August 24, 2017

Antagonists: How to Avoid Boring Villains — Guest: Kristen Lamb

Selfie of a man in black and while with text: How to Give Villains Depth

Quick health update: My surgeon confirmed this week that all of the past year’s work to fight the bone-disintegrating infection in my jawbone and rebuild my mouth had failed. So we had to remove the infected bone again (for the third time!). *sigh*

While I’m slowly recovering from yet another surgery, with her permission, I’m sharing one last insight from Kristen Lamb on antagonists. This concludes her guest post series here, where we’ve been covering what antagonists are, why they help define our story, how to strengthen them, etc.

So far, we’ve covered:

In other words, we’ve talked a lot about the non-evil, non-villain style of antagonists. Today we’re finally(!) focusing on the villain and how we can avoid mustache-twirling by giving them depth.

Please welcome Kristen Lamb once again! *smile*


The Biggest, Baddest Antagonist:
Villains—Sympathetic or Detestable?

Today I want to introduce the villain. Villains are wonderful and some of the most memorable characters. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Joker, Blackbeard the Pirate, Dracula, Rasputin, and I could go on all day. Villains can be the stuff of nightmares and can elevate a story to legendary heights.

But let’s get this straight. Villains are only a type of antagonist. Yes, a Chihuahua is a dog, but all dogs are not Chihuahuas.

A lot of new writers use antagonist and villain interchangeably. That will limit your writing. The more we understand the antagonist and all his multi-hues, the more color and richness we bring to our storytelling palette.

The Problem of Flat Villains

Villains do not have to be the guy in the black hat twirling his mustache. That is not a villain; that is a one-dimensional flat villain born of a writer who failed to do proper planning before she wrote him.

Any character that only exhibits surface elements—what we see externally—will be a caricature. Villains I think tend to be more prone to this because:

  1. We like to think more about our heroes than our bad guys.
  2. Villains don’t generally arc, so we often overlook the villain’s motivations.
  3. We fail to appreciate that most bad guys don’t think they are wrong. They always have a good reason why they are doing what they do.

Great villains reach deep into our psyche and torment those soft places we try to protect. I personally believe villains are the toughest characters to write. I think it is a real feat to be able to create that kind of darkness, and it is so easy for us to botch…ergo why villains are often the subject of cackling parody.

How to Make a Legendary Villain

Though the series isn’t for everyone (it’s pretty gory), I particularly love FX’s American Horror Story for studying villains. AHS is one of those shows that you have to get a few episodes into before you connect, namely because it is often cast with truly despicable characters.

How can we create a legendary villain? Include 5 elements to make readers care. Click To TweetIt isn’t until you get a few episodes in that the writers start peeling back the layers and exposing the delicate undersides of the villains…and that’s when you really begin to care for them.

I know. Seriously. AHS is some of the best writing out there.

Jessica Lange almost always plays the core antagonist in each season of AHS. Of all the seasons, though, Season Four Freak Show was my favorite and that’s what I am going to use today. (By the way, there is a bit of spoiler alert, but it’s necessary.)

So what do we do to really make the villain pop?

#1: Give the Villain a Sympathetic Goal

In Season Four of AHS, Lange plays Elsa Mars. Elsa is a self-centered, lying, conniving, murderous woman. But she is a deeply flawed and tragic character.

Her goal is two-fold. First, she wants to become a star in Hollywood. Secondly, she wants to build the best Freak Show in the world.

As a young woman, Elsa is victimized by a man who promises her the starring role in a movie. What he fails to tell Elsa is she has the starring role in a snuff film.

He films another man taking a buzz saw to both of Elsa’s legs then leaves her for dead. Through the sympathy and miraculous skill of an artist-sculptor, she’s saved and given life-like prosthetics and appears “normal.”

But this tragedy creates a horrible insecurity. She starts the Freak Show because deep down, she knows she’s a freak too. This makes her feel almost a maternal duty to collect the disfigured. To gather the tragic souls the world casts away and give them a home.

#2: See the Villain as the Hero of His/Her Own Story

Elsa is a mother figure. Under the circus tent, her “children” are stars and they are a family.

She knows what life outside the show is like for a freak (she’s lived it). She also appreciates that she is a very different kind of freak. She has the ability to blend into society. Her children do not.

#3: Make the Villain Conflicted

Elsa is a very troubled and conflicted character. Her goal to take care of her charges and her desire to become famous in Hollywood are always in conflict.

Also what makes Elsa so good is also what makes her so bad. She is relentlessly ambitious (good), but she is relentlessly ambitious (bad).

Is your villain layered? Do they have internal conflict? Click To TweetRemember that our best self and our worst self are often opposing edges of the same blade. This is true for protagonists (heroes) as well.

The reason this duality makes for a layered villain is that great fiction acts as a mirror and reflects a degree of reality back to the reader. When the reader sees the duality of the villain, she is also seeing the duality in herself. That is the part that can be deeply disturbing.

Maybe we believe we are incapable of murder, but are we really? Or have we simply been blessed with the right life circumstances that have permitted us to never have to really get an answer to that question?

In my opinion, I feel the most terrifying villains are the ones we relate to. One of the most disturbing books I ever read was The Shining.

What made Jack Torrance so frightening was that he started out a fairly normal guy with a dark side. Hey, we all have a dark side….but Jack’s took over to frightening proportions.

Thus, the real question in the back of the readers’ minds is, “Under the right circumstances, could we spiral into darkness just like Jack?” *shivers*

#4: Give the Villain Noble Goals

To dovetail off the last point I made, Elsa does some truly detestable things…but we do see there is a not-so-evil motivation behind her actions. Thus, we sympathize, and I think that is one of the ways a good villain can truly get to us.

We see the ugliness in ourselves, the great evil we might be capable of in the right situation.

Elsa is profoundly insecure. It’s part of the reason she created the Freak Show to start with. If she owns and runs the show, she can be the main attraction. But again, Elsa’s goals collide with the intensity of a tectonic plate shift.

She knows the show has to make money because she clothes and feeds and shelters her “monsters.” But, to be blunt? She’s also greedy. So when another act overshadows her own? Her greed and her insecurity collide.

#5: Make the Villain’s End a Sad Event

For me, the best villains are the ones we almost are silently rooting for and are really bothered by that. Elsa is one of those characters that in one episode you hate her and in the next you’re rooting for her, and the end of the season is beautiful and tragic.

My friend NYTBSA James Rollins says he knows he’s done his job when the reader cries for the villain at the end.

This is also why NYTBSA Allison Brennan and I have had a long-running argument that Hannibal Lecter is actually not a villain but an antihero. Allison thinks he’s a villain, but I posit that Hannibal is written so well, he actually transcends those boundaries and becomes the antihero.

Y’all know you cheered at the end of Silence of the Lambs when he said he was “having an old friend for dinner.” And what is so epic about this is that the guy he is going to eat is a law abiding citizen who technically has done nothing illegal…but we still are rooting for Hannibal (a serial killer).

And that freaks us out more than a little bit.

Another great villain? The Goblin King from Labyrinth. Every woman over the age of 30 is still wondering why the hell Sarah didn’t take the deal.

How to Make a Detestable Villain

There is another kind of villain, a villain who deeply upsets us and whose end is a joyous event. We cheer. We don’t want this type of villain defeated. We don’t want them dead.

How can we create a villain readers love to hate? Set them up with a deception. Click To TweetWe want them obliterated. Salt the very earth of their soul.

Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer has the best example of this type of villain. The movie is great but the novel? O…M…G. The villain is positively terrifying.


Namely because this villain exemplifies what we fear most (and what protagonist Mickey Haller also fears):

That we won’t recognize pure evil when we see it.

At first glance, Roulet is the guy every girl would love to land. He’s smart, rich, handsome and charming. But is also a stone cold killer who exacts suffering for his own pleasure.

What makes this character so disturbing is, like Haller, we believe Louis Roulet is innocent and that he’s been the victim of a terrible scam. So when we hit that pivot point where we realize we’ve been duped? It rattles us to the core.

#1: Include the Legendary Villain Elements with a Heroic Portrayal

This type of villain will exhibit the same traits mentioned above, but they are all a deception. This villain is a Venus flytrap who looks like a good guy but is only death disguised.

  • In The Lincoln Lawyer, Roulet has a sympathetic goal. He is an innocent man who’s been set up by a prostitute who is framing him so she can sue him for damages in civil court and use him as her ticket out of turning tricks.
  • Roulet is conflicted. He fails to share various pieces of vital information with his lawyer because he is “protecting his mother.” He doesn’t want to upset her and he cares deeply about her perception of him (i.e., he fails to mention he was going to Reggie Campo’s place to pay for sex).
  • Roulet has noble goals. For instance, he explains that the reason he carries a knife is because he discovered his mother (also a real estate agent) raped and brutalized in a home she was showing. He tells Haller that real estate agents often meet clients in homes alone and there is no real way to vet that they aren’t psychos (um irony), so he carries for protection.

Notice how Connelly hits on all the notes of a villain, but camouflages them as a hero.

#2: Reveal the Deception

This is why our world turns upside down when we realize it is all a lie:

  • Roulet does not have a sympathetic goal at all! He’s a sado-mysogynistic killer and his only goal is to exact suffering…then destroy another man’s life by framing him for his crime.
  • This villain is not conflicted at all. He is very well aware of what he’s doing. He’s narcissistic and believes he is above the rules that govern society.
  • He does not have noble goals. His goals are as black as they come. This is why, unlike a villain like Elsa Mars, when Roulet meets his end? We cheer. In fact, regarding this, I actually prefer the ending in the movie where Roulet is badly beaten by Haller’s motorcycle gang clients before being hauled to jail.

A good way to make this kind of villain work is to create a deflection. Cast an innocent character as the “villain.”  It is essentially a “bait and switch.” In the case of Roulet, the prostitute he brutalized carried the mantle of villain until Act Two.

Recommended Resources & Final Thoughts

Larry Brooks has a wonderful book called Story Engineering, and he has a really neat way to craft characters with psychological depth. Aside from writing books, I would also advise that you read a lot of books on psychology.

John Douglas, the father of modern FBI profiling, has some great books. I recommend Mindhunter and The Anatomy of Motive. I also recommend The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD.

Villains when done properly can live on as literary legends. Botch the villain and he will be a cardboard caricature bent on ruling the world. To create great villains, you are going to have to crawl into the dark spaces of their minds.

Evil behaves in accordance to patterns. That’s how profilers catch evil men and women. They look to the behavior of evil to look into the mind of evil to see the face of evil.


Kristen LambKristen Lamb is the author of the definitive guide to social media and branding for authors, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World. She’s also the author of #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer.

Kristen has written over twelve hundred blogs and her site was recognized by Writer’s Digest Magazine as one of the Top 101 Websites for Writers. Her branding methods are responsible for selling millions of books and used by authors of every level, from emerging writers to mega authors.

Website | Facebook | Twitter


Villains & Anti-HeroesKristen is also the founder of the WANA (We Are Not Alone) movement, the owner and operator of WANA International, a company dedicated to educating authors of the Digital Age. She’s also the creator of WANATribe, the social network for creatives.

WANA International is currently offering several writing-related classes, including a couple of antagonist-themed workshops taught by Kristen:

Other topics Kristen is teaching include:

And find all current WANA International classes here!


Thank you, Kristen! And as always, I can’t express my gratitude enough for your help during these few weeks!

Kristen perfectly captures why villains can be great fun to write. “Because they think they’re the hero” is a great start, but truly layered villains goes deeper than that.

I first heard Kristen’s insights on antagonists several years ago, and her lessons stayed with me through all that time because she does a great job of explaining these concepts. I hope you found this series of posts as helpful for your understanding and writing as I did. *smile*

Does this help you understand how to give depth to your villains? What are some of your favorite villains from the page or screen? What makes them stand out to you and live on in your memory? What villains scare you and why? Can you think of other types of villains beyond what was covered here?

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Comments — What do you think?

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C C Cedras

Jami! I am SO SORRY to hear about your latest setback. You have been through hell and back.

Universe, it’s past time to cut Jami a break!

The antagonist series has been very timely! Thank you, both.

Beth Randolph

Those look like good books. I went ahead and ordered The Sociopath Next Door. I read the descriptions on the others. I don’t think I could get through them. But, then, I don’t read thrillers. I don’t like to get scared. I’ve been scared enough in life. You must be a lot tougher than me.

Re: Jami. Unbelievable! I am not sure that antibiotics work well anymore.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, a little too dark for me.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Sorry to hear of your setback, Jami.


[…] have to be compelling—your antagonists have to carry part of the load, too. Kristen Lamb tells us how to avoid boring villains, The Beginning Writer has some rules for writing dialogue, and K.M. Weiland shares 7 ways to write […]

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Ooh the “villain always think they’re the hero” is what I frequently see in real life…Which is sad, but at least it makes it very easy to understand this concept in fiction writing.

Interestingly, I often try to write a very despicable villain, but they always end up too sympathetic…(Maybe because I’m too soft-hearted, so even my writing eventually portrays these “bad guys” in a more positive light…) So I like your tips above on writing an extremely detestable villain!

One villain of mine commits such heinous crimes, that you can’t help but hate him. But then his backstory comes along and you see sympathetic, redeeming qualities in my villain…And so you start hoping that he’ll survive and that the “good guys” will fail to kill him.

Whether a villain / anti-hero is sympathetic or completely despicable can be subjective sometimes, though. I know we’re supposed to sympathize with Macbeth, but, ugh, I’m sorry. I hated this guy so much that I’m glad he died in the end…


[…] develop antagonists that get in the way of protagonist, but avoid boring or cliché villains […]

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