Character is destiny, part 5: Building a villain

This is part of a six-part series on characters that I'm doing. You can find the other parts here:
~Character is destiny, part 1: The Edward/Bella dilemma.
~Character is destiny, part 2: The Character Store
~Character is destiny, part 3: Character Store, cont.
~Character is destiny, part 4: Who gets to be the catalyst? 
~Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman  

The strength of the protagonist is measured by the threat of the antagonist~ Terry Brooks,

Not every story has an actual villain. And though every story needs conflict, not every story needs a person to be the antagonist.

However, a well-written bad guy can add suspense and interest to pretty much anything.  But how do you know what kind of villain your story needs? Fortunately villains, like other characters, fall into some recognizable types. And by mixing and matching them, you can make a villain for all occasions.

(I've listed some of the types here, but I've left out the examples this time because I want to hear from you, and who YOU think are examples of great villains.)

Epic:  An Epic villain, like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, is mainly distinguished by the resources they have at their disposal. Sauron is epic because of his vast armies and his almost unstoppable powers. Darth Vader is the same way.  Any of the villain types below can be epic if you give them enough power, be it manpower, political power, technology or magic.

Intelligent/Organized:  A lot of serial killers and government-conspiracy bad guys fall into this category. They're formidable because they are so hard to out-think. They lay elaborate plans, and they have a plan for every contingency. These villains often like to play games with their opponents just for the fun of it. They are very hard to defeat, but generally a chink can be found in their overconfidence.

A sub-set of the Intelligent/Organized villain is the Ruthless villain. Ruthless villains don't have to be particularly smart or organized, they just have to be callous enough to take down people who oppose them, and possess enough power to do so. (Many high-school antagonists fall into this category.)

Creepy/Calm: This one was a favorite in the reader poll I did. There's just something about a calm villain that's deliciously freaky. And in some instances, like evil children, a calm killer can be downright disturbing.  These villains are marked by their lack of emotion, they don't even really show anger or excitement. You feel like they could do any atrocity as casually as a normal person would squish a bug.

Stubborn/Selfish:  This is a popular villain for disaster movies, the short-sighted bureaucracy that refuses to admit the danger lest it hurt tourism. They aren't necessarily trying to hurt anyone, and they may have the best of intentions, but they are still endangering people and obstructing the protagonist's goal. In many of these stories, the stubborn villain ends up dying, a victim of the very thing they were in denial about.

Bumbling/Wormy: This is a type usually reserved for the villain's sidekick, although you can use it for a primary bad guy if you're brave. The Wormy Guy is usually less powerful and less charismatic than his master. He may follow out of fear, worship, or hope of personal gain. This bad guy is useful for the better class villains because they do a lot of the grunt work, like stealing things, or spying, that the villain doesn't care to stoop to.

Gradually Unhinged: This might be the hardest one to write, the perfectly normal person who's only a little "off", but gradually starts to crack as the story progresses. Such people are generally used to intensify the plot, adding complication to the protagonist's life right when they can least afford it. Sometimes this person is even a member of the protagonist's inner circle, though not always.

Now it's your turn.  Do you have any examples of good villains?

(Coming next: Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman)


  1. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. Ooooh, she's as bad as Voldemort and the Death Eaters!!! I'd put her in the Creepy/Calm Villain category.

    And from the same series, Rita Skeeter is a Ruthless Villain for sure.

  2. stubborn/selfish- that guy in Ghostbusters who shuts their facility down hence releasing the powers of darkness upon the city...i forget his name.

  3. Laura- Dolores is a good one! She's so casually cruel, it gives me the shivers. And I agree with you about Rita too. :)

    Rachel- Heck, YEAH! I loved that guy! (but I can't remember his name either...) Also the mayor's assistant in the second Ghostbusters, who locks the guys up, and then gets fired. Very satisfying.

  4. Oooh, that stubborn/selfish type is also a typical villain in war movies, i.e. Colonel Tavington in The Patriot, or Lieutenant Colonel Bagley in The Last Samurai.

  5. Nic- Hey, I didn't think of that! You're right, and they usually die... That's what you get for being stubborn in a movie!

  6. For a fun "gradually unhinged" villain - and main character, check out Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280. Creeeepy.

  7. Kate- Ooo, thanks for the recommend!

  8. "Not every story has an actual villain." And I thank you so very much for putting that right at the top. So many writers (and readers!) seem not to grasp this for some reason!

  9. It's so true though! And those stories can be just as fascinating. :)

  10. If not more so. They're the ones I prefer the most, honestly.


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