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Whether it’s for book, a role-playing game, or a movie, creating a believable villain can be difficult. I’ve been creating characters for role-playing games and short stories for two decades and I came up with a few guidelines to help.
An effective villain almost always thinks they are doing the right thing. Whether for themselves or the world as a whole, they believe that what they are doing is right and that the ends often justify the means.
A well written villain isn’t a violent killing machine, they think before they act and plan things out. If killing is something they will do, it should be done with precision and passion.
Successful antagonists are not stupid or random. A criminal mastermind isn’t likely to go on a killing spree or prove a point with a large spectacle. They didn’t get to be the head of a criminal organization by drawing attention to themselves.
Villains are people too. They have likes and dislikes just like the hero. Some of the best villains wind up being almost a mirror image of the hero. They will have opinions on music, food, and art just like all people. Giving your villain a love for seafood makes them easier to empathize with.
Many villains fight for a cause that even the hero thinks is just. These make some of the greatest villains of all because even the hero doesn’t know whether to fight them or join them. Someone who is fighting for civil rights is awfully hard to hate, even it they do think it’s best done by assassinating anyone who disagrees with them.
A polite villain makes a wonderful contrast to a rude hero. You’ll find yourself liking the villain who congenially invites you to dinner and even says “please” and “thank you”. You’ll respect them right up until they serve a loved one as the main course.
The boss will often delegate tasks to an underling. The hero or heroes probably won’t be aware of who the mastermind is right away.
Antagonists don’t always have to look dark and evil. A sadistic villain who thinks he or she is an angel will likely dress in white, for example. The classic dark mansion with a goateed man in an expensive suit might sound good, but it’s also terribly cliché.
The antagonist isn’t always concerned or worried about the hero. They don’t always have to go after the hero with guns blazing if they think that the hero has no chance of stopping them. Confidence is key to success and they probably have plenty of confidence in their dastardly plan.
Well-written believable villains aren’t hard to come up with if you understand these guidelines. In the end, all you need to do is think of some sort of problem or injustice they might want to resolve. Then you just imagine a way to accomplish that goal that will anger, disgust, or inspire hatred in others. Take care of your villains, they drive your hero and your story. Create a good villain and your readers or players will thank you.