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Seven Tips on Creating a Fantastic Fantasy Villain

After reading Amy Rose’s terrific article on Antihero-vs-Villain we can look deeper into what Fantasy authors might like to consider when crafting our bad guys.

Tip I: The archetypical villain, dastardly and devious, comes from the pantomime stage. When writing Fantasy we need to look for an antagonist who will keep our readers hooked. The villain needs therefore, to have some redeeming aspects of their character.

Remember that average bad guys don’t see themselves as evil. They have purpose and although their means and actions might be malevolent, their intentions can be purely selfish. As long as your villains can justify their behavior, seeing their actions as logical and working towards a certain goal, they can still be frightening and threatening, but their character can also sustain some empathy and interest in the reader. A villain like Hannibal Lector can be more disturbing because he sees his behavior as rational. (Although he’s not from Fantasy, he’s a recognizable character with a creepy habit that he thinks is justifiable.)

A strong motive can give the most dastardly villain some credibility.

Tip II: To create a Lovable Villain you need to make them characters with whom readers can relate. There are ways of doing this that will help our readers empathise with the most miserable antagonist.
Villains can own their own set of injustices. If they feel they are ‘hard done by’, by society, life or circumstance, they not only have an understandable reason for maladjusted behaviour, but they will have enough logic for their actions to allow the reader to have some sympathy towards their plight. From a single human frailty, such as fear, jealousy, or loneliness your villain can still generate evil but they will also have at least one character trait for a reader to relate to. Child abuse, neglect, ridicule in their early life could well influence a villain’s lack of self esteem and arouse a sense of sympathy from the reader.

Tip III: When creating a fantastic Villain, the author can give their character all the dreadful determination that in every day life we keep leashed.

For example, when rage raises its ugly presence we can wish evil upon someone. What makes us reasonable people is that we do not carry out our wishes.

We can though, have a villain take their worst intentions to heart and act on them. Where a reasonable soul would rage and then simmer, finally allowing logic to rule their lives, our antagonist can take their rage and act on it. Even to over react and devise and enact those dastardly deeds that will keep the reader hoping justice is finally served. When the villain takes payback and revenge too far, when they fail to keep within limits of behavior that are reasonable, that’s when their behavior becomes villainous and dastardly.

An example of a villain whose actions are malicious and whose diabolical plan keeps the reader hoping for retribution is the arch villain in the Chronicles of Caleath. Throughout the series, readers keep asking if and when will the hero finally defeat/meet his nemesis. I take that as a sign of having created a great ‘bad guy’.
Creating a ‘good’ villain can also involve working with a character that the reader might feel is worthy of redemption. One type might be the villain who is outraged on behalf of a brother, an underdog maybe, a friend who refuses to fight back etc. and metres out his own form of justice on other bad guys or he might put his own life on the line for a friend. A heroic villain. So the evil done on behalf of a lesser being, seems justified and almost laudable behavior because the subject of the horror deserves their fate. So from the villain’s POV they are behaving with good intentions. This takes us to our next tip.

Tip IV: Creating Villains that readers love to hate can come from having them start out with good intentions. If their plans get out of control, or their ideas become too aggressive they can become the ‘bad guy’ even though their original goals were motivated by good intentions.

The Nazgûl in Lord of the Rings were once kings who wanted to use the gift of their rings for good but were overwhelmed by the power and evil force behind the gift. The more power, more pressure the character is under to remain incorruptible. The temptation to change things and become godlike increases as power is obtained and can lead to the villain’s descent in to evil.

The idea that ‘all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is one adage we can use when creating an evil nemesis for a Fantasy novel. Good intentions can be warped when things become too easy, or the power too heady for a character to control. Losing sight of the goal, having a character turn from good to evil, can create a great villain.

Tip V: How many times have you been reading a book or watching a movie and the bad give the hero a break, whether intentionally or by accident or they do something too stupid to be believable?
If the villain relies on being dumb for the hero to succeed there is a major flaw in the character.
A villain who stops to explain their diabolical plans and in doing so gives the hero a means of escape, just doesn’t cut it.
Although it might have worked in the spy thriller’s written by Ian Fleming and the films of that genre, in Fantasy we need to have antagonists who are consistent in their villainy. They need motive and they also need to be worthy opponents to a worthwhile hero. Don’t sell them out for less.

Tip VI: For a simple effective way to scare children try using a female who doesn’t display motherly attributes. These characters can be very scary. It is the archetypical bad ‘Witch’ (and evil step mother) which fits Fantasy well.
And as we are told more and more often, at present the strong female lead characters are popular, so the strong female villain is becoming popular too.

Tip VII: is really a rehash of Point Two. Too many villains are based on characters who just want power for the sake of power. They need to have some motivation or redeeming trait that gives them a reason for their villainy. How many times have you watched or read a story and found at the end a feeling of disbelief? The disbelief comes from knowing that the antagonist didn’t have the three dimensional quality to hold the audience.

Discerning readers will return to a great story and a villain they can feel might have some justification for their actions, will help bring them back, or keep them hooked to the last page.
Strong motivation… that’s the key to creating a Fantastic Fantasy villain.

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Title Image by allentotingski



  1. Avatar Wendy says:

    Another great article, Rosalie, You certainly understand villains and fantasy. Thanks for the tips.

    • Thanks for your comment Wendy,
      Villains certainly are an important and interesting part of creating a Fantasy tale.
      The Fantasy author has more scope than most genres in how we cast our villains. We should be thankful.

  2. Another great article, Rosalie. This one is full of excellent information I’ll be passing along-with credit to you.

  3. Rosalie, very good article! I confess, villains are hard for me to create, but I think I’m giving one of them a few more layers in my current novel than he had in the last one. And one of my villains is a woman, but I have to work on her… It’s a challenge for me to make villains evil but layered…

    Thanks for the tips!

    • Glad to help… Somehow villains seem harder to create, perhaps because they give our hero/heroine a hard time we don’t feel quite as generous toward them. Easy to make them evil, harder to give them depth.
      Female villain.. cool. They are fun. Good luck with her layers! 🙂

  4. Great article. Really insightful read. Thank you!

  5. Avatar ChuToy says:

    This article presses its readers to craft sympathetic villains, those who started from good motivations, those with redeeming aspects.

    This is fine. It’s a certain kind of villain. But it’s far from the only path.

    If you are reading a book or watching a movie, and if you are overcome with loathing and detestation for a villain, if you are nervously waiting for the villain’s downfall, then it’s a good villain, n’est-ce pas?

    One thing that villain isn’t, is sympathetic.

    That villain doesn’t have redeeming aspects.

    That villain isn’t one whose good motivations led down a path toward darkness.

    Because if a villain is sympathetic, we don’t want to see the hero throw them into a pit of boling lava. If a villain is sympathetic, we want to see them redeemed.

    The moral complexity described in this article is a shortcut to make your fiction less rewarding. When your hero triumphs over a sympathetic villain, the reader doesn’t experience triumph; she experiences tragedy.

    Sometime make a list of all your favorite villains, the ones who make the page or the screen light up. How many of them are sympathetic? For me, there were twenty villains, and five of them were sympathetic. That’s 25%. And yet I found plenty of writing advice like this, suggesting that all villains ought to be sympathetic.

  6. Chu Toy,
    Interesting comment. I think sympathy is one aspect of creating a villain, not necessarily the only way.
    I wonder if the advice you are finding comes from comparing sympathic villains to those who just want to rule the world for no very apparent reason. If there is no good reason for doing evil, the credibility of the bad guy diminishes. Their evil might remain, but we risk losing a sense of believing where they come from.
    Jealousy, greed, lust, power, survival, obsession are all traits that we can identify and in that way they are ‘sympathetic’ or identifiable traits. Not necessarily sweet and light… but dark defining characteristics that motivate the villain.
    A very interesting comment. One that takes some thinking about.
    I am now looking at the motivation of my best hated villains.. and thinking… So far, I am finding they have some motivation I can identify with… hunger, power, lust, greed…. but I have barely scratched the surface… will keep looking.

  7. Avatar Wendy says:

    Hi Chu Toy,
    The way I read this ‘7 Tips on Creating a Fantastic Fantasy Villain’ article, I discovered there are many types of villains that Rosalie suggested. Of course there is the pure evil like Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight, they are one layered, very clear and I suggest easir to write.

    On the other hand there is Peter Pan and the mean selfish Tinkerbell that everyone seems to love.
    There are others like the brilliant scientist named Doctor Otto Octavius, in Spiderman 2, who becomes Doctor Octopus, after an accident causes him to bond psychically with mechanical tentacles that do his bidding. Even Spiderman himself is on the verge of villainy at times.

    Like Rosalie said, a sympathetic layer or motivation can add depth depending on the degree. These villains are difficult to write and make credible. I see nothing wrong in a story where a villain you create causes the hero to feel a sense of tragedy at his demise.

    Villains serve to challenge our own values. It’s easy to hate the bad guy and feel self satisfied, but if we are made to wonder if we would do the same thing in his shoes, made to question our own morals and ethics then the villain has placed a mirror in front of humanity and served his purpose well.

    Thank you for raising the issue Chu Toy. You made me think and by answering I have clarified a few thing in my own mind about villains.. There’s nothing like a good discussion about writing. I love it.

    I’m creating a female villain at the moment and she is far more interesting than my heroine. I need someone to write an article on creating a heroine so I can make mine better. hehe

  8. Avatar Warren says:

    I dunno – I think I’d like to see a truly evil villain that wants power just for the sake of power. I haven’t really seen that in many books I’ve read – it would be kind of refreshing to have a good ‘black hat/white hat’ story. Seems so many people are caught up in the whole “Everything Must Have a Reason” Thing that they have forgotten that sometimes in real life, people do things just because they are jerks.

    • LOL.. I like that Warren, ‘people do things just because they are jerks.’ If there aren’t enough ‘black hat / white hat’ stories around, then at least we can change that as we create our fantasy world. If you choose to, there is scope to make it that way. 🙂 As long as the readers are satisfied…
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  9. Avatar Khaldun says:

    I think that all villains should be sympathetic in at least some small way, or at the very least understandable in their villainy. But the fact of the matter is that I don’t like the idea of villains at all. An antagonist is what we need to be looking at. Not someone who is just simply ‘evil’ but someone who wants something different from our protagonist, and for whatever reason, gets in his way or opposes him. Antagonists are almost always more the stereotypical villain. (Pretty sure this is what you are basically saying anyways… That we need to get past ideas of characters that are pure evil and create characters that are a little more gray/realistic)

  10. Avatar Feena says:

    Thanks for the article, it’s really interesting. I’m currently working on a fantasy novel and and it’s given me a lot to think about.

  11. […] they faced, usually as a child, are the catalysts that made them a villain. In fact, Tip #2 of the Seven Tips on Creating a Fantastic Fantasy Villain, found on the Fantasy Faction website, touches on […]

  12. Avatar joseph says:

    does this literary device have a name?

  13. Avatar Morgan says:

    Very, very helpful!
    Just a question, would insanity count as a cliche motive to be evil? Well, not necessarily insanity, but I was thinking of having my villain come from a fairly well-off family of sorcerers. The villain had always displayed slight mental health issues, but it was assumed that this was just because he was young. When he was a teenager, he and a few of his friends killed a man just to see what it would feel like (almost like we today try alcohol or drugs just because we want to). He enjoyed the adrenaline kick and excitement, and was hooked from that moment on. He fell into insanity and spent a lot of time raiding villages for loot and then burned them so he could feel the thrill again. And during the story, he disguises himself as a villager to get close to the heroine and then attacks an innocent bystander purely so the heroine will fight him. Bit of a crazy guy 😀

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