Villains Can’t Be All Bad!!!!

By: Stacey Purcell



Villians. We love to hate them.

How do you make a villain truly memorable?

One of my favorite television shows is Criminal Minds. If you haven’t seen it, the show is about a profiling group within the FBI who get sent around the country to help on gruesome cases. There are so many villains running through that series that they all begin to blend together. However, there is one episode that stands out in my mind. It’s because the villain was so well thought out.

The essence of every novel is found within the conflict, two opposing forces set in the same time and space. That conflict is usually found between the protagonist and the villain. How much more fun would it be to create a really villainous villain! Let you imagination soar as to the dastardly things they can do on your pages, but be careful. If you let it run away with you, you’re in danger of creating a cartoon character instead of someone who keeps readers turning the page. They will put the book down in frustration because it has lost the reality edge.

The villain in this particular episode of Criminal Minds was doing some pretty intense stuff. He even captured one of the team and in doing so, we came to understand him a little bit better. His father was so twisted that he turned a sweet young boy into the monster on the show. The writers created sympathy and understanding within the viewers. We never condoned what he was doing, but it made you want to rescue the little boy trapped inside who had been branded by his deranged father. The show put us through an emotional wringer that haunts me still today.

That’s what we want for our novels. How do you do that? James Scott Bell in Conflict and Suspense has some great tips on creating unique and memorable villains:

  1. Create a whole backstory for your villain. Let the reader know that he wasn’t always the psychopath killing machine, the back stabbing office worker, or the corrupt priest. Very few people are born bad to the bone- why did your villain turn out this way?
  2. Just as it happened in Criminal Minds, give them a sympathy factor. When you do this, your audience bonds on some level with the villain. This is some powerful mojo! Create conflict within the reader. Their brain says he’s the bad guy, but their heart says that it’s not all his fault.
  3. This next one can be difficult. Justify your bad guy’s actions. No matter how bad it seems to you, he thinks he’s in the right. Find some way to make it plausible for him to believe that. After all, he does what he does because he thinks he is entitled to his actions or what they will bring.


In my first book, I made my bad guy the result of a heinous grandfather’s torture. He was also terrified of the dark and was a gifted artist. Nine times out of ten, I received great feedback for my villain in contests because I made him seem all too human and my readers could relate to him. In my second book, the villain grows up in abject poverty and then loses his whole family in a massacre where he believes my protagonist has betrayed him. It broke my heart to write the scene where he ends up having to shoot his wife because she is in mortal agony. Hopefully, it will break my reader’s heart as well.

Create them bad, devious, sly, murderous, but create them human and you will have a powerful character that won’t be forgotten.

13 Responses to Villains Can’t Be All Bad!!!!

  1. William says:

    It’s true: we make our own monsters. Having said that, being privileged enough to read Stacy’s work, I can promise you, she can make you laugh on one page and break your heart two pages later.

    This is going to be amazing…:)


  2. Blush blush…you look at me and my writing through rose colored glasses, but thank you all the same. It’s nice to know there are others that appreciate my work.

    We do create our own monsters- very rarely are they just born that way! The world can be a cruel, punishing place- I want writers to dig deep into that well to make layered interesting and surprising characters. James Scott Bell’s tips are a great place to start!!


  3. Sarah Andre says:

    Thanks for the reality check…got another suggestion from my agent recently that the second version of my story still does not have a good enough killer. Maybe it’s because I haven’t developed the character beyond the information I need for the story…sigh. Back to the drawing board!


  4. Don’t get discouraged!
    Take this as an opportunity to develop layers that your agent and everyone else won’t be able to discount. Ask your self why is your killer the way he is? What drives him? If he is one way, what is the thing that he would never do? Make him do it. (This should sound familiar if you went to Donald Maass workshops.) What is interesting about your killer? What else does he do besides kill? What is his justification for doing what he does? If you answer any of these questions, I’m sure it will start you down a path to a richer character. I know you are a wonderful writer, keep at it!!!


  5. Tess says:

    I love the villain you never expect…the person everyone loves, and who has lovable qualities, then you’re blown away when he/she is revealed! Great post, Stacey!


  6. Glad you stopped by, Tess. I think a lot of people overlook the richness that can be found by delving a little deeper into the villain’s head. It’s not enough to just create a bad guy, they need to be three dimensional and complex.


  7. jeff salter says:

    These are some great writing tips. I’ll need to go back and flesh-out some of my villians in prev. ms. Thanks.


  8. Always here to help! I’m glad you like the ideas- It seems I write such good bad guys they turn out better and stronger than my protagonists.So, my problem is just the opposite from most folks…..come to think of it, I’m usually on an off track throughout life!HA!!


  9. jbrayweber says:

    Great post, Stacey! All too often we forget that our villains are, in fact, people, too. People that were once children, that have people they love or have loved, and feel real emotions (most do anyway) of fear, happiness, courage, sadness, jealously, rejection, passion, and the list goes on.

    BTW – the entire time I was reading this passage, I was thinking of Stacey’s villain who had to shoot his wife. Wow! One day, readers in droves will be reading that scene saying the same thing. 🙂 Just sayin’….


  10. OK- this is the “Let’s Love Stacey” channel and I’m as red as a beet right now. (I know you love to get me blushing!) Thanks for the compliment, it means a lot to me.
    I loved your comment about how they were once children etc. If writers would bring that to the table, their stories would be that much stronger.


  11. jdfaver says:

    Great post, Stacey!
    I’m going to revisit the villains in my yet to be published novels and make sure they have some redeeming qualities…
    Can’t wait to read the book Jenn mentioned above.


  12. Such great points here! “Create them bad, devious, sly, murderous, but create them human and you will have a powerful character that won’t be forgotten.” I think this says it all!! 🙂


  13. Thanks for stopping in June and Melissa! Hope you got some good pointers.


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