Creative Writing Tip: How to Humanize a Villain

Your villain--more than likely--is the same inside as anybody else.

Your villain–more than likely–is the same inside as anybody else.

Yesterday, I began a series of posts about villains/antagonists by examining the strengths and weaknesses of the stereotypical “bogeyman” villain that appears so often in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Today I want to discuss a humanized villain.

The best way to humanize a villain is simply to get away from thinking of him as “the villain.” Try not to categorize him. Try not to limit who he is because he is standing against your protagonist.

Your villain is just a character. Just a person. And when you approach him as you would any other person, you will realize that:

  • HIS MOTIVES DON’T HAVE TO BE PURE EVIL. This is perhaps the most important point in today’s post. A villain’s motivation doesn’t have be malevolent. He can be trying to right an injustice, or draw attention a societal ill, or help his family or race survive: just going about it in a way that’s not the best.
  • HE CAN BE MORE CONFUSED OR MISINFORMED/ MISGUIDED THAN EVIL. This is always an option, if you want to take it, even to just a point (rather than fully).
    Don’t we all have something we wish we’d done differently? Something we wish we had or hadn’t done at all? Why should your villain break this mold? Unless your villain is a narcissist by nature, why should he think he’s perfect?
  • HE WILL HAVE TO FACE A FEAR. And I don’t mean “he’s afraid of dying but you know he’s gonna be a goner by the end.” We all grow and develop as people by leaving our comfort zones and facing situations that unnerve us.
  • HE CAN SHOW SOME KIND OF MERCY. That mercy doesn’t have to be directed at his enemies. He can be patient with the people in his life he cares about. He can overlook the little flaws of those important to him or give someone a second chance. Your villain should be a human being who is developed as a character: that means some positive attributes as well as negative ones.
  • HE CAN QUESTION HIMSELF AT SOME POINT. Most stereotypical villains never do this, but a truly human villain just might. This doesn’t mean he’ll abandon his aims and his plan. It doesn’t mean he’ll change anything about his strategy (though he could). It just means that, like we all do, he’ll take a moment to reassess himself and what he’s doing. He’ll doubt himself.

Villains can be complex and tricky to write, but they are also TONS of fun. One thing I do, I’ve found, to humanize my villains is to insert a piece of me in each one of them. Some neutral or positive aspect of my own personality becomes part of my villains. I don’t generally do that on purpose; it just happens.

So, who are your favorite humanized villains? Do you have tips you use to craft an engaging antagonist?

If you enjoyed this post and you’re having trouble with a villain, this post on character flaws versus faults might also prove helpful to you. And don’t forget you can follow my blog by email: just sign up at the top right of the page. That way you won’t miss out on the rest of the villain series.


40 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: How to Humanize a Villain

  1. I do have a few tricks I use. I like to give the bad guy a terrible back story – one so bad that the reader feels sympathy for the villain and then I have the villain come into contact with some of those people from his terrible past and this serves to cause a great affect on the villain.sometimes bad things but sometimes good changes.

    • that’s really cool!!!!! It goes to show villains definitely are human. I sometimes consider Batman, and how Bruce Wayne could just have easily become a Joker as a superhero.

    • I get so frustrated when authors make you sympathize or even empathize with the villain. ESPECIALLY if they are excessively evil. I don’t mind sympathizing an antagonist shadow character, but a villain shadow character is more difficult to give sympathy to. I don’t feel he deserves my sympathy, and yet, when he pulls it out of me it makes me uncomfortable. Like I am sy/empathizing him against my will. And THAT is what makes amazing literature, and something I love about writing- controlling the reader’s emotions, even against his/her own will. Just as the hero needs to go outside of his/her comfort zone, the reader needs to go outside his/her emotional comfort zone.

      • oh my gosh, I LOVE how you say this. It’s so true!!! It’s kind of forcing us to recognize the humanity of people we otherwise would write off as somehow less than human. And that’s a good thing. Because at the core we really are all human.

  2. I think it’s really important for the bad guys to have a reason and motivation for what they are doing. Nobody really wants world domination! But what I find far more interesting is blurring the edges a little – making the bad guys have good qualities and the good guys not always so perfect. There are many shades of grey between black and white.

    • I could not agree more!!! It’s so important that good guys have some flaws and that bad guys have some virtues. SOOO important. I struggled with the latter in a handful of my novels, but made a point of keeping villains human. That almost always works better.

      Like you said, motivation is key. World domination as a motive can work but it’s got be tricky and make sense for the character as well as for the world and how the world is set up.

  3. Great way to break down a villain, reminds me of M. Bison in Street Fighter story line… Its not just about being bad, its about believing in your cause to the point of giving your all….

  4. Great post, as always! 🙂 When I read to the part about the villain doubting himself, I flashed back to Psycho where Anthony Perkins hesitates and questions “mother”. Of course, he is questioning himself, but since his mind is split, he isn’t aware of it. Mother tells him what to do. It is a way for him to not admit to himself that he is the one at fault. He can blame mother for all of his murderous actions. That movie was actually a masterpiece by Alfred Hitchcock. It was very aptly titled. Not only was Anthony Perkins’ character a psychopath, but the movie was a psychological horror drama.

    • I have heard Psycho called the scariest movie ever made, and I believe it!!! 🙂 Fantastic example. Thanks for sharing. I’ve never seen Psycho so I didn’t know that scene existed. That’s fascinating!

  5. I like Gollum as a villain. He’s so complex and kind of sympathy earning due to his patheticness. I think a great way to make a villain is to look into flaws and positives that can also go for heroes. A courageous villain would be unique.

    • I totally agree! Gollum patheticness becomes an asset, strangely enough. I think it helps, as well, to look at the hero from the villain’s perspective to uncover the hero’s flaws and vices. Just like a villian can be courageous and have virtues, the hero isn’t going to be perfect.

    • The thing with Gollum is that he’s an illustration of the corruptive power of greed. He was human once. He’s scary because we can all see a little bit of ourselves and what we could become in him.

      • True. The interesting thing to me is how Frodo comes so close to becoming another Gollum. It does drive home what you say and turns Frodo into a different type of hero in the end.

        • Which is the point Tolkien was making – evil is just another facet of ourselves. We all have that capability inside of us. That’s what makes the bad guy both scary and realistic.

        • Frodo is a very, very complex character psychologically. In some ways he’s hard to relate to because the ring makes him a bit less human than the other characters, but really, that’s the point. That’s the entire point. It’s terrifying if you really stop to think about it and his projection.

        • He’s not an incorruptible character, which I think made him unique for the genre and time the books were written. In mythology, there are heroes that fall from pride and arrogance. Frodo didn’t have these traits, so his fall was entirely from an outside force. Part of his charm was how long he held out too.

      • That’s so true! I love the books. And the flashback scene in the movie when he looks like any hobbit and kills his friend over the ring…. terrifying. Very, very scary.

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  9. Excellent advice!!! I’m bookmarking this post to remind myself as I write. What helps me humanize my antagonist is to first love him. I remember talking to someone who said she hated her antagonist. I wondered why she chose to include a character she hated in her book. I love my character, because I can see his potential and feel frustrated that he like Sydney Carton in A TALE OF TWO CITIES will never realize it. (Um, I’m not saying that Sydney is a villain. Just a tragic figure.) Again, I think of Alia in the Dune series. What was done to her twisted her inside. She couldn’t see that.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post!!! I don’t hate any of my characters…. I like some more than others, but I relate to each of them to some degree. Even and especially the bad guys. I could never write about a character I hated.

  10. I think I’m guilty of making my villains almost undefeatable because I don’t look at them as humans, or having weaknesses. I almost ruined a story doing that, until I realized I’d have to have SOME way for the protagonist to win. Another great article. Thanks Victoria!

  11. Great post! Villains are so hard to get write, but when you do get them right, readers remember them.

    In my current WIP I decided to do some scenes from my villain’s POV just for convenience. I got sucked into his brain and he developed a voice and a personality of his own. Getting into his skin was one of the scariest, hardest things I’ve ever done because he represents everything that I hate, but I think that it really helped me to develop him as a character with a journey of his own. I’ve never hated any of my characters as much as I hated him, and I think that in part that was because I put some of myself into him–maybe the part of myself I don’t want to admit to myself that I have–and because even though he repulsed me, I could understand him. Seeing the world through his eyes helped a lot with that.

  12. Very informative posts thanks! I shall be visiting your site often 🙂 Busy with my first ever novel so there’s much to learn x

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  15. I’m not really sure what I want my antagonist to be like yet. I know they have to be somewhat understandable and human, but I don’t know how for to take that. I’m worried that readers will like the villain too much. I still want them to dislike or hate him, without him being stereotypical or purely evil. Any advice?

    • I think it’s good to have readers like a villain, as long as they don’t actively root for him 🙂 That’s not too bad a thing. The way to avoid stereotypical evilness is to give a bad guy some positive traits or real talents that readers can respect even if he misuses them. That’s what I try to do. Hope that’s helpful…. Point of view goes a long way to controlling the way a reader views a character. Through whose eyes is the villain seen? Is he able to present his own case? That could make him more likable, maybe too likable if you’re worried about that.

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