When Bad is Good: 3 Tips to Make Your Villains as Interesting as Your Heroes

With Halloween just around the corner, it’s a great time to binge watch scary movies and practice writing horror stories. And the scariest part of a horror story—as well as one of the scariest parts of most stories in general—is usually the antagonist, the villain who embodies the evil of the plot and serves as the main barrier between the hero and victory.

But antagonists can also be the most challenging characters to write. Not only do you need to make them just as interesting as your protagonists in order to carry the story, but you often have to do it in fewer words, as villains usually get less focus and have limited room for character development. Not every writer can pull this off well, but fortunately, there are a few writing tips you can use to turn your villains from flat and boring to fascinating and terrifying.

So in the spirit of Halloween and scary characters, here are three writing tips to help you create villains who are just as interesting as your heroes. Enjoy!

3 Tips to Write an Interesting Villain

1) Villains should be just as three-dimensional as their heroic counterparts.

I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me. – Bad-Anon closing affirmation, Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that starred a kickass hero, but for some reason they never seemed to reach the peak of their awesomeness? Chances are what could have been a great story arc fell flat because of a terribly written villain.

We know that part of telling a good story is creating good characters, but many writers tend to focus all that character-building attention on their protagonists and not enough on their antagonists. (Don’t feel bad if you can relate; I’ve definitely been guilty of this myself.) I’m sure at some point, we’ve all fallen into the trap of making an antagonist “just a bad guy”, but it’s important to remember that villains are people too—well, in the broader sense of “sentient beings”—and much like real people, all characters should be three-dimensional. No exceptions.

Personally, I hate it when a villain has literally zero depth. It may seem like a good idea on the surface to make a bad guy as bad as possible, but no one is purely evil for the sake of being evil, any more than a hero is good just because the story calls for it. If we take exceptional care to give our protagonists clear dreams, goals, strengths, and weaknesses, we should do the same for our antagonists. A hero is only as good as their villain, right?

The Bad-Anon support group for video game villains (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012)

One of my favorite modern examples of how much depth a villain can have is the 2012 Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph. Given how everyone treats him like a monster and almost no one respects him, Ralph is a good example of a character who was forced into the role of a villain despite not actually deserving it. Of course, after leaving his game and setting out on his own adventure, he does prove to everyone that he’s much more than a “bad guy” in the end. While the movie isn’t about a “villain” per se, Wreck-It Ralph does teach two important lessons about antagonists:

  1. Villains and conflict are indispensable to storytelling (and therefore must be respected)Fix-It Felix Jr. is no longer playable without “the bad guy who wrecks the building”
  2. No one is the villain of their own story – despite being the bad guy of Fix-It Felix Jr., Ralph is clearly the hero of his own adventure

In contrast, my least favorite antagonists are usually the ones whose only defining characteristic is “being evil”. You know who I’m talking about: those one-dimensional a-holes with zero redeeming qualities who can make you fume or gag every time they appear on page or screen, like:

It’s one thing to give your character less-than-noble motives; it’s another to go out of your way to make the audience hate them. But then again, even “pure evil” can be interesting when written well (case in point: the villains listed above are all bad people, but not necessarily bad characters). It all comes down to a delicate balance between characterization and storytelling.

So when writing your antagonist, always make sure you give them as much background and attention to detail as you give your heroes. Remember that a good villain has depth and personality, not just “evil plans”. Bonus points if you can make your audience sympathize with the bad guy. After all, hero or villain, we’re all still people. Which brings me to the next point…

2) Nobody starts out as a bad guy, not even villains.

You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. – Harvey Dent/Two-Face, The Dark Knight (2008)

Although it’s easy to think of the world in terms of good and evil, the fact is that all people start out as blank slates. Every individual has a story to tell, a history behind the person they become. It’s the circumstances of one’s story—and the choices they make in response to those circumstances—that determine if they become a hero or a villain (or neither). In a nutshell, bad guys aren’t born, but made.

Maleficent crashes Princess Aurora’s christening (Maleficent, 2014)

A well-known modern example of the making of a villain is Disney’s 2014 Sleeping Beauty retelling, Maleficent. While the 1959 animated movie portrayed this character as little more than a vindictive witch (who seriously could not let go of a grudge), this version of the story digs a little deeper into how the fairy Maleficent became malicious enough to curse an innocent child. Between the beginning of the film and Aurora’s christening, we learn that Maleficent started out kind and idealistic, but her relationship with Stefan turned her bitter and vindictive against humankind. Say what you will about the film’s execution, but at least it establishes a clear backstory and motive for a character who would otherwise be just another run-of-the-mill fairytale villain.

If you feel your antagonist is missing clear motivation for their actions, try giving them a backstory that explains how they became evil. You don’t have to expose their entire life story to the audience, but at least convince us of their reasons for opposing the heroes. Show us what broke them so badly that it turned them to the dark side. Remember, the only people who start out as bad guys are cartoon villains; everyone else has a story.

3) An interesting villain is just as strong, smart, and capable as the hero (if not more).

A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. – Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Take a second to think about your favorite villains in any books, movies, or TV shows. What do they all have in common (aside from the fact that they’re doing bad things to good people)? Why do you find them so fascinating? Because they’re good at what they do!

The most interesting and popular villains are usually those who challenge the heroes, and it’s obviously not by being total pushovers. Darth Vader mercilessly kills any subordinate who disappoints him and pushes Luke Skywalker to his limit in their first lightsaber duel. Before his downfall, Voldemort was so terrifying that witches and wizards everywhere were afraid to say his name. A large part of what makes Hannibal Lecter so fascinating and frightening is how mysterious and complex he is. Basically, if an antagonist can draw your full attention and steal every scene they’re in, you know they can give the heroes a run for their money!

The Joker being interrogated by Batman (The Dark Knight, 2008)

One of the most popular examples of a brilliant and highly capable villain is the Joker from The Dark Knight. Aside from his unpredictability, a major reason the Joker is so interesting is that he’s one of the few villains who actually challenges Batman. Like the embodiment of chaos itself, he keeps the hero and the entire police force of Gotham guessing and thwarts them so many times that we as the audience can’t help but wonder what he’s going to do next at every turn. Now that’s a well-written villain!

So keep in mind, if you find your heroes aren’t reaching their full potential, the problem might be with your villains. Superpowers and high intelligence aren’t enough to make a great hero; you have to give them someone or something to use those abilities against. Make your antagonists just as strong and smart as the protagonists, then have them push each other to their limits. Only by overcoming a nearly insurmountable obstacle will your hero’s story arc be as satisfying and captivating as it deserves. In more ways than one, an antagonist can make or break your story!

Do you struggle with writing antagonists? What are your thoughts on these tips for writing an interesting villain? What other tips would you add to this list?

What If? Writing Prompts: Horror V

It’s the month of Halloween again, so here are some new “What If?” Writing Prompts for you to enjoy! This week’s set of prompts is centered around the genre of horror. What sorts of scary stories can you write from these ideas? Have fun!

What if… every time you had a dream about someone you know, that person died within 24 hours?

What if… you woke up with blood on your hands and no memory of how it got there?

What if… your dog started acting as though it wanted to eat you?

What if… you heard scratching against your bedroom door at night… even though you didn’t own a pet?

What if… the local haunted house attraction turned out to be filled with real monsters?

Good luck spinning some more tales of horror!

If you have any “What If?” writing prompt suggestions (for any theme), please feel free to share them in the comments below. Ideas I like may be featured in future “What If?” posts, with full credit and a link to your blog (if you have one)! Also, if you’ve written a piece based on an idea you’ve found here, be sure to link back to the respective “What If?” post. I would love to see what you’ve done with the prompt! Thank you!

The Monster Under The Porch (Part 2)

Welcome to the conclusion of “The Monster Under The Porch”. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 here. Otherwise, enjoy!


Autumn watched anxiously as her mother walked around the porch, peeking under the boards on her way to the far end by the side of the house. Try as she might, the child couldn’t stop imagining what sort of monster might be lurking under their house. Was it a troll? A gremlin? Or what if, with those bright eyes – she shuddered – it was a wolf? The girl shut her eyes tight to keep from crying, but after a minute, she looked up again at the sound of a woman’s voice exclaiming.

“Autumn, come quick!”

Suddenly curious, Autumn hurried to the edge of the porch and looked down over the railing. To her astonishment, she saw her mother kneeling on the ground and smiling up at her. Next to her, a black kitten was sniffing at a few pieces of candy that had rolled off the porch.

“He must have gotten lost and wandered under our house,” she said, stroking the cat as he pawed at the candy. “I think you scared him more than he scared you!”

Autumn grinned as the kitten looked up at her, no longer afraid of his bright yellow eyes. Just then, a group of costumed children appeared in front of the house, heading up the walk toward the front steps. The girl’s mother gently scooped up the cat and rose to her feet.

“Sweetie, can you keep an eye on this little guy while I hand out the candy?” she said as she returned to the door. Autumn eagerly agreed, taking the animal in her arms so her mother could distribute the sweets. The cat was surprisingly calm around her, considering the fright she had given him a few minutes ago.

“Can I please keep him, Mommy?” the girl asked after the other children had left with their candy.

“He might belong to someone,” said her mom, taking a broom by the door to sweep up the mess of confectionery left on the porch. “We’ll wait until Daddy gets home, then he can hand out the candy while you and I go door to door looking for the cat’s owner.”

“And if no one claims him?” said Autumn, her eyes bright with hope.

“Then Daddy and I will talk about it.” And that was the end of the discussion.

For the next hour, Autumn played with the kitten on the porch while her mother sat beside her with the bowl of candy, handing out sweets to every trick-or-treater who stopped by. When her father came home, the girl set off with her mom in search of the cat’s owner, but after knocking on every door on their street and on the neighboring streets, they hadn’t found one person who had ever seen the kitten before, and mother and daughter returned home with the stray animal still purring softly in the child’s arms.

Autumn sat on the living room floor stroking the sleeping kitten in her lap while her parents talked in the kitchen. By the time they returned, her heart was pounding. She was ready to cry and beg to keep the little cat to which she had grown so attached in the last few hours, but to her immense relief, she noticed when they asked her to join them at the table that they were both smiling.

At ten o’clock that night, Fred returned from his friends’ party to find his family seated around the living room waiting for him. He was about to ask what was going on when he caught sight of a small mass of black fur on the carpet, staring up at him with round yellow eyes. When he took a step toward it, the animal hissed and scurried off to jump into his sister’s lap. Stunned, the boy looked up to see his parents laughing from the couch.

“Welcome back, Fred,” said his mother. “I see you’ve met the newest addition to the family.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll warm up to you soon,” said his father, though his smile suggested he looked forward to seeing their new pet put his rambunctious son in his place.

“Yeah,” Fred muttered, realizing that a lot had happened since he deserted his sister on the street. “So, um… what’s his name?”

Autumn, still in her costume, smiled from the armchair across the room, stroking the black cat affectionately as they both eyed her brother like a real witch and her loyal companion would a frightened child.

“Monster.”

The End

Hope you enjoyed the story! Thanks for reading!

The Monster Under The Porch (Part 1)

“Mommy, I don’t wanna go!”

“But it’s Halloween, Autumn! You love trick-or-treating!”

“I know, but I wanna stay home this year.” The ten-year-old girl turned nervously to the front window as her mother placed the finishing touch of her costume, a witch’s hat, on her head.

“Let her stay,” said an older boy standing by the front door in a werewolf costume. “Then I can hang out with my friends without having to drag her around.”

“Fred, you promised to take your sister trick-or-treating this year.” His mother gave him a stern look as she handed a pumpkin-shaped candy bucket to her daughter. “You can meet up with your friends after you and Autumn visit all the houses on this street and the next one over.”

“Mom, I’m 13 now! I’m too old to go around begging for candy like a baby! Can’t you take her?”

“Dad’s working late tonight, so I have to stay home to hand out the candy, remember? Just go, it’ll be a good chance for you to bond with your sister.”

“Fine,” the boy sighed, rolling his eyes as he idly swung the skull-shaped candy bucket in his hand. “Autumn, let’s go!”

Fred walked over to his little sister, who had been staring out the window through the whole argument, and took her by the hand. Their mother called after them as they stepped out the door onto the front porch.

“Fred, bring Autumn back before it gets dark, and don’t come home too late! Have fun, kids!”

And with that, the door closed and the children were left to enjoy Halloween on their own.

“Freddy”, the girl whispered as they walked down the front steps, “does the… kid-munching monster really come out every Halloween night?”

A week ago, Autumn had started hearing strange noises coming from beneath her bedroom window. Ever since asking her brother about it on the first night, she had been terrified of going outside for fear of seeing the monster he told her was hiding under the porch. According to Fred, every October the creature would choose a random house to stalk, then appear on Halloween night to gobble up the children who came back with buckets full of candy. Autumn had always been afraid of monsters, and it never occurred to her that the noises might be the work of the wind or a harmless animal, nor that her brother had made up the story to avoid having to take her trick-or-treating.

The siblings paused on the sidewalk and the boy looked down at his sister with a smirk.

“Only after it gets dark”, he assured her, “so we’d better get this over with fast. Let’s start over there.”

Over the next hour, Fred escorted Autumn to each house on their street and on the neighboring street. When the sun disappeared completely, they started heading home with buckets full of candy, and by the time they came within sight of their home, the moon could be seen peeking through the clouds. Before the siblings reached their house, however, they heard voices calling out from behind them.

“Hey, Fred! Ready for the party?”

The boy turned around to see a group of teenagers standing at the other end of the street and beckoning him over. Suddenly awkward, he glanced back at his house before turning to his little sister.

“Listen, I gotta go.” He handed her his bucket. “Take these back for me, ok? Don’t tell Mom I left early and you can have a piece.”

“But…” Autumn glanced nervously up at the darkening sky. “What about the monster?”

“You’ll be fine! The house is right there and it’s not that dark yet. You can make it if you run. Happy Halloween!”

And he ran off to join his friends, leaving his little sister trembling and teary-eyed alone on the sidewalk.

Autumn continued on her way home, trying not to think how much more enticing she would be to the child-eating monster now with twice as much candy on her. By the time she reached the front steps, the sky had grown dark and the street was lit by the full moon and the flickering glow of jack-o-lanterns on every doorstep. To a frightened ten-year-old, it was an eerie and unnerving sight.

The girl placed a foot on the bottommost step, ready to bolt up to the door and into the house, but at that moment, she heard the strange creaking sound from beneath the porch again. Autumn dared to peek into the dark space under the wooden boards… and jumped back at the sight that met her eyes: a pair of bright yellow eyes staring back at her!

Quick as a flash, the child leaped up the steps two at a time, screaming as she hurried for the safety of her house. She was so startled that she tripped on the top step and fell flat on the doorstep, dropping both buckets and spilling candy all over the porch. Two sounds followed: a loud screeching from under the floorboards and the creaking of the front door being thrown open.

“Sweetie! Are you okay?” Autumn looked up to see her mother in the doorway, bending down to help her to her feet. “What happened? Where’s your brother?”

“I’m okay,” said the girl, brushing some fallen candy off her witch costume as she stood up. “Freddy… dropped me off before he left with his friends.”

“Why were you screaming?”

“I…” Autumn looked down at the wooden flooring under her feet. “I thought I saw something. Down there.”

The girl pointed at the floor, still shaking from the scare of seeing those eyes. Her mother looked down in surprise.

“Well, let’s check it out.” And against her daughter’s protests, she stepped down from the porch to investigate, leaving Autumn shaking in anticipation of whatever horror was about to unfold.

To be concluded next Friday

What If? Writing Prompts: Horror IV

With Halloween less than a week away, why not celebrate with some more “What If?” Writing Prompts? To help get you into the Halloween spirit, this week’s batch features new prompts in the horror genre. See what spooky tales you can spin from these ideas! Enjoy, and Happy Halloween!

What If - Parchment and QuillWhat if… your nightmares were actually prophecies?

What if… you suspected your pet of being possessed by an evil spirit?

What if… when you looked in the mirror, you saw how you were going to die?

What if… you heard screams coming from the old abandoned house in your neighborhood?

What if… you had a feeling you were being stalked by a monster everywhere you went?

Have fun writing some more tales of horror!

If you have any “What If?” writing prompt suggestions (for any theme), please feel free to share them in the comments below. Ideas I like may be featured in future “What If?” posts, with full credit and a link to your blog (if you have one)! Also, if you’ve written a piece based on an idea you’ve found here, be sure to link back to the respective “What If?” post. I would love to see what you’ve done with the prompt! Thank you!

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