Let's Talk About Villains

I love a good bad boy (or girl). Their presence is necessary to promote conflict and I look forward to meeting the person who is going to make the protagonist crazy. But since villains have such a huge part of the story, why are they often the least developed character? As I represent a lot of middle grade, I dig into a partial knowing that there's a bully going to show up and kick a little booty somewhere. Problem is—it's always the same bully.



Jock (male/female)



Life isn't like that.

Let's break down what makes an effective bully and spice up the evil one in your manuscript.


Familiarity: This is the secret of a great villain. Villains slide in as best friends, co-workers, and neighbors. They know what buttons to push and how to mask a lie. But go a little deeper. How can your reader identify with him? It's terrifying to think that you may have chosen the same path--treated someone the same way--or could in the future.

Give her subtle traits that they can pinpoint in people around them: jealousy, narcissism, gossip. This creates a mental image that readers can't easily shake. You want them uncomfortable when your villain appears. The question is, do they see someone they know or themselves?

Give them a reason: Go for the human inside of the villain. What makes them effective is when we understand the reason why they act as they do. No conflict is black or white and your protagonist should get a little dirty while they figure this out.

What's the motivation? Why does your villain choose this path instead of another? What led them to focus on your protagonist or this situation and the real question: would they be the hero if looked at with a different perspective? Make your readers pity the villain a little. That tiny doubt that they may be secretly rooting for her to win deepens the story and makes the ending sweeter if you can answer why they doo doo the voodoo they do and your hero is victorious.

Opposing goals: Your protagonist wants one thing while the villain wants another. Simple, right? Not so fast, sparky. What's the end game here? If your villain wins, what do they really get? Fame? The girl/boy? Is it the same goal as what your protagonist is seeking? Dig deeper into why your villain is hellbent for leather on destroying your protag or at least ruin her lunch. If they're just being a jerk, that's not good enough.

Same goals: This gets a little more exciting. Each trying to best the other makes competition a layer to the story and you can get mileage out of what they'll do to win. Make the goal something that matters, but I've seen a lot of end-of-the-world stakes and I'm usually nodding off before I finish the book. I want to love your book but if I'm dozing, I immediately think of future readers who won't bother to get to the last chapter.

Personality conflicts: Some people just don't mesh, but I'm looking for why. Bullies have backstories and while you may not want to delve into it deeply and concentrate instead on your protag, you have to back up your villain's evil ways.

Will readers remember your story a week after they finish the book? If your beta readers can't tell you the plot after the final draft, go back and spice up that conflict. We need the struggle to stand out. A generic bully in a middle school cafeteria is forgotten pretty quickly, but finding out why she avoids the science lab at all cost piques our interest.

What to avoid in your villains

Stereotypes: We need more Hannibal Lectors and fewer Biff Tannens. Wait. That sounds weird. They're not all jocks or cheerleaders so expand from the high school hallways and see who else could be nefarious. Creepy old man neighbor? Your child's best friend? Terrifying checkout lady at the Piggly Wiggly?

Expected resolution: If your readers can see the villain/protagonist becoming friends by the end of the book coming by chapter five, you have a problem. In reality, some things don't work out. People fight, leave, and fret. Other ignore and go on to happy lives. And some vanquish the villain in a explosion the size of a thousand tiny suns. Make it count. Make it true. Don't be a weenie and group hug it out if what's needed is a tremendous butt-kicking. Make it worthy of your villain.

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