Friday, September 20, 2013

Profiling Your Villain

When you’re writing the first draft of your Fantasy novel, it’s perfectly acceptable to characterize your primary villain simply as a Nasty Piece of Work. In the next draft, however, when you’re trying to iron out all the wrinkles in the story, you may find it useful to delve into your villain’s personal background. If (as is often the case) the villain is the primum mobile of the plot, you owe it to yourself to explore what makes him1 tick.

He Has Arrived by DoodleDeMoon, Flickr

It may be helpful to bear in mind there was a time when your villain was potentially an Everyman. To discover what he was like at this stage of his existence, start with what your villain is like NOW and work backward until you arrive at the moment where, confronted by a crucial moral choice, this otherwise “ordinary” individual crossed a line and embarked on a path of no return. This reconstruction impels you to look your villain as a fully rounded character, and this knowledge can help you fortify the causal underpinnings of the plot.

Here I’d like to pick up on a comment Linda Lane made in response to my earlier article on Monsters. She offered the valuable insight that a memorable villain needs some trace element of vulnerability to humanize him. For instance, he might be haunted by the memory of some personal catastrophe which has poisoned his existence. Alternatively, he might still harbor somewhere in his benighted soul a single redeeming flicker of integrity which restrains him from committing certain acts of atrocity.

This premise works well in Fantasy fiction, not only because it renders the villain more believable, because also injects an element of mystery into the story: when Villain X has personally slaughtered everybody in a peasant village, why does he spare one infant girl? Learning the secret behind the anomaly may give the hero a weapon he can use to bring the villain to his knees in their next encounter.

My own favorite kind of Fantasy villain, however, is the one who (to quote a comment by Terry Odell) believes he’s the hero of his own story. This warped hero’s sense of purpose is often shaped by his vocation. For instance, maybe he’s a court genealogist who’s uncovered evidence suggesting that the current Empress was fathered by a non-human. Or maybe (as in the case of one my own Fantasy villains) he’s a clerical exorcist who yields to the temptation to use the demons he’s mastered to promote a political agenda.2

This kind of villain starts out with high ideals, but the goal he is seeking to achieve is undermined by the means he adopts to attain it. We see a tragic and terrible irony at work, as we watch him succumb by degrees to the insidious forces of compromise until he becomes the thing he hates.

At the end of the day, all Fantasy fiction is rooted in history. Be conscious of the fact and make it work for you.


1 Once again, to avoid padding out this article by doubling up on the pronouns, I’m going to treat the masculine forms as generic.

2 The book is Caledon of the Mists (Ace Warner, 1994). The character alluded to here is named Jedrith.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. An excellent post, Debby. One-sided characters never work for me, as a reader, or as a writer. There has to be something that turned this individual into the distorted character he has become and the reader deserves to know what this is. Thank you.

  2. We all have our deep, dark Darth Vaders within. But dear old Darth didn't always wear a black hat. As Stuart noted, all characters need dimension to be believable.

  3. I hate one dimensional villains and mindless monsters for that matter. A villain that has a goal that seems reasonable to him makes a much better foe. Even in literary fiction, someone can offer opposition because they truly believe what they advise the main character to do. In a romance someone can be against the romance for a believable reason. Boring opposition makes me put the book down.

  4. Hero of my own story ... hmmmm ... I might just make a good villain.

  5. Even if you're not writing fantasy, if you have a villain, it's good to know his/her background and what turned them into the bad guy. Very interesting post.

  6. Great post! Our villains should not be ALL bad, just as our heroes are not ALL good!

  7. Deborah Turner HarrisSeptember 22, 2013 at 10:18 AM

    I couldn't agree with you more: there's nothing worse than a priggishly all-virtuous hero unless he's played for laughs (like Lance White in the wonderful old TV series The Rockford Files).

  8. Yes, Debby! Nothing more delicious than a relatable antagonist. The white hat/ black hat mentality derails the source of true conflict: people whose differing goals, at some point, put them at odds.

    (Sorry this is so late—read your post while on my iPhone, and it doesn't like to let me comment!)


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