Known as antagonists, scoundrels, criminals, baddies, rogues, enemies and desperados, villains are nasty pieces of work. When writing fiction, they create bucket loads of adventure and peril which readers love. In fact, great stories cannot exist without a villain or two. They produce empathy and admiration within the reader for the suffering protagonist.
The word nemesis aptly describes what a villain is. It means: ‘a bitter enemy, especially one who seems unbeatable; a source of harm or ruin; a person or force that inflicts punishment or revenge.’ In short, villains should hang around like a bad smell until the very end of the story.
A villain should be introduced early, like the sweet old Granny from next door who makes periodic appearances as someone harmless, holding the hand of the frightened protagonist. In real life, Granny is the Black Widow Killer who has murdered several husbands with rat poison. Provide lots of unfortunate events for the protagonist along the way, such as that unhelpful detective, helpers falling ill or family members having unexpected accidents at the last minute. What about a terrible storm to heighten the series of worsening incidents?
The best Agatha Christie mysteries introduce the villains at the start of the movies as the least likely suspects. Lots of characters who’d make perfect candidates for her villains are scattered throughout the plot. These provide great red herrings. Your protagonist could jump to conclusions that turn out wrong every time. They may hear or see something to believe the criminal is someone else. Perhaps they overhear part of a conversation—remember Shrek and Donkey in the first movie? Or maybe they see blood on the carpet behind the couch. Red herrings help attract suspicions onto false suspects. Include events where the reader’s attention is drawn away from the charismatic villain! Make the red herrings plausible and the reader will believe them, too.
Cast the villain as the sweetest character of all that none would suspect until the final scenes when the butcher’s knife comes out of her drawer or the pot of peppermint tea is secretly laced with arsenic. Maybe the villain is there in the background all along, offering supportive advice and sweet smiles to cover up their hatred. Maybe the villain’s alter life is some sort of community helper so no one would suspect them such as a meals-on-wheels volunteer, or a nurse at the local hospital. When they are finally discovered, the revelation is all the more scandalous.
In real life, villains ‘hide’ within their vocations. Jack the Ripper was reportedly a doctor. If this occurs in real life, a fictitious character could hide in a similar way. The carefully concealed villain that puts everyone at ease and throws suspicion off themselves makes the best story. Have them appear briefly in unobtrusive scenes so they have the perfect alibis. Then, create plenty of other suspects, or red herrings, who don’t have alibis yet have plenty of reasons to be guilty of the crime.
As a writer, drop small clues throughout the story, none that are too obvious to incriminate Granny—yet! Hide clues in glimpses of house cleaning or ‘old lady’ dialogue, so that the reader glosses over them, or they simply appear insignificant until the very end.
Villains are complex characters because they generally believe that what they are doing is right. They turn bad when they decide to do what it takes to achieve their goals, regardless of who gets hurt. Their actions result in dangerous consequences for all involved, especially the protagonist.
Here are some villain personalities that may help you create your own villain.
1) MR BIG: obsessed with power and wants to rule the world. Think James Bond villain. They control powerful henchmen who do their bidding. Mr Big shows no remorse and is beyond help.
2) Scheming villains may appear innocent to the end but are secretly malicious. They will lie, cheat and kill to steal from others. Their motivation is envy and jealousy.
3) Polite villains conceal their evil intentions behind a mask of charm. They speak politely but manipulate others for their own gain. Think Agatha Christie films.
4) Villains who are easily led are those with low self-esteem and self-confidence. They prefer to follow others and may commit horrible crimes just to be accepted. Think crime shows.
A hidden foe introduced at the beginning of a story is very effective to the overall plot. Concealed behind plenty of smiles, the true villain can mislead readers and offer a great story of mystery and intrigue.