain, at least suggest that there’s something underneath the personality that isn’t good. That they’re not always polite. That they’re doing things which are not okay. And start with it early, because if you don’t, people are going to take their side and say ‘they’re not that bad, they’re actually okay.’

            I’m sure Inglorious Basterds didn’t make any Nazi seem heroic, but they also didn’t make any Nazi too likeable. My comments on the general likeability level of villains is not just bound to this one example, but is a general remark on going too far with the likeability.

          • natew

            I think of likability more in terms of personality than the morality of their actions. It’s not a reveal that Hans Lanza is a Nazi who does horrible stuff. The scary thing is that he is likable WHILE he is also a Nazi.

            I can think of a lot of amazing villains where you know they do terrible things but they also have likable personalities: Hannibal Lector, Alex DeLarge, and Vito Corleone. Their likable personalities doesn’t mean they aren’t terrible people.

    • Alverant

      Maybe it’s me, but I considered Hans to be like Weyoun from DS9. They used politeness as a weapon, making them more smug than anything. They’re the kind of villain that would compliment you then in the next sentence casually mention doing something evil in the same tone of voice. Their manners are just a token cover for their horrible behavior which, to me, makes them worse.

  7. Alverant

    I have a question about the bigotry part. In Star Wars the Empire is bigoted against non-humans. In the original trilogy, all the Imperial commanders (whoever didn’t have a helmet) were white men. We only got female and PoC commanders in the sequel trilogy. But they were still human. So would the prejudice shown non-humans still be exploitive?

    Also, what about the villains causing pain for pain’s sake? One that knows torture doesn’t work but doesn’t care? Maybe they try and justify it by saying it makes them harder to escape or it’s an additional punishment or the desire to break their spirit? It doesn’t even have to be overt, they could just not care if their guards like abusing their authority over prisoners.

    • Jason Duncan

      I thought this was a missed opportunity of the sequels. Their attempt at inclusion across the board blurred the lines of the Empire V Rebellion/New Order V New Republic. In the originals, storm troopers didn’t take off their helmets, wore fascist styled clothing and modeled fascist behavior and only white men were in positions of power. The Rebellion was the exact opposite with aliens in prominent positions, a woman general/princess/senator gunslinger, etc. Blowing up planets is the only thing that makes the New Order the bad guy. And, if you take the entire Star Wars canon in perspective, the Republic is horrible at making the trains run in time, and also not very good at protecting freedom.

  8. Jason Duncan

    I don’t think villainous traits are tactics or strategy most of the time in real life. I think people that possibly thoughtlessly, possibly intentionally perpetrate these acts ARE villainous. Millions of troops of occupying or aggressive military forces have raped and that was why they were perceived as the villains by the populace/victims. The same thing is true of single criminals walking around in every echelon of society. Rape, torture, etc. are not necessarily plot devices or tactics of a villain, but behavior of villainous people.IMHO

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