Villains: Cardboard Cut-outs Need Not Apply

Today we have another fabulous guest blogger, Gennifer Albin! She's got a great book, CREWEL, coming out next year, and she's here today to help you take your villains to the next level. Take it away!


Ever watched a movie and found yourself secretly rooting for the villain? Sometimes those heroes can be so damn good, but a villain says the outrageous things or is brooding or has a pretty good argument. The thing is a good villain can steal the show right out of goody-two-shoe-hero-boy's hands. So while I don't advise making your main characters so Mary Sue that everyone loves the villain more, I do think your readers should feel torn.

Consider this:
Does your villain secretly make you feel a little naughty? Can you imagine someone delicious like Colin Firth or Robert Downey, Jr. or Angelina Jolie playing the part?


Does your villain make a good point? Is his/her argument not only persuasive but as well-reasoned as the protagonist's? Don't get me wrong the villain can still be wrong, but he should at least be somewhat right


Is your villain hilariously funny with a dry wit and the perfect comeback for every situation?

The sad truth is that we spend a lot of time as writers developing our protagonists. We give them backstories, emotional arcs, love interests, and our villains? They're only around to foil our lovely well-developed hero.

Recently, I enjoyed the kids films MegaMind and Despicable Me (don't judge, I have a 4 year-old!). Both movies are all about the villain and how flawed and funny and misunderstood they are. I'm not saying you have to rewrite your book from the villain's perspective or even spend so much time making them sympathetic, but could you do those things if you had to? Do you know your villain well enough to write the book through their voice?

Here's one of my favorite exercises for rounding out a villain:
Give them layers of logic. Ever villain has a reason for what they do. But how can you make the stakes of their actions even higher? Think of something and right it down. Got it? Good.

Make it even more important that their plans work. Fate of the world important. Think about it. Take your time and write it down. Got it? Good.

Take it up another notch.

Do this until your mind is bleeding with the amount of effort you have put into this.

Now figure out ways to organically include this in your text. Don't just write out a monologue and plop it in. Hint at it. Make your protagonist recognize the truth of the villains words. Get your villain to the point where even you believe him. Make your readers love him or love to hate him, but give him that third dimension. It makes all the difference.

Gennifer Albin has a penchant for villainy, but don't tell anyone. Her debut novel, CREWEL, the first in a trilogy set in a world where Spinsters weave the fabric of life, will be released in Fall 2012 by FSG/Macmillan. She blogs about the publishing and writing tips for moms at Authorize ( You can also tweet with her at!/GenniferAlbin.


Leigh Ann said...

Wow! Awesome post, Gennifer. I actually kind of see where my villian(s) are coming from. Actually, really see it. By the end of the story, my MC does too. At least, for one of them.
I feel really lucky that this is one cardinal sin I managed *not* to commit.

(BTW, thank you so much for your extensive participation in WriteOnCon. I feel a brush with celebrity since you commented on my stuff! Eeek. <3)

Anna Banks said...

This is a great post. Lately, I'm finding villains who seem to be added as an afterthought. They're under-developed, and don't give the hero/heroine much of a run for their money. Plots really do feel much stronger when the villain is a true counterpart of the hero; capable of accomplishing his goal if the hero isn't careful. This allows the hero the opportunity to be great. You know, what you said. :)

Thanks for this insightful post, Gennifer. And congrats on your already-hooked-me debut! :)

Laura S. said...

Awesome writing exercise for adding an extra layer to our villains. I'll definitely be trying that.

I do not have children and I loved Megamind and Despicable Me, heehee! Both were so good and so funny!

Tricia Clasen said...

Yes! I so love a complicated villain, and these are excellent points. I always think of good and evil as opposite sides of the same coin, and it's fun to flip that coin once in a while.

Hermana Tiffany Garner said...

I love, love, love my villains, and I think I've actually spent more time on them than I have on some of my MCs :) They have backstories, fears, families, people they care about, pets--and my reader doesn't see much of that. Like you said, it's better to hint at it than have a monologue explaining things.

You have some great points here! Thanks for sharing! (And I loved Despicable Me :D)

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

What a fantastic post! I'll definitely be referring back to this one for sure. :)

Also, Despicable Me was a great movie. Haven't seen Mega Mind yet...but I will!

Josin L. McQuein said...

IMO, the best villains are the hero reflected in a funhouse mirror. They're very similar in skill and attitude, but the villain either made a different choice somewhere in his/her journey or crossed that imaginary line the hero refuses to step over. (Think Joker and Batman from The Dark Knight).

Maybe the villain was brought up differently (imagine Superman raised by Lionel Luthor rather than Jonathan and Martha Kent)<-- can you tell I'm a nerd, or what?
Or maybe he/she was born with something broken in his/her brain. They're a parallax view of the protagonist.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that too many people force their antagonists to be "villains" rather than letting them be characters. I love my antagonist (though she'd be Sigourney Weaver, not Angelina Jolie). She has a backstory all her own, and in her story, she's the "good guy". I think that's a key element - most villains don't think they're "bad" or at most they qualify doing "bad" things for a good reason.

Of course, there's nothing like a good, old-fashioned monologue-of-doom, either ;)

Unknown said...

Oh, Leigh Ann, you're making me blush. WOC was so much fun.

Anna, I agree. Too many fall into evil overlord mode, I think.

Laura, I bought Megamind for, uh, my son. Yeah :/

Tiffany, I love my villains too. Some more than others, but they're so fun to write.

Ava, you should definitely check out MegaMind.

Josin, I like your point and I think its crucial that most villains or antagonists are the hero in their own story. I might be a bigger nerd because said monologue of doom and Shakespeare started auto-playing in my head!

Guilie Castillo said...

Great suggestions... Thank you!

Carol Riggs said...

Excellent reminder!! Ha, yes, RD Jr can play my villain any day! ;o)

DJ.J. Jones said...

I have been so focused in making my heroine plausible, I totally forgot about how intricate the villain's dance needed to be. Thanks for the reminder!

Melinda said...

I was just getting ready to flesh out my villain(s). Thanks for the great post!