Wednesday, June 6, 2012


more advice for fiction writers, by Jodie Renner, editor

You’ve outlined a plot and created an appealing, complex protagonist for your thriller or other crime/action fiction — great start! But what about your antagonist? According to James N. Frey, “the villain is your best friend, because the villain creates the plot behind the plot — the plot that has to be foiled by the hero.”        

The hero or heroine of your suspense novel needs a worthy opponent who is standing in his/her way and threatening other innocent people. As James Scott Bell says, “Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on?”

And thrillers and other crime fiction need a downright nasty bad guy — but not a “mwoo-ha-ha” caricature or stereotype. If your villain is just a wicked cardboard caricature of what he could be, your readers will quickly lose interest. As Hallie Ephron says, “Characters who are simply monstrously evil can come off as old-fashioned clichés.”

To create a believable, complex, chilling villain, make him clever and determined, but also someone who feels justified in his actions. Ask yourself what the bad guy wants, how he thinks the protagonist is standing in his way, and how he explains his own motivations to himself.

How does your villain rationalize his actions? He may feel that he is justified because of early childhood abuse or neglect, a grudge against society, a goal thwarted by the protagonist, a desire for revenge against a perceived wrong, or a need for power or status — or money to fund his escape. Whatever his reasons, have them clear in your own mind, and at least hint at them in your novel. Like the protagonist, the antagonist needs motivations for his actions.

To give yourself the tools to create a realistic, believable antagonist, try writing a mini-biography of your villain: his upbringing and family life, early influences, and harrowing experiences or criminal activities so far. As Hallie Ephron advises us, “Think about what happened to make that villain the way he is. Was he born bad, or did he sour as a result of some traumatic event? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If he can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know what drives him to do what he does.” Creating a backstory for your antagonist will help you develop a multidimensional, convincing bad guy. 

Many writing gurus advise us to even make the antagonist a bit sympathetic. James Scott Bell says, “The great temptation in creating bad guys is to make them evil through and through. You might think this will make your audience root harder for your hero. More likely, you’re just going to give your book a melodramatic feel. To avoid this, get to know all sides of your bad guy, including the positives.” 

Bell suggests that, after we create a physical impression of our antagonist, we find out what her objective is, dig into her motivation, and create background for her that generates some sympathy — a major turning point from childhood or a powerful secret that can emerge later in the book.

Not everyone agrees with that approach, however. James Frey, on the other hand, says “in some cases, it is neither necessary nor perhaps even desirable to create the villain as a fully fleshed-out, well-rounded multidimensional character.” Many readers just want to a bad guy they can despise, and are not interested in finding out about his inner motives or his deprived childhood. That would dilute our satisfaction in finally seeing him getting his just deserts. 

Frey does feel it’s extremely important to create a convincing, truly nasty villain, one who is “ruthless, relentless, and clever and resourceful, as well as being a moral and ethical wack job,” and one who is “willing to crush anyone who gets in his way,” but doesn’t feel it’s necessary to give us a great deal of information on the villain. 

As kids, we loved to see good prevail over evil, and the nastier the villain, the harder they fell — and the greater our satisfaction. Perhaps Frey’s “damn good villain” hearkens back to those times, and his ultimate demise evokes greater reader satisfaction. Forget analyzing the bad guy — just build him up, then take him out!

On the other hand, many readers today are more sophisticated and want to get away from the caricatures of our popular literary heritage… hence, advice from writers like Ephron and Bell to develop more multidimensional antagonists with a backstory and clear motivations.

I’d say there’s room for both approaches in modern fiction, and probably the thriller genre favors the “just plain mean and nasty” villain. Never mind the psychological analysis of the bad guy—we just want to see Jack Reacher, Joe Pike or [fill in your favorite thriller hero or heroine] kick butt!

What do you think? Make the villain nasty, evil and cruel through and through, or give him some redeeming qualities to make him more realistic? Show some of his background and motivations, or just stick with his current story goals and plans? 

Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

Copyright © Jodie Renner, June 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter.  



  1. I think you're exactly right that there is room for both approaches. The story will dictate how much information about the antagonist needs to be shared.

    A lot depends on the bad guy's motivation. If it's psychological, a little more information is necessary than if it's simply greed.

    I attended a workshop by Donald Maass and he suggested that writers take some time and look at the story as if the novel belonged to the antagonist. Their goals. Their view.

  2. I agree, Peg. Psychological thrillers need more inside info on both the protagonist and the antagonist's background, motivations, needs, fears, goals, etc.

    Donald Maass is just a gold mine of great information for novelists! I've read two of his books. Must attend one of his workshops someday soon.

  3. Great post Jodie. I agree with Peg (Maass) that sometimes you have to look at the events/scenes from your antagonists POV. Real bad guys are multidimensional so the characters should be as well. I wanted my killer to have qualities that would make the reader scratch their head. He is a rapist/killer but some women are attracted to him. He hates people who litter but he kills women. There is a disconnect to reality but in his world life makes sense. The criminal mind can be very compartmentalized with fluid divisions of right and wrong / good and bad. In order to make a convincing character you have to get your head a little off balance. I'm preaching to the choir aren't I? :)

  4. Great insights, Tom! And no, I don't think you're preaching to the choir. I do think a danger can be when, in trying to make the antagonist multi-dimensional, we get into so much detail on his abused childhood or whatever that we end up crossing over the line so the readers feel sympathy for him. That can be confusing for readers and less than satisfying, as readers love to hate the villain, and to see good defeat evil!

  5. Personally, I love the multi-dimensional approach to bad guys. If you can get the reader to connect with the villain, you've struck literary gold. Some of the most successfully written evil-doers are the ones we find oddly fascinating. Think Hannibal Lecter: repugnant as can be on one side, yet charming as all get-out on the other.

  6. Hi there. Great article, and I believe that there is a balancing point for the standard (but great!) bad guy: clearly bad but for a reason. As much as I am a fan of melodrama, I'm with the modern reader who wants to know why. Perhaps "why" does not need to be provided in gruesome detail depending on the style of the story, but the author must at least know "why" and "how" to make the villain whole and complete.

  7. Great post.

    I really admire Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child for their villains. They are strong, evil, and really creative. My curiosity about the villains draws me into the story as much as my desire to see them defeated.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Drew, T.E. and CJ. From your comments and others I've heard, I'm coming to the conclusion that today's readers mostly want more complex, well-crafted villains.

  9. The thing with Hannibal Lecter is, as far as I'm concerned, the story was truly about Hannibal Lecter. Not the agent who was trying to figure him out. Without making him completely fascinating there would be no story.

  10. This is a really important discussion. Certainly in thrillers, the antagonist is the prime source of conflict (remembering of course that the villain can be a shark or an organization, not only a person), and Don Maass says the villain has to not only be bad, but really bad. While James Scott Bell says the villain needs layers, dimensions. I don't think there is a conflict between these views, though, because a character like Hannibal Lecter was really bad, but in some ways the readers felt sympathy with him, because he had layers, reasons for his actions and even a touch of humanity. But knowing the villain can be really bad early on enables the writer to set up suspense, so the reader doesn't quite know if and when the villain is going to strike a character they have empathy with. The degree of complexity of the villain will then depend to a large extent on the storyline - whose story it is, and where else the suspense and conflict might be coming from.

  11. Hi Jodie, I really liked the article - your words, and the comments of other writers made a lot of sense to me. It's something I really feel strongly about - the antagonist has to be "right", in his own odd, twisted way, otherwise he is two-dimensional. As a reader I need to believe that this conflict could actually happen.

    What's more, a well constructed antagonist is the source of a good amount of internal conflict for the protagonist ("could he be right? Am I on the wrong side?") And of course in the case of the reader, they will start by hating the antagonist earlier in the book, but then their own judgements and view on the world will be challenged when they hear that the arguments are not so wrong, the issues are not so black-and-white - what would I do in that situation?

  12. Thank you to both Ian and jbrown, whose thoughtful, interesting comments really add to the discussion on the depiction of villains.


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