Creating villains


Fantasy villains. Either you love them or you hate them, but good villains are memorable either way. However, writing good villains is hard! I know. I’ve written two fantasy books out through Desert Palm Press and the whole time I was writing, I kept going back to the villains. Why was the big bad, the big bad? What were their motivations, and did they make sense? I struggled with it, honestly, and I feel like every fantasy writer has similar questions. Hence, this post!

…A villain can be anyone—the leader of a rival magical cult, a super smart dragon trying to stop your main character from getting to their destination, or an opposing character trying to destroy that specific magical artifact. It’s your job as the writer to make them interesting and unique. Make them believable. Your readers don’t necessarily need to like the villain, but you want the readers to understand them. 

This is interesting to me because:

a) I don’t usually find villains interesting.

b) I don’t generally focus on understanding the villain or getting my readers to understand the villain.

c) Yep, sometimes a review dings one of my books because the reviewer didn’t find the villain interesting either.

However, despite (c), I think it’s perfectly fine to go for a villain who is mysterious and creepy, like Lilianne in The City in the Lake. Anybody can see she’s after power, but mostly she’s just creepy. I think that works fine for her.

Also, sometimes I don’t really see the antagonists as villains. That can actually work a lot better for me, as when I set up the griffins as antagonists to humans in the second Griffin Mage book. Well, kind of in the whole trilogy. Not that the reader necessarily understands the griffins. They’re not human, after all. But when the king of Casmantium tries to annex a chunk of another country, everyone can understand that. I don’t exactly think of him as a villain. An antagonist, yes.

Anyway, as a reader, I … still mostly don’t care about the villains. That’s why I tend to skim through villain pov scenes and chapters. I don’t particularly want to know all about the villain’s backstory and motivations. Especially if those motivations are petty, selfish, and just generally unpleasant to read about. I don’t want to know all about the villain’s machinations either. I’m fine with being surprised, along with the protagonist, when a trap closes.

When I was reading some of the early Game of Thrones novels, I skimmed over Cercei’s pov chapters. Later, I began skipping Jamie’s pov chapters. After that I quit reading the books. I don’t know whether that’s because everyone started looking like a villain, but you know what, that could be why.

Let me see. All right, I’m going to use Kate Elliot’s (excellent) Spiritwalker trilogy to sum up how I feel about villains versus antagonists:

We have four antagonists in this trilogy. I mean, four main antagonists.

  1. Camjiata, who thinks he would make an excellent emperor.
  2. The master of the wild hunt, who is a scary, scary entity. Inhuman and casually cruel.
  3. The mansa of Four Moons House, who is certain that nobility, such as himself, are important, while the trivial needs of peasants need not be considered.
  4. James Drake, who is self-centered — actually just plain selfish to the nth degree. Cruel in petty ways. Outrageously unpleasant in a normal way.

Although Camjiata is important to the plot, we seldom see him and he leaves relatively little impression. I guess we might have found out something about his backstory, but I don’t remember it.

The Master of the wild hunt is like a force of nature more than a villain. There’s just no point talking about his motivations and backstory and all of that. That would be like talking about the motivations and backstory of a storm or supervolcano.

The mansa of Four Moons House is actually almost sorta kinda sympathetic. I mean, by the end. I liked him a lot. We don’t know a lot about his backstory; nor do we need to. He’s a great character who’s sketched into the story in economical strokes that let us understand him as a person without necessarily applauding his attitudes. I’d have been fine with more of him in the story. I didn’t mind spending time with him.

James Drake repelled me more strongly every time he stepped on stage. HE is the kind of villain I least want to spend time with. He didn’t get pov scenes — the whole thing is from Cat’s point of view. I would have skipped any scenes from Drake’s pov, that’s for sure. Ugh. Maybe Kate Elliot knows a lot about his backstory, but either she didn’t share that with the reader or she did but I skipped over it because I didn’t care. Regardless, you don’t need to know much about Drake other than what he’s doing and saying during the story. That’s plenty to know what kind of person he is. UGH.

For someone interested in creating villains, this would be a good trilogy to read because of how very different each of the four main antagonists is from all the others.

Also, the troodons. Those are really cool.

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6 thoughts on “Creating villains”

  1. Steles of the Sky has the best fantasy villain I can recall from moderately recent books. And i certainly didnt skip his (rare) POV!
    Death of the Necromancer has good villains.

  2. I’m particularly baffled by prequel books about a villain’s origins. They keep happening, so there must be a market, but I don’t get the appeal at all.

  3. Add me to the chorus, I don’t necessarily want to know what drives the villain. Usually because when the author has spelled it out it often undercuts everything in the story. Nor do I want prequel stories about their origins. (I hear there’s a Gaston prequel to Disney’s Beauty & the Beast in the works.)

    I do like getting an idea of why people support the villain, if they have support and aren’t Lillianne who isn’t really supported as such but it doesn’t matter since she’s so creepy and good at making people fear her. But that can range from inertia: we’ve supported Sauron for thousands of years, to: I like what he’s selling, or I am using my support of Villain for my own goals.

  4. Possibly the prequels appeal to the sort of readers who were enthralled by Draco in Harry Potter.

  5. Yeah, agree completely on the characters. Drake was unpleasant to even have in a scene, and, unfortunately, in very believable ways.

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