Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 5, 2012

5 Quick Fixes to Make Readers Love Your Villains

Writers In The Storm welcomes back award-winning author and RWA RITA-nominee, Shannon Donnelly.

Today she’s talking to us about villains we love to hate and how to keep them from becoming a cardboard stereotype whose every action is predictable and boring.

By Shannon Donnelly

Nothing marks a writer as a beginner as clearly as the cliché bad guy.

This is the bad guy who is ugly inside and out with no redeeming qualities—this is the “boo-hiss” melodrama mustache twirling villain. And this is an easy fix in any story.

What’s that easy fix? Lots of things can help, but here are five quick fixes:

1. What does this character’s mother love about him or her?

Give every character a mother. In the animated movie Despicable Me, it was funny that the main character (a villain) was largely motivated to please his mother. His opponent—another bad guy—was motivated to please his father. This gave both characters additional dimension and something we all can relate to since we all have parents.

Now the character’s mother may not be someone who bakes apple pie—maybe she’s a bank robber, or she murdered her husband, or she’s otherwise no dang good. But figure out what does she love—and how does she hope her son or daughter turns out better? Maybe she’s proud her daughter is a hit-man? Maybe she thinks her son is just misunderstood? Maybe she thinks tough love will give him a better backbone? Maybe she thinks if she just harps enough at her daughter the girl will marry well?

Parents matter—even to a villain.

2. What does this character love?

We all have our favorites—even if it’s just a kind of ice cream. Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire earned his way into fame portraying a cold blooded killer—but the killer had a soft spot. He loved cats. He’d look after stray kittens, was kind to them—and he was a sociopath. Because of that one soft spot—that love—he was more than just another guy with a gun.

That’s what you want for your bad guys—find out what they love and show it in the story. Make it important.

3. Why does this character do bad things?

Motivations matter—they really matter for your villains.

It’s not enough that the bad guy wants the heroine for his wife (no matter that she hates him). Why does he want this? Does he really want her money? Is he obsessed with earning her love for another reason? What are the deep, deep roots for what the villain wants?

A villain who just wants to take over the world is dull—it’s been overdone. So give him better reasons. Look at real people—Alexander the Great wanted to take over the world. And his basic reason was to show up his father who’d been good at conquering, too. (See how you get back to parents so easily.)

No one is born bad, so what twisted your villain into someone who does bad things?

4. What would make this character a hero?

Turn the story around and look at it from the villain’s point of view. What actions would make this character a hero?

We’re all heroes in our own story—we do things that may be wrong but at the time we think we have good reasons and they are right actions. Even Hitler thought he was saving Germany and building an empire that would last a thousand years—in his mind, he was restoring his people to greatness (the problem being it was his ideas of “his” people).

Maybe your villain has great reasons for doing what he or she must do—maybe she or he even regrets the need for bad actions. Or maybe your villain has no regrets—what must be done for the good of all must be done. Righteous villains can be really scary people.

5. Give your villain a trait you’d love to have.

Make your villains easy for you to love (makes ‘em easier to write, too). Give them, a trait or traits, you’d love to have.

Maybe your villain is a decisive person, able to make up her mind at once. Maybe your villain is like Cruella de Ville and is a style-monster. Maybe your villain sings opera and keeps songbirds.

Make this trait also matter to the story—Cruella’s obsession with black and white fashion drives the story in 101 Dalmatians.

It’s that kind of love/hate that keeps readers intrigued with any bad guy—and you’ll have a lot more fun writing a villain you’d also love to be.

What kind of villains do YOU love to hate? Who are your favorite villains of all time?


About Shannon:

Shannon's writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times Magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written." Her book, Under The Kissing Bough was nominated for a Rita.

Her latest Regency Historical Romance, Paths of Desire, can be found as an ebook, along with her Regency romances, out from Cool Gus Publishing.


She wants a rich lord for a husband—she won’t end like her mother, abandoned and broken.

He wants to prove to his friend she’s the wrong woman—he knows too well the pain of a bad marriage.

The last thing either wants is to fall in love, but when desire leads to a passion that won’t be denied, how can the heart do anything but follow?

Find at Amazon.com
Find at BN.com

DON'T FORGET: Shannon also gives online workshops and is the author of Story Telling; Story Showing, an ebook that compliments her popular online class Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop.

Find Shannon online at:
Website: www.sd-writer.com

0 comments on “5 Quick Fixes to Make Readers Love Your Villains”

  1. Shannon, this post brings to mind a chapter from Thomas Harris' book about a serial killer ... no ... not Hannibal ... The FBI profiler who is called in to solve this case says to one of his colleagues ... "No, I don't feel sorry for the man he is now. But my heart breaks for the boy he was."

    Giving even the most vile of villans a bit of humanity is more realistic. Thanks for a great post 🙂

  2. Shannon, I completely needed this post because I tend to be either too soft or too hard on my villains. I can see how important it would be to make your villain someone you really enjoy writing. THANK YOU for taking time to share these tips with us!

  3. Love this Shannon. The villain in my last book just sounded like a greedy man trying to take over the hero's life and business until I gave him a very sympathetic & personal reason for doing it -- even though he'd twisted the actual facts .

    1. A twisted view of the world (or a twisted logic) is a great thing to give a villain -- sometimes the best villains are the ones who justify themselves.

  4. Great post, Shannon. At first I panicked thinking I didn't have that. But I do or did. The reasons for my bad guys actions got sliced during one of many pairings of the 4th book. I'll have to figure a way to get it back in there. I showed it in an introspection section that I thought was too long, even though it was deep POV. Decisions, decisions. Jeez, this writing business is tough. Florence, thanks for sharing that great bit of dialogue. Really showed the man's character.

    1. Yeah, you have to make sure the good bits (and the necessary bits) don't get edited out (or just plain old forgotten because they're in your head but not on the page).

  5. Shannon -

    What a great post. I'm working with my editor on my next book and I can see what I need to do with my villain. He needs a bit of humanity.

    I'll too will be reblogging this. Thanks so much.

  6. Great post, Shannon. Writing the villain in our manuscripts is always our favorite part, but we struggle, as many do, to make sure their not one dimensional. We have an affinity for comedic villains, and will be using your tips for our next bad guy... or not so bad guy. Thanks!

  7. This was such a helpful post! I will go back to the novel I've just completed a first draft of and re-look at my villains. I think most things are covered to an extent but this advice helps tidy it all up! Thanks a lot Shannon!

  8. Awesome list! Thanks for writing it. I'm going to keep these points in mind. I do get tired of reading books with cliche villains. I hope other authors are reading this too!

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