A good villain is critical for most stories. The villain is usually the second most important character, behind only the protagonist themself. If a villain goes wrong, they often drag the entire story down with them, and there are many ways for villains to go wrong. Since depicting villains can be especially difficult for new writers, I see a lot of these in my capacity as a content editor, and I’d like to share them with you. If you fix these issues early, you can save a lot of time and money when the hour for editing arrives.
1. Pointless Cruelty
Villains are generally bad people – that’s part of the job – but sometimes they go to ridiculous extremes to show you just how bad they are. They’ll kick puppies, twirl their mustaches, and force prisoners to watch the odd-numbered Star Trek movies. It’s all truly horrific, but there doesn’t seem to be any purpose to it.
These villains are being pointlessly cruel. Not only is this clichéd, but in most stories it damages the audience’s suspension of disbelief. We know that most people don’t act like cartoon characters, and an over-the-top villain often makes a story seem far less credible. At the same time, being pointlessly cruel can actually reduce a villain’s threat level, as it makes them seem incompetent.
Why This Happens
The most common reason I’ve found is that authors believe they can actually increase the villain’s threat level by making them act cruelly, and there is a tiny bit of truth to that. If the heroes find out that the villain is going to kill them rather than imprison them, that raises the stakes. But this method has quickly diminishing returns. If the characters already think they’re going to die, finding out that the villain will desecrate their corpses afterward doesn’t raise the stakes; it just makes the villain seem like a dick.
Alternatively, villains will sometimes engage in pointless evil because the storyteller needs to communicate that the villain is bad, but there isn’t anything plot relevant for them to do yet. If the opening of a story is really slow, the villain might have to eat a kitten-soup instead of creating problems for the hero – otherwise you won’t know who the bad guy is!
A third justification storytellers often give is that real life is full of villains who are pointlessly cruel. They see bigoted politicians posting racist tweets without a thought and assume fictional villains should act that way too. What these storytellers miss is that such acts of cruelty are not pointless at all; they are performative. They are a bigot’s way of signaling to other bigots, intentionally or otherwise. Without that context, such behavior will seem wildly out of place.
How to Fix It
In most cases, the best antidote to pointless evil is to make it evil for a purpose. You must construct a plot where the villain acts cruelly in order to further their goals, not just because the mood takes them. That way your villain will still be evil, but it will feel like part of the story rather than an unpleasant detour.
If you want your villain to mirror far-right leaders who blame the victims of mass shootings for their own deaths, you have to set up the proper context. Remember, this isn’t something politicians do just for the heck of it. They do it because it gets them support from their bigoted constituency. Recreating that context might make your story a bit too dark for some audiences, but it will at least make sense.
2. Lacking Power
In this story, the hero has the powers of super strength, flight, and teleportation. They’re also a skilled veteran with a dozen years of fighting evil under their belt. Meanwhile, the villain has a natural talent for handing out parking tickets. They fight, and the results are predictably one sided.
When the villain doesn’t have the strength to threaten the hero, they lack power. Few things bring the story to a screeching halt like an underpowered villain, because if the villain isn’t a threat, then why is this story even being told? We all know the hero is going to win, so there’s no tension, and when they finally do win, there’s no satisfaction. At the same time, if we see the villain plotting and scheming to defeat a more powerful hero, we end up cheering for the bad guy instead.
Why This Happens
Often, storytellers simply miscalculate how powerful a villain is. This is particularly likely when the villain depends on minions for their muscle. Minions can be a powerful advantage, but only if they’re effective, and fiction has a tendency to treat them like a minor inconvenience. All the minions in the world can’t help a villain if the plot is clearly leading toward a climactic fistfight with the hero.
Just as often, authors get carried away with how cool their heroes are. We’ve all been tempted to give our protagonists too much candy, and extra badass powers are sweet indeed. By the time you start to wonder if the story’s gotten too sweet, the hero is a living god facing the purely mortal villain.
A less orthodox but just as damaging motive is when the villain represents something the author finds morally unpalatable, so they don’t want to make the villain seem cool. This issue crops up a lot in morality stories, where the villain is a stand-in for some political or ethical position the author disagrees with.
How to Fix It
When constructing a villain, always err on the side of making them more powerful. At the start of the story, they should be able to smite the hero in whatever contest is most relevant to the plot. That way, you get the most satisfaction when the hero overcomes this advantage and triumphs. It’s possible to go too far with this, but you have a fair amount of room before a villain becomes too powerful.
You can also make a villain more threatening by altering the type of conflict in play. If your story is a legal battle, it’s possible that a perfectly mundane human lawyer could be a deadly threat to your superpowered hero. However, you have to be careful that your hero’s skills actually aren’t applicable to the conflict. If your hero can intimidate the evil lawyer by super-flexing, then the hero isn’t really an underdog.
Finally, if you find your villain so morally repugnant that you’re underpowering them, it’s probably time to reframe your story. Use parallels and allegory to create some distance. Then, you’ll be able to create a serviceable villain without fear of empowering the thing you hate.
3. Unthreatening Goals
The villain of this story is a real jerk. They’re always saying rude things to the hero and implying they have sinister plans. Now the hero is set on stopping them from doing… something? It’s not actually clear, since the villain is never shown to be doing anything worse than a menacing cackle.
When a villain isn’t trying to do something that the hero needs to stop, that means they have unthreatening goals. Sometimes their goals are known and they’re completely mundane; other times, the goals remain a secret, but the hero decides they need to be stopped anyway. Either way, this robs the story of urgency and attachment. It’s hard to care if the heroes win when the villain doesn’t seem to be doing anything worth stopping.
Why This Happens
Most often, unthreatening goals are a result of poor plotting. It turns out the villain does have an evil plan that must be stopped, but it hasn’t been revealed yet. This is especially likely in mystery plots. To keep the story moving, the author has the hero act as if they already know what the villain is up to. Then they make the big reveal and hope no one noticed the timing. Sometimes this pattern plays out with the villain changing their goals rather than revealing what they were all along, but it has the same effect.
On occasions when the villain’s real goals are still unthreatening, it’s usually because the author hasn’t fully examined them. It might seem bad for the villain to take over the hero’s home planet, but if that planet is falling into a blackhole and needs to be evacuated anyway, nothing is really changed.
It’s also possible for this problem to be caused by a difference in values. If the author follows certain socialist traditions, they might see the opening of a private coffee franchise as inherently threatening because they see all private enterprise as a danger to the working class. Meanwhile, a fundamentalist Christian storyteller might think it’s a sin for the villain to work as a tattoo artist because tattoos are prohibited under certain biblical translations. Neither of these values is likely to click with the average reader.
How to Fix It
The first thing to remember is that a villain’s goals must be threatening throughout the entire story, both to the hero and to the audience. If those goals change later, that’s fine, but they should change to something even worse. If you want to keep those goals mysterious, that can work, but the villain still has to be doing something threatening. The hero might not know why the villain is killing cyborgs and harvesting their cortical stacks, but the murder alone is enough to provide plenty of urgency.
When deciding what the villain’s goals are in the first place, keep in mind how they affect the hero and the hero’s loved ones. A good standby is that the villain either wants to make the hero’s life notably worse or at least prevent it from getting better. This kind of goal fits nicely alongside more abstract options like ruling the galaxy, and it helps keep the story grounded.
Goals like these are also useful for avoiding problems from value clashes. While you can never be sure what values an average reader will have, most people will instinctively care about threats to the hero or people the hero cares about. If you want to use a more niche set of goals, you’ll need to find a way to make those goals matter to the average reader.*
4. Avoiding Comeuppance
By the end of this story, the villain’s killed a score of innocent people and harvested their spleens as part of a ritual for ultimate power. Finally, the heroes track this vile fiend down, and after a fierce battle they… let the villain go with a firm talking to? Don’t worry, the villain promises never to do it again!
When a story ends and it feels like the villain got off too easily, they’ve avoided their comeuppance. At best, this leaves the story with an unsatisfying karma imbalance. Audiences want bad things to happen to bad people, and when they don’t, it’s irritating. At worst, this sort of ending feels like the villain is just going to work their evil deeds somewhere else, so the heroes didn’t actually solve anything.
Why This Happens
By far the most common reason this happens is that the story takes place in a setting without a formal system of justice. There’s no jail for the villain to be sent to, and the author doesn’t want to kill them, so instead there’ll be a scene where the hero tries to intimidate the bad guy into giving up their evil ways. Even if this scene is somehow convincing, which it rarely is, the villain is still escaping consequence free.
I’ve also seen stories where the author grew to like the villain more than any other character and didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. This is a persistent problem because villains are often the most active character in a story, so it’s easy to fall for them and even start making excuses for them. This is especially common in redemption arc stories. Everyone loves a good redemption, but not everyone will agree on when the villain has actually made amends.
How to Fix It
If your story takes place in a setting without jails, or at least without jails that can hold the villain, you need to plan what happens to the bad guy in advance. The easiest solution is for the villain to die, probably in a climactic duel with the hero. However, if you’re willing to kill the villain, you probably don’t have this problem in the first place.
If you need to keep the villain alive, possibly to use them later, the most important thing is to make clear that they’re no longer a threat. This requires more than a lecture and a promise. They should lose their power, be stripped of their armies, or otherwise rendered impotent. If they’ve been particularly heinous, you’ll probably want to arrange some extra punishment for them, possibly stuck in a hell dimension for a few years or forced to deal with Seattle traffic for a few days.
Alternatively, you can simply have the villain escape punishment, so long as it’s treated like a problem in the story. The heroes can celebrate their victory, but they need to acknowledge that the villain is still out there, waiting to strike again. Depending on how threatening the villain is, this might make a great hook for the sequel.
In the event that you find you like a villain too much to let anything happen to them, that’s probably a sign that you need to revise the story so they’re the main character. You might be able to resolve the situation with a redemption arc for the villain, but consider if that’s really the best course. Is it feasible for this villain to make amends as part of their arc? If not, you’ll have the same problem with a lack of satisfaction.
5. Sympathy Mismatch
The villain of this story is a terrible person. We’ve seen them feed innocent people to piranhas and also review bomb Captain Marvel without even seeing it. Clearly, this is the scum of humanity we’re dealing with here. But then the story starts dropping hints that maybe the villain was right all along. It asks us to think about how they see things. What the heck is going on here? Why would we care what this jerk thinks?
When storytellers try to humanize a character the audience can’t stand, that’s a sympathy mismatch. In order to care about a villain’s perspective, the audience needs to have at least some sympathy for them. If that sympathy isn’t present, then any attempts to present the villain in a positive light will fall completely flat. They might even make it seem like the author is intentionally endorsing the villain’s heinous actions.
Why This Happens
From what I can glean by talking to authors, one major contributor is the way sympathetic villains are practically worshipped in online discussions about storytelling. There’s a feeling that villains have to be sympathetic, so storytellers often try to force sympathy when there isn’t any.
At the same time, it’s easy for storytellers to forget that they probably know the villain better than their audience ever will. Readers have only the words on the page, while viewers have only dialogue and the actor’s body language. Storytellers, on the other hand, know their villain inside and out, understanding everything that goes into the character’s decisions. This makes it easy to overestimate how sympathetic audiences will find the villain.
Another big contributor is our old friend, differing values. Some people will care about certain things more than others, and it’s easy for storytellers to get that balance wrong. A storyteller might not think that their villain giving a surprise kiss is a big deal, but readers who’ve experienced them in real life may have very different ideas.
How to Fix It
The first step is understanding that not all villains have to be sympathetic. It’s fine if your bad guy is just bad, with no exploration of their deeper motives or consideration that they might be actually be right. If your villain is irredeemable, then your audience will happily bask in the satisfaction of their defeat.
If you’re set on giving your villain their sympathetic moment, you have to make sure they haven’t passed what I call the moral event horizon. This is the point from which there can be no return, even if the villain were to completely change their ways, since the audience no longer wants them to be redeemed.
The exact point of the moral event horizon varies from person to person, but there are a few things that will almost certainly put your character over it. Torture is a big one, along with the killing of animals or children. Killing innocent adults is questionable, but not a great sign. Sexual violence will almost certainly do it, along with most other hate crimes.
If you’re hoping for mitigating circumstances to keep your villain from going over the edge, they have to be really clear. Your villain’s internal grief over a lost loved one isn’t going to cut it. You’ll need to show how they were pressured into evil acts by a cult-like environment or manipulated by a supernatural force. Whatever the specifics, it should be something the audience can easily identify so you know they’re on the same page.
6. Insufficient Motivation
Our final villain today has plans that are truly evil. They want to burn down the rainforests and crash the moon into the Earth! Why would they do that, you ask? I guess that’s a reasonable question. They live on the Earth too, and it’s not clear how their interests are served by turning it into an unlivable wasteland. I don’t suppose you’d accept that they’re just evil like that?
When it’s unclear why a villain is doing what they’re doing, they have insufficient motivation. This is an old cliché, but it’s still very relevant today. Audiences expect villains to have some semblance of a realistic motivation, and if they don’t, the story falls apart. Why should anyone take the story seriously when the villain acts like a caricature of humanity?
Why This Happens
The most common cause of insufficient motivation is that the author simply hasn’t fully thought through the villain’s plan. In the rush to make the bad guy evil and threatening, storytellers forget to examine what would happen if the villain actually won. This can also happen when the author is trying to be mysterious, the cause of so many other problems on this list. If the villain has a great motivation but it doesn’t seem like they do for most of the story, the audience will be rightfully frustrated.
A secondary cause of insufficient motivation is when authors try to create a villain who just wants to watch the world burn. Everyone loves The Dark Knight’s Joker, and it’s tempting to recreate the chaos clown even in stories where he doesn’t fit.
How to Fix It
In most cases, insufficient motivation can be fixed by examining the villain’s plan and making sure they’re getting something out of it that’s worth all the trouble. In most stories, you don’t even have to go into a lot of detail. It’s usually enough to say that the villain’s plan will make them more powerful and that they want power for power’s sake.
If the villain’s plan will cause problems for them and everyone else, possibly by blowing up the planet they live on, you’ll need to put in more work. What’s the villain’s plan for dealing with the problems caused by their original plan? Maybe they’ve got a secret Mars base where they plan to chill as Earth and the moon collide, or maybe they don’t care about their own safety and are motivated by revenge.
When the problem comes from keeping part of the villain’s plan secret, remember the advice we’ve already gone over: make it a deliberate mystery. If the villain’s plans seem to hurt them along with everyone else, have the heroes ask why that is. Let them investigate. This turns a story’s weakness into a strength.
Finally, if you’re thinking of making a Joker-type villain who just wants to watch the world burn, consider if that’s really what’s best for your story. The Joker works because Batman stories are heavily themed confrontations between order and chaos. If your story doesn’t have a similar context, that sort of stylized villain is likely to fall flat.
New stories can have a seemingly unlimited number of issues that require your attention, but it’s worth putting in special effort for the villain. A well-executed bad guy provides tension and satisfaction, but a flopped antagonist can easily take the story down with them. Your readers will thank you for putting in the extra work.
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