“A villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”
— Chris Colfer
21 Ways To Write a Complex Villain| The villain is the most important character in your story.
I know, I know. That’s a bold statement. What about the hero? Love interest? Sidekick? Mentor? All of those characters serve the story — especially the hero. But none match the caliber of the villain.
Especially a complex villain.
The reason is simple: the villain drives the action of the story. Without the villain, there would be no story, no plot, no conflict, and no consequences. In a way, the villain IS the story. So that’s why knowing how to create a badass, complex villain is crucial to your book.
A flat, one-note villain simply will not do.
As a published author of three novels and one nonfiction book on writing, I have studied storytelling for over 20 years. I’m also an avid consumer of movies and TV shows (like most of the rest of the world). Over two decades, I’ve collected dozens of best-practice tips for crafting an epic villain.
So, let’s dig into the 21 ways to write a complex villain.
1. Strong Motivations
Your villain drives the plot so it’s vital that you give them a passionate cause. They MUST achieve their goal at all costs, usually based on a deep-seated value system. A weak motivation will make a weak story.
The stronger your villain’s motivation, the stronger your story.
Therefore, the first way to make your villain complex is to give them a powerful WHY. The reason must grip them. It must keep them up at night. More than a motivation, you give them a mission. For this mission, they would gladly give their life.
To give you an idea of strong motivation, I’ll use the villain in my Past Lives novel series as an example. The villain is Charlize London, a reincarnated serial killer. Her mission is to live forever with her soulmate, the protagonist of the story.
She has chased this dream through centuries of different lives. It’s a deeply personal mission for which she has sacrificed everything—including her soul.
It infuses her every action with meaning. Everything she does is to this end.
That’s the kind of mission your villain needs. A mission that makes them more than a cardboard cut-out for evil. A mission that makes them forces them into the fight.
2. Understandable Motivations
To be complex, the motivation must also be understandable. Readers must almost (or completely) agree with the mission.
This brings me to another related point: the mission itself doesn’t need to be evil. A villain may want to save the planet, usher in world peace, or save their family. The more understandable, the better.
A villain we understand automatically is more complex than a villain who simply wants to blow up the Earth, kill off a country, or wipe out the good guys. A specific, understandable villain makes us second guess ourselves as readers. We think, “Wait, I agree with them!”
What separates villains is how they plan to achieve their end goal. Or, what they are willing to do to accomplish their ultimate plan.
3. Make Them Relatable
Another way to make a complex villain is to make him or her relatable to the reader. You’ve already done this by giving them an understandable motivation. But you can go further.
Maybe your villain is a father, wife, best friend.
Maybe they lost their job, got bullied, reached out for love but got burned. The more readers relate to the experience of the villain, the better. A 100% evil character is boring. It distances readers. You want to bring them close.
You want readers to say, “I see myself in them.”
4. Demonstrate Duality
A one-sided villain is flat and uninteresting. He or she doesn’t feel real. Their singular personality wears thin after only a few pages. We see them and we know them.
Their sameness misses an opportunity to captivate readers.
A complex villain, in contrast, has duality. They consist of more than one side, and those sides mirror each other, reflecting different angles, tones, and textures. The different sides can be compassion and violence, fatherly and cold, sensitive and ruthless.
Think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This is the ultimate duality.
In my Past Lives series, Charlize shows compassion and love for her soulmate, but also disturbingly murders innocent men, women, and children. She swoons over the idea of family with the protagonist, Eric Shooter, but doesn’t flinch to dispose of a dog.
5. Show Humanity
An extension of duality is humanity. A humane villain is a complex villain.
When writers create purely evil villains, they lack the heart and life needed to rise above all the other fictional villains in all the other books. Villains with humanity come across as more real, rounded, and relatable. Readers feel the pull to their side of the story.
You show humanity when the villain acts with kindness, compassion, and love. The most common trope is to give them a sick parent or a pet. Think of the dog in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and also the dog in John Wick. Yeah, the second movie is a protagonist, but the example still stands.
Complex villains show humanity.
6. Follow a Character Arc
Your villain can change over the course of the story, just like your hero. The best stories follow character change in both antagonist and protagonist. The change can be subtle or sweeping, but some form of growth can help further deeper your story.
Complex characters, whether good or evil, shapeshift against the complications of the plot.
Your protagonist shouldn’t be the only character moved by the story events. After all, the villain drives the story, so the story should also drive change in the villain.
This doesn’t mean that you villain needs a change of heart or to switch sides to the hero’s team. Such stories exist, but only rarely. Most of the changes end up smaller, less dramatic.
Does your villain need to change? Not at all. A character arc, however, is one more way to develop a more complex villain.
7. Connected to Theme
The best stories grow out of theme. Everything in the story flows out of a central concept like “love never dies,” “nice guys finish last,” or “hard work pays off.”
When you connect a villain to theme, you elevate both the villain and the story. Now the story is more connected, whole. In a way, the villain represents one version of the theme. The protagonist might represent the opposite (at at the very least, a different) version of the same theme.
Take “hard work pays off” for instance.
The protagonist might illustrate that hard work pays off by showing how years of policing the streets earned him a detective’s badge. Now he gets to lead the latest high-profile murder investigation. The antagonist can represent the same theme by showing him or her working their way up a drug dealer’s criminal organization.
Now the villain earns the right to lead the expansion of the organization into new territory.
The same theme, but different sides.
8. More Than Evil
Many villains seem to exist only to thwart the hero. Their entire character is summed up as simply “evil.”
A complex villain, on the other hand, is more than evil. They serve motivations and missions much bigger than a blanket statement of evil. Being complex, they have a detailed backstory filled with life experiences. Their motives come mixed, their lives messy, their existence mingled with threat and opportunity.
By complex, we mean a multifaceted villain that is more than evil.
Complex villains hold value systems, moral codes, or “rules”. They embody “more than”. They seethe with regret, bitterness, and revenge.
A great example of “more than evil” is the Joker in Batman. Here’s a video that explores why Joker may be the best villain ever:
9. Multiple Status Levels
One of the easiest ways to make your villain complex is to establish multiple status levels. In their organization, they might be king or queen, the paramount leader at the top of the mountain.
However, at home, perhaps they submit to their partner or children. At work, they might exist at the bottom of the totem pole—or at least not at the apex. On the other hand, they might be the star of a local poetry reading, a bestselling author adored by raving fans.
Their life mixes status levels. Sometimes the status levels (who is in charge or has the power) shifts in a single scene. A character stands up to a bully, quits their job, or leaves their spouse.
Give your bad guy or girl multiple status levels in different environments to create a complex villain.
10. Display Vulnerability
The essence of a complex villain is a character with a mosaic of sides. Giving your villain a vulnerability or showing them as vulnerable will make them more human and relatable to your readers.
Many readers instinctively view villains as emotionless badasses who bleed pure evil.
Showing a moment of vulnerability can catapult your villain above the fray. Maybe your villain gets lost, weeps at a gravesite of a loved one, or expresses raw feelings for a love interest. When your all-powerful villain huddles in a storefront window to gaze longingly at the happy family buying Christmas gifts for orphans, your readers take notice.
The vulnerability can be temporary or a full scene.
One method of showing vulnerability is through dialogue. For example, you can show a natural pause in conversation.
Black and white villains (or characters) are not complex. Gray villains, however, waver in the fog between right and wrong. Readers are never quite sure which place they will land or if they agree or disagree with the villain’s choices.
Gray adds layers to otherwise standard characters.
George R. R. Martin has said:
As Faulkner says, all of us have the capacity in us for great good and for great evil, for love but also for hate. I wanted to write those kinds of complex characters in a fantasy, and not just have all the good people get together to fight the bad guy.
Examples of gray characters:
- Dexter in the TV show Dexter.
- Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby.
- Lucifer in the TV show Lucifer.
- Severus Snape from Harry Potter.
- Eric Shooter in the Past Lives series.
There is a sliding scale of gray-ness. Some characters stand closer to the “evil side” and others stand closer to the “good side.” All characters probably exist somewhere on the continuum of moral goodness. Your villain should probably lean toward the evil side of things, but occasionally pop up with good intentions, good end goals, and good actions.
Both the antagonist and protagonist in my Past Lives series demonstrate grayness.
Charlize London, the antagonist, shows compassion and love toward Eric, the protagonist. She also brutally murders many people. Eric, on the other hand, is mostly good but battles his reincarnated nature to kill. The entire story follows his journey through his grayness.
Your villain should not be perfect. Life isn’t perfect, and neither is fiction that rings true.
Show your villain failing, stumbling, making mistakes that hurt their mission. These mistakes perform triple duty by showing humanity, vulnerability, and helping readers relate to them.
Small and big mistakes add realism to your work. Through theses mistakes, you get the opportunity to develop your villain by how he or she responds to setbacks, addictions, temptations, and other vices. Distractions slow them down or deter them from their goals.
Maybe they kill a key subordinate in a moment of blind rage.
Whatever the mistake, show both the blunder and the villain’s emotional reaction. Make sure that at least some of the mistakes affect the plot. Never forget that the villain doesn’t just sit around waiting for the hero to stop them. A complex villain actively thwarts the hero in pursuit of their ultimate goal.
13. Likeable Evil
Give your villain likeable qualities. Think Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs. Heck, even Darth Vader has cool mind control powers.
Your villain might be rich, powerful, kind, or an excellent public speaker. Your villain might people indiscriminately, but love animals. Maybe they run an international drug kingdom but also treat their husband and kids like gold. The disparity between their evil actions and likable qualities instantly makes them more complex.
When we like a villain, we feel uneasy. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. This is one of the uncomfortable realities of crafting unforgettable complex villains.
Good villains have goals. Great villains have obsessions.
This harkens back to strong motivations. Your villain should obsessively pursue their end goals. But they might also have other obsessions, like chess or clocks or nice cigars.
Obsessions make characters unique. I don’t remember the exact novel, but Dean Koontz wrote a wonderful story that includes twin brothers. One brother obsessively quoted facts about natural disasters throughout the story. Dan Brown’s villains usually obsess over some end goal.
In The Da Vinci Code, the antagonist is Silas, an albino follower of Opus Dei. Silas obsesses over saving the Catholic Church.
Give your villain an obsession. Something that colors them as more than a face of the evil in the story. The obsession may or may not directly relate to the plot and theme. I think it’s better when everything connects.
15. No Evil for No Reason
Sometimes the reason for the villain’s action in a story is “Because they are evil.” If you want to create a complex villain, that answer can’t be good enough for you.
Your villain must always have good, logical reasons for what they do or don’t do. If there is an easier way, the villain takes it. Your villain is complex, not stupid. Don’t allow your villains to do things in your story “just because” or simply to show their villainy.
There should be “no evil for no reason.”
Many times, their actions spawn from their mission or obsessions. They must actively pursue their goals, which throws them up against the protagonist.
Sometimes learning about how NOT to write villains is just as helpful as how to write them. Especially with a little humor thrown in to make it fun.
16. Flip Stereotypes
Another relatively simple way to add complexity to your villain is to flip stereotypes. You take an expected villain trope and turn it on its head. You mostly steer clear of anticipated features of villains like dressing in black, an ugly appearance, or mustache twirling.
You don’t let your villain give long speeches when quickly murdering someone makes more sense.
In my Past Lives series, I flip stereotypes by making my villain a gorgeous female serial killer. Most serial killers in real life and in fiction are males. Swapping gender is a nice way to make a villain more complex.
When considering stereotypes, think about these common tropey areas of a character:
- Job or career
- Dress or wardrobe
- Expected behaviors
17. No Vacuums
Your villain does not exist in a vacuum. They have friends, family, co-workers, subordinates, and bosses. They have lives outside of their evil plans to rule the world.
To add complexity to your villain, avoid vacuums.
Vacuums occur when a villain never interacts with anyone else in the story, or anyone not related to the evil plot. A real person needs to check in with their spouse, take their kids to the dentist, or file taxes. Even showing them grabbing a quick cup of coffee at the local Starbucks helps fill out their character.
These displays of their “other lives” also further express their humanity and grayness. Readers see vacuum-less villains as more real and complex.
In my opinion, the best complex villains hold value systems that bound them to certain rules. Their personal code of honor, if you will.
Boundaries make your villain more complex. They show clear lines that they won’t—or don’t want to—cross. Boundaries round out your villain by showing that they will only go so far to reach their goals. Often, stories force villains (and other characters) to face these boundaries.
The boundaries can include who or what they will do, how they will do it, or with whom they will or will not do it.
For example, your villain might not kill kids. Or, they might sleep with everyone except someone they actually love. Then again, maybe they only murder other serial killers.
To come up with boundaries for your complex villains, ask yourself:
- What WON’T my villain do?
- What line won’t they cross?
- What are they not willing to do?
- What are they willing to do?
- Where are they not willing to do it?
- When are they not willing to do it?
- How are they not willing to do it?
- With whom are they not willing to do it?
19. Violation of Norms
One of the key factors in a complex villain is their willingness to violate social norms to reach their end goals. Your villain may have boundaries, but not in all areas on everything. That would probably make them an anti-hero or even the protagonist.
A complex villain may want to save the planet, but they will wipe out humanity to do it.
What social norms is your villain willing to violate? Domestic abuse? Murder? Grand larceny? Feeding their child medication to keep them sick? Cheating to “save” their marriage?
20. Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is a hallmark of a complex villain. Interval conflict is when your character both wants and doesn’t want something. They want to save their marriage but they just met a sexy crush. They want to solve the crime but will get fired or arrested if they do.
You can apply this same technique to your villain.
Your villain wants to keep their child sick so that they don’t marry some terrible person, but they also hate seeing their child suffer. Your villain doesn’t want to cook meth but does want the money to help their family survive after they die of cancer (Breaking Bad).
21. Reluctant Evil
This brings us to our last trait of complex villains. Their internal conflict makes them a somewhat reluctant evil person in the world. They don’t want to do all these horrible things, but their end goal demands it.
Of course, some villains relish in evil. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it.
Dean Koontz has said in many interviews how he never wants to glamorize evil. Most of his villains show up as purely evil, but they are still complex.
How To Create a Complex Villain Step-by-Step
Since this is a “ultimate guide” I wanted to add a short section on how to build out your complex villain.
You could also grab up books like Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write The Bad Guys of Fiction or check out my other recommended writing resources.
In the meantime, here is a simple, step-by-step process to create a complex villain:
- Start with the theme. Answer, “What part of the theme does your villain represent?”
- Give your villain a mission and passionate obsession.
- Take away some (but not all) boundaries.
- Establish what social norms they are willing to violate.
- Give them a weakness.
- Give them family, friends, and co-workers.
- Give them an internal conflict.
- Give them a likable, human quality.
There you have it: a quick and easy guide to creating your complex villain. There really isn’t that much to it, at least when you know the elements to toss into characterization.
A complex villain lives on long after the story comes to an end.
Readers love to remember a complex villain because they usually exist as larger-than-life personas in the infinite realms of our imagination.
After you create your epic complex villain, you’re bound to have left-over deleted scenes. Don’t just toss them into the nether. Use your deleted scenes like a pro.
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