On Writing Villains: Should you fear the “bogeyman” baddie?

1134086_very_dark_male_portraitAfter talking about heroes all week long, I thought it might be fun to tackle the type of the villain or antagonist. What makes a good villain? A realistic villain? How do you WRITE a villain?

Thinking about this, one major fact jumps out in my mind:


A stereotypical villain can evolve in a physical manner, especially in fantasy/ sci-fi. (Ganondorf becoming Ganon before the final showdown with Link in every installment of the Legend of Zelda videogame series is a great example.)

Whether or not some physical evolution or change occurs, though, the stereotypical villain–the “bogeyman” villain–never finds his worldview threatened from the interior.

Some classic examples of the bogeyman villain, as I call him:

  • Sauron, The Lord of the Rings
  • Voldemort, Harry Potter
  • Ganon, The Legend of Zelda
  • The Daleks, Dr. Who
  • Prince Regal, The Farseer Trilogy

There can be a place for a bogeyman villain in a certain kind of story, but the bogeyman, as a character, always has the weakness (from an author’s point of view) of being emotionally nothing close to human.

  • He never questions himself or his course. Never doubts the wisdom or considers the immortality of his goals.
  • He considers himself a “god” of sorts: infallible and justified in rolling over other people
  • He has very little–if any–ability to empathize with anyone else. Basically, he is a psychopath.

If you employ this kind of villain, use him with care. Much, much care. Here are some ways to make this kind of villain work:

  • HE NEEDS A KILLER BACKSTORY. The backstory will make or break this kind of character. It’s the difference between your readers being intrigued by him or dismissing him as boring and cliche.
  • HE NEEDS SERIOUS ADVANTAGES OVER YOUR HERO. (Hence Ganondorf evolving into Ganon). Because this villain is impossible to feel for or relate to, successful writers often go all the way in separating him from humanity, giving him inhuman characteristics that up the stakes and constitute major trouble for the good guys. This turns your story into an “underdog” tale. You generally don’t have many options with this villain beyond an underdog tale. So if you don’t want to write one, you might reconsider your villain.
  • GIVE HIM SUPPORTERS WHO ARE MORE HUMAN. Just because your major baddie doesn’t question what he’s doing, that doesn’t mean some of his supporters can’t. This adds variety and humanity to the “bad” side and even offers a way for your heroes to offset their disadvantages: they can take advantage of minor villains’ doubts. JK Rowling takes great advantage of this strategy through the Malfoy family.

Could there be a way to blend the bogeyman villain with one that’s more human? A seriously, superhumanly powerful bad guy who learns some kind of pity or doubts his plan?

I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head beyond Darth Vader, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It would be difficult to pull off, I think, without feeling gimmicky. From the start you probably want  to show in some way that he isn’t a total psychopath…. Otherwise that emotional development would feel impossible to the reader.

Anyway… what are your thoughts on the bogeyman villain? Do you like him? Feel he’s too overdone and overused?

Tomorrow I think I’ll write about ways I and others have humanized villains, because generally, a humanized villain is a better choice, and even stories with a bogeyman villain also contain a humanized bad guy or two. So make sure to drop by to continue the discussion!

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41 responses to “On Writing Villains: Should you fear the “bogeyman” baddie?

  1. I might be guilty of using the boogeyman villain on occasion… though in my defense, the character in question literally is the boogeyman. XD But this post did make me rethink a few things about the villain in my ongoing series, and also justified what I did with another one of my villains (my test readers were a trifle upset that they found themselves almost rooting for him in some respects)… so thank you. Going to continue this with other villain types, too? I’d like to see more.

    • hahaha! I was going to say there’s nothing wrong with using a bogey villain, because it can totally work if you do it right. ESPECIALLY when he actually IS the bogeyman! 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and it got me thinking. I do plan to discuss more villains over the next few days. I have one post about a villain I wrote who failed me completely, and why. And maybe a post on revenge villains could be fun!

  2. I think most of my villains have more human qualities rather than being psychopaths. I just feel they are more relatable for readers when the villain is doing what he/she is doing out of hatred or revenge or some other human emotion. I do see why the boogeyman is a good villain though because it is much easier to root for the good guys and much easier to hate the bad guy when he/she is a psychopath.

    • That’s very true. You can’t be truly human without emotions, not at all, so most villains–those that ring truest–act from emotions we can relate to. Anton Chirgurh (I’m sure I spelled that wrong) from “No Country for Old Men” is a great, clear-cut example of making the psychopath work, though, so it can be done in non-fantastic genres. Creepy but fantastic movie!!!

  3. Such an insightful post.

    The villain in my fantasy WIP is not human. This inhuman villain despises all humans, including the anti-hero protagonist, but cares deeply about those of the same species as the villain.

    I’m doing all three things that you mention in your post. I spent a lot of time coming up with backstories for not only the protagonist and the villain, but several other characters, including some human supporters of the villain. The villain is so incredibly more powerful than the protagonist, there is no contest. The villain has a goal and cannot be dissuaded from it. The protagonist must appeal to the humanity of the villain’s supporters to save the day.

    • Thanks for describing your villain: that’s a classic fantasy-genre villain I didn’t really touch on specifically. He appears ALL the time in Dr. Who, which I recently became totally obsessed with 🙂

  4. Just a quick nitpick: Ganondorf has only actually done that once. Usually, it’s his “Ganon” persona who comes out first, and then Ganondorf himself is the final boss.

    Completely relevant, I know 😛

    In any case, I’m not generally a fan of such villains in anything besides videogames. Humanised villains tend to be far more interesting in my opinion, though that doesn’t make me love the Harry Potter series any less.

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s post 🙂

    • Ah, thanks! I got which name is assigned to which character wrong…. that’s definitely good to know 🙂

      I agree humanized villains are much more intriguing and much more relatable. They can also be more frightening because generally we can see ourselves in them to some extent.

  5. Very good post 🙂
    I have to say that I’m not a big fan of the bogeyman villain. I mean… Sauron is a big eyeball who never really does anything. He has his henchmen to do the work. And as intrigued as I was by Voldemort in the Goblet of Fire… I didn’t find him believable anymore in the Deathly Hallows. He simply seemed like a silly brat who, unfortunately, has the tendency to kill those who don’t wanna play his game anymore and made me wonder why he has any followers left. I actually thought that Bellatrix made a scarier villain than Voldemort in the end (and I hate to admit this, but I think they found a better solution in the movies, where he simply goes a bit more crazy with each destroyed Horcrux). I was scared by GoF Voldemort – he had the potential to be a really, really awesome villain. Because he did NOT seem like a psychopath so much.
    I actually liked Morgoth in the Silmarillion. I guess he’s a bogeyman villain, he’s not humanized, but he’s still intriguing, being a sort of Lucifer figure. And bad stuff happens to him as well. He’s one of the few bogeyman villains I really enjoyed.

    Oh, the Wicked Witch of the West comes to my mind! I only know the movie of the Wizard of Oz, but there she’s pretty much evil incarnate, isn’t she? And I always found it fascinating how many adaptations made an effort to explain her wickedness, to make her more human, to explain how she became what she is. It’s like we cannot accept pure evil, we need to understand where it comes from in a way. I guess that’s why many people prefer humanized villains. “XY is evil because…” is more interesting that “XY is evil.Period.”

    Sorry for the long rant…. looking forward to your views on other types of villains 🙂

    • I appreciate your thoughts here!!! I agree that Voldemort works as a villain in the later books mainly because his supporting cast is so human and so dangerous…. just as dangerous as he is (Bellatrix, for sure.)

      I love what you say, as well, about feeling we have to explain evil. We really do, as human beings, feel a need to explain evil because it feels as though it doesn’t fit in the world and shouldn’t be in the world. It doesn’t FIT.

      GK Chesterton says something about that that always rang true for me from the moment I read it. It’s as though we instinctually recognize that the good belongs in the world but something went wrong and the evil and the suffering are here as a result of that “wrongness.” So we want to explain it, to understand it, to make sense of it.

  6. What about Magneto for a powerful villain who shows pity and some level of compassion? He doesn’t doubt himself very often, but he does come off as human. A lot of comic book villains are designed to hold some level of humanity and not just be a boogeyman.

    • That’s a great point! I hadn’t thought of Magneto…. I don’t read comics and I only saw the movies once or twice years ago, but Magneto does make a lot of sense the way you describe him. I remember his backstory in WWII and the Holocaust…. horrible. He is definitely a human villain, even if he tends to be hard on the exterior. Goes to show villains aren’t an “either/or” proposition. Like with most things, how “human” they are can fall on a spectrum.

      • A lot of your street level comic villains have human backgrounds. Spider-Man has a lot of tragic accident enemies like Doctor Octopus and the Lizard. A superhero tends to have a rogues gallery, so they get a variety of villain types.

        • makes sense! For every Joker you have Two-Face.

        • Yeah. That character was such a toss away in the second movie.

        • They could have done a lot more with him. a LOT more. but that movie is great…. can’t blame Nolan for wanting to milk the Joker for all he was worth. There can never be another Batman movie with the Joker in it. Period. Heath Ledger was just too iconic.

        • I think they can do it, but they have to wait a while. I still love the Jack Nicholson Joker. Different aspect of the character, but highly entertaining. You really can’t have a Batman movie franchise without using the Joker at some point.

        • The Joker is definitely his number 1 villain! And Nicholson is a lot of fun in that role. Ledger just…. I don’t know…. you totally believed he was that character and that nuts.

        • He took it to a very high level, so the trick will be to find another dimension instead of topping him. Joker having various moods and sides helps. Jack Nicholson was the fun, insane Clown Prince of Crime. Heath Ledger was the violent, psychotic mastermind. I say they include Harley Quinn to give him an added dimension. Also, I love Harley Quinn.

        • That’s a great point. Fantastic point, actually. It would definitely need a different angle of approach. But maybe it could be done after all!

        • There’s always the cartoon Mark Hamill Joker that many people think of before Ledger and Nicholson. 🙂

  7. I never would have thought of Prince Regal as this type of villain (yay for a Farseer shout out!) but you’re totally right. The only reason he changes at all is not due to his own choosing. Personally, I think he is terrifying simply because he has no remorse and operates without any limitations–but he is also very “human”—albeit a soulless one.

  8. Great advice! And so timely, since I’m writing a novel from the perspective of the villain and the heroine. I do love a good bogeyman like Sauron and Voldemort. But my villain is more of the fallen hero type. He doesn’t see himself as a villain. He’s paid to do what he does, and wants to help himself to a little revenge along the way. He second-guesses himself. But his path is one of destruction ala Alia Atreides in the Dune series.

  9. What have you got against the daleks?

    • hahaha!

      Dalek is a better name than “trashcan killers” 😛 Nah, I think they’re quite cool. But they’re good examples of a psychopathic/ bogeyman kind of villain at any point where they haven’t been “contamined” with human or timelord DNA

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  11. On blending the boogeyman villain with one that’s more human, I could give you 7 Psychos. Especially, when they’re all telling their own story. An absolutely scary boogeyman would be Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) in No Land for Old Men. He gave me several nightmares and I hope to never come across someone like this character. I’d prefer the more human villains 😉

    • Oh my GOSH, YES. Anton is horrible and a complete psychopath. A perfect example of the bogeyman villain. I agree I prefer more humanized villains too, but Anton carries that particular story well. SOOOOO creepy!!!

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  14. Actually, for Deadly Drinks, I’m playing with the idea of a boogeyman villain. He hits all three of your points–calls himself a God, doesn’t doubt himself, and has the empathy skills of a flea. At least, that’s the first appearance, but then there’s the fact that one protagonist shares a body with him and is privy to his thoughts.Really, it’s a case of the villain TRYING to be the Boogeyman sort, because he feels he has to be, and it becomes super fun to write.
    But yeah, I agree that it takes a lot of work to take stereotypical villains and make them work. Fun to think about, though.

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