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The Definition of the Perfect Antagonist: Writing Villains We Love to Hate

hannibal lector, dracula, joker, moriarty and Sosuke Aizen
Writing Villains We Love To Hate

There’s something about a well-written villain that brings everything together in your story. I’ve always felt the villains are the unsung heroes. So, here's the definition of what makes the perfect antagonist.

They're like that dash of cayenne pepper that turns a bland pasta into a tantalizing Italian feast. (Sorry, I’m a foodie as well!) Today, I’m peeling back the layers of some amazing villainy, exploring why these nefarious characters are so crucial to a story's success. But that's not all! But more than that, I want to talk about the art of crafting the perfect antagonist. These are characters we love to hate. Does anyone think The Queen from Snow White with her poisoned apple is the iconic villain of all time? Or Maleficent. Just wow. Pure evil.

Using the ingredients in this blog, I've written a villain I hope you will love just as much. Check it out in my new book 'My Bad,' on Kobo and Amazon.

But something about the way Disney did it is just sublime. And Disney has a pretty amazing recipe. But some of the best villains, I think, come out in writing. (No offense to movie aficionados.) So, let’s grab our literary magnifying glasses and uncover the secrets of villainy in modern storytelling.

The Importance

These born-to-be-bad antagonists are an essential ingredient in the cauldron of storytelling. And they're not just there to stir up trouble. Villains are the yin to your hero's yang, the darkness to their light. In fact, they are the driving force behind the plot. Without them, you might as well be stirring water. Without a formidable antagonist, the hero's journey is, let’s face it, boring and pointless. If I look at my own life, I might not be hounded by Voldemort’s minions, but I have had my share of bullies and conflict creators. The ‘bad’ characters are the soul of story tension; they create obstacles that challenge the protagonist’s limits, and they pretty much end up making the superhero by honing that mettle. How could Batman be badass without Joker dancing around him and flinging laughing bombs into traffic?

The Ingredients

So, let’s talk shot for the perfect villainous concoction. This brew of badness has to start with a dash of motivation - a clear, understandable reason for their wicked ways. There’s no way these characters are bad from the get-go. No one is born evil. Evil is created, and it is sparked by something. So think, back story. How did this villain get here in that house made of candy to lure children? And let’s face it. These villains are complicated creatures. So, you really have to get into their head to understand what makes them tick. Pick apart their flaws and quirks, and always add some redeeming qualities as a final ingredient. We all want to be saved—even the bad guys. Remember, even if they are mutants, dragons, or slime, they need to be as human as your hero and heroine.

Oh, and! Don't leave out this final garnish. Charisma - a great villain is oh so irresistible. Make them so hatefully lovable that it hurts to defeat them finally. Even if your antagonists cannot bring themselves to love them, we as writers have to love them. Love them until it is impossible to let them go, and their defeat leaves you reeling. Trust me, if you can feel it, so will your readers, and they will come back to see your baddest of the bad again and again and again.

Some Tips and Tricks for Crafting Memorable Villains

  • Give them a relatable motivation: Even the vilest villains should have a believable reason for being so bad. And if it’s something the readers can relate to, even better. We all cycle through a darker part of ourselves. Revenge, envy, anger, insecurity. Even a twisted sense of justice should stem from a story. So, really, your villain should be able to explain why his view is so skewed.

  • Give them depth of character: One-dimensional baddies are the worst kinda villains. Antagonists need layers, contradictions, and a whole lota shades of gray. And it’s no wonder that most villains always think they are the hero of their own story. They can justify their wicked intent with a multitude of outlandishly reasonable reasons. Their darkness has to stem from something, so remember to bathe a little in it. How else will you know them?

  • Make them human: Even if they are a blog of slime threatening to swallow a skyscraper, they need to show emotion, even moments of vulnerability, fear, or doubt. These glimpses into their darkness will humanize them and leave your readers intrigued. Why is the slime tearing up at the sight of a strawberry cone? One of the best villains I’ve written has an innate fear of teacup rides. And I had a blast writing Leon Siyah.

  • Give them a distinct personality: Make these baddies stand out. It shouldn’t just be their actions that create a sense of villainy. They don’t have to be squashing an innocent to be bad. Give them unique thoughts, mannerisms, and speech, even how they move. Oh, I cannot emphasize enough what a wicked smirk can do for a character. Even if it doesn’t have a mouth! I mean, think about iconic villains like the Joker (who is all grins) or Hannibal Lecter (who has a chilling presence in just the way he sits in a chair.)

  • Give them morals, gray or otherwise: There’s nothing blander than a character who is all good or all bad. We battle moral dilemmas every day, even if it’s taking that last piece of Cheetos, even though your friend saw it first. So, the best kind of antagonists challenge the readers' moral compass. Make them question whether the villain's actions, even in some twisted way, could be justified.

Some Memorable Villains I Can’t Forget

  1. Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs): A brilliant psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh, Lecter's intelligence and charm make him a captivating and utterly terrifying villain. Anthony Hopkins is a genius, but the writer, Thomas Harris, is the artist. If you haven’t, read the books.

  2. The Joker (DC Comics): Oh, this guy is Chaos incarnate, and I will not lie. He is my favorite villain ever. The movies are great, but you’ll find his true madness in the comics. The Joker’s capricious nature and nihilistic philosophy make him the perfect villain for Batman. Sometimes, I feel like Joker is Batman’s inner demon. I could see it happening.

  3. Count Dracula from (Dracula): This iconic vampire is the seed that created an entire genre. He inspired countless good and bad retellings of a quintessential literary villain who feeds on blood. The ‘Vampire’ couldn’t have been anything it is today without him. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vampire Diaries, Twilight (it’s unavoidable), and OMG Hellsing – The Anime (Because Alucard is just the best kind of Dracula).

  4. Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes): Sherlock is a beautifully crafted, complex, brilliant character Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created. It epitomizes the sleuth, detective, and modern FBI/MI heroes we see prancing around the screen and literary stages. But would he be as great without Moriarty? I don’t know. If I think of Sherlock, I think of Moriarty, the smart, wicked, giving Sherlock a run for his money.

  5. Aizen (Bleach – The Manga): Sosuke Aizen. Man, this guy can inspire nightmares of perfect villainy, and he’s inspired more than 14 seasons and countless comic pages of diabolical scheming. This silver-tongued, seemingly mild-mannered betrayer comes out as the big daddy of all things bad and nearly takes all the world. Even imprisoned and defeated, Aizen cannot be ignored. He is epic.

The best characters have the power to elicit emotions in readers. The best villains bring anger, sympathy, and even a strange fondness. To find this sweet spot, showcase their vulnerabilities and humanize them without excusing their actions. Make their motives relatable, and occasionally let readers glimpse a hint of redemption, even if it remains tantalizingly out of reach.

It isn't just about making a baddie and throwing everything into chaos; it's about creating antagonists the readers will remember long after they've closed the book or comic. So embrace the dark arts of villainy, and watch as your antagonists add depth, drama, and that perfect touch of ‘wicked’ to your story.

If you're interested in seeing which villains I've created, have a look at the 'Writing' section of my website:

You can check out my latest book, which is the embodiment of all things wicked villains 'My Bad.' Check it out on Kobo or Amazon.

If you want to download a free excerpt, you can get it on my Freebies page!

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