This Business of Writing

On Creating Good Bad Guys

In The Craft of Writing on February 8, 2010 at 9:21 am

Two of the three main character every novel needs are the hero and villain. The hero is the fuel for the novel and most writers feel his exploits need the most of the author’s time and effort. In contrast, the villain is often relegated to the task of an evildoer with little else to his credit.

As we create our heroes, we spend a great number of our allocated word count to create this bigger than life character that will engross our readers. We do the same for his love interest and often go out of our way to offer much detail about this character’s smoldering good looks and their budding respect and love for their emotional foil. The villain, however, is often not up to these standards of writing quality.

Many times a writer exemplifies their bad guys as superficial, narrow minded things whose only goal is to spread obstacles before our heroes and to create malevolence and mayhem wherever they can. This often leads to one-dimensional characters that can leave the reader with a sour taste toward your entire novel. This failure to create a complete antagonist makes it seem as if the threat he brings just isn’t tough enough for your hero. In turn, this can make the reader feel like the hero just isn’t as strong as he might be, and therefore less appealing.

When you invented your hero, did you look at someone you admired in life and imbue some of that person’s finer qualities into your protagonist? Did you take the time to get to know your hero in depth? Did you fill out that classic note card with the most minute of details so you even know how often he oversleeps? You probably did.

Did you go to the same extent of detail with your villain? Probably not. Most novice writers simply figure out what obstacles their hero needs to overcome and then paper-mache a character in place to perform those duties. This rookie mistake leaves the entire novel shallower than it need be. The secret to a good bad guy is to get to know him as well as you do your hero. And the secret to a good hero, is a good bad guy.

Why wouldn’t you choose one of those evil people you’ve met in your life and press them into service for your novel? The world is full of these real life charlatans and you’ve known as many of them as anyone else. There’s no reason you can’t utilize their characteristics, too.

The experienced writer considers as much about their bad guy as they did their protagonist. How often does your villain oversleep? If you don’t know, you’ve probably got some work to do yet. You should take the time to insure your reader understands the bad guy’s motivations as well as they do the hero’s. As we all know the villain won’t see himself as evil and, in fact, will feel perfectly justified in his efforts to thwart your hero. By showing your reader the villain’s logic and justifications, you’ll notch up the suspense within your novel and give your readers more opportunities to get involved with your writing. By creating a villain with intelligence, logic and complexity, you’ll construct the illusion he can beat the hero, thus building yet more excitement in your story.

Creating a good bad guy is as important as creating a good, good guy. Without a three-dimensional antagonist, your story will lack the depth and honesty your reader expects and deserves. So, get out your note cards, open up that database, review your annotations and make your villain as good at being bad as your hero is at being good.

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze


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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kerri Buckley and Glynis Smy : Author, C. Patrick Schulze. C. Patrick Schulze said: On Creating Good Bad Guys: http://wp.me/pEAO5-6f #wip #writers #writing #writetip #novels #fiction […]

  2. It all makes good sense. Maybe that’s what my novel is missing…not enough character in my bad guy. As I sit here and think about it, beefing up this character could give my novel the substance I’ve been looking for. Thanks! Great post.

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