How to Teach a Villain New Tricks

I enjoy learning about crafting fiction almost as much as I love writing stories. When I take on a writing craft book, I don’t enter in with a plan to follow its advice to the letter or view it as the end all be all on fiction writing.

I glean what works for me, then take what I’ve learned, and interpret it in a way that I can understand.

Sometimes I only take away one small gem from a writing craft book. Sometimes I hit the mother lode. Either way, it’s most often worth the read*.


In this post, I’m referring to villains or antagonists who are alive but not necessarily human. Antagonists can also be things like a force, out of control virus, or a storm, but I’ll save that for another post.

kidlit young adult middle grade writing
MC (Main Character, protagonist); Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion, Writerfied

I’ve always invented memory tools or devices when learning. When reading numerous villain descriptions, I thought of Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion, then writerfied it:

“For every protagonist’s action, there’s an equal and opposite antagonist’s reaction until the resolution.”

This reminds me that there must be conflict to move the story forward – Motion. When writing, I ask myself, is the villain or other obstacle pushing back?

Using Newton’s 3rd Law is not my way of trying to sound all intellectual like. It’s what popped in my mind when studying protagonists and antagonists.

The Purpose of a Villain (Muhahahaha)

  • Opposes our protagonist (MC, Main Character).
  • Creates conflict by standing in the way of your MC’s goal.
  • Keeps the story moving.
  • Creates suspense, fear, dread, excitement, and danger.
  • Puts MC in a position where he or she has no other choice but to take action, make choices, etc.
  • Pushes MC almost to the point of death in some way – physical, mental, or both, etc.
  • Challenges the MC on many levels – value system, MC’s view on what is clearly right or wrong. E.g. Forced to kill.
  • Equally as developed and complex as the MC.
  • Memorable.

Bad to the Bone

Some villains are purely evil for evil’s sake. I don’t prefer this approach in my writing, but it might work perfectly, even ingeniously, in the story you’re writing. For example, if your story includes a straight up psychopath whose sole purpose is to terrify your characters and especially your readers, then go for it.

I’m not a never say never type of writer. Write the story you need to write, but having said that, my favorite villains (antagonists) have at least a little something that I like about them, maybe even love. Unforgettable personalities, not just “doing bad stuff” throughout.

character development villains

Teaching a Villain New Tricks

  • Give him or her a sense of humor. Whilst doing evil have him say something clever. Maybe even a funny phrase he says that is typically kind. In The Last American Vampire (not Kidlit but a good example), one vampire villain says, “God bless her” or “God bless them and keep them,” at the most inappropriate times, while he’s killing or about to kill his victims. It’s chilling but memorable.
  • They’re just as human as your protagonist (MC). Give them the same attention to detail when creating and writing them.
  • Include a “why” behind their evil choices and madness all throughout the story. Some reason why the villain believes with all his heart that his actions are justified. Hey, a villain needs goals too. The villain might murder but only target criminals or maybe, he kidnaps the children of people who feed their children processed food because he only eats organic. He believes he’s doing good. Murder and kidnapping still bad, but a part of us might identify with the villain’s actions. That’s good writing.
  • Make him sympathetic. Use history of a flashback to show when and how he became a monster. E.g. He never felt loved, he was abused terribly as a child, his father forced him to beat his own mother, or he flinches easily because he was severely abused as a child in foster care maybe or an orphanage. Gosh. Now I feel sorry for the villain. Aw. Poor villain. He’s trying to fill a void and chasm-sized hole in his heart.  Now, we still love the MC more, but we feel for the villain too.
  • Remember the image above. The villain must oppose or push back as hard as the MC. The villain’s goal must be as important as the MC’s. This forces the MC to act, make choices, feel threatened, have a goal, rise above complacency or inactivity, change, overcome, etc. The villain won’t completely overcome the MC during the story but will successfully keep him/her from reaching his/her goal until the resolution.
  • If writing in third person omniscient, you can show the villain’s thoughts.
  • The villain should have a weakness. Maybe he wants to get credit in some way for his brilliant crimes. Whatever the weakness, most writing craft books say this technique is to make the villain appear unstable, unpredictable, and willing to do whatever evil it takes against your precious MC to get what he wants.
  • Finally, while reading, study those villains. See if you notice any of the above qualities. Take notes for inspiration, then do it your way in your story using some of these tricks.

*I check ratings and comments before I buy a writing craft book, and if available, I check it out at the library first before spending.


5 Replies to “How to Teach a Villain New Tricks”

    1. This post focuses on a living antagonist as the vessel for conflict. The conflict can be versus a character (human, paranormal, etc.), versus self (meaning inner conflict like an important decision), or versus an external situation (massive storm, the government).

      I’m learning while writing. I think we all do. You might already have one of these antagonists. I hope this helps.


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