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Creative Writing Tip: How to Humanize a Villain

Your villain--more than likely--is the same inside as anybody else.

Your villain–more than likely–is the same inside as anybody else.

Yesterday, I began a series of posts about villains/antagonists by examining the strengths and weaknesses of the stereotypical “bogeyman” villain that appears so often in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Today I want to discuss a humanized villain.

The best way to humanize a villain is simply to get away from thinking of him as “the villain.” Try not to categorize him. Try not to limit who he is because he is standing against your protagonist.

Your villain is just a character. Just a person. And when you approach him as you would any other person, you will realize that:

  • HIS MOTIVES DON’T HAVE TO BE PURE EVIL. This is perhaps the most important point in today’s post. A villain’s motivation doesn’t have be malevolent. He can be trying to right an injustice, or draw attention a societal ill, or help his family or race survive: just going about it in a way that’s not the best.
  • HE CAN BE MORE CONFUSED OR MISINFORMED/ MISGUIDED THAN EVIL. This is always an option, if you want to take it, even to just a point (rather than fully).
  • HE CAN GROW TO REGRET SOMETHING IN HIS PAST.
    Don’t we all have something we wish we’d done differently? Something we wish we had or hadn’t done at all? Why should your villain break this mold? Unless your villain is a narcissist by nature, why should he think he’s perfect?
  • HE WILL HAVE TO FACE A FEAR. And I don’t mean “he’s afraid of dying but you know he’s gonna be a goner by the end.” We all grow and develop as people by leaving our comfort zones and facing situations that unnerve us.
  • HE CAN SHOW SOME KIND OF MERCY. That mercy doesn’t have to be directed at his enemies. He can be patient with the people in his life he cares about. He can overlook the little flaws of those important to him or give someone a second chance. Your villain should be a human being who is developed as a character: that means some positive attributes as well as negative ones.
  • HE CAN QUESTION HIMSELF AT SOME POINT. Most stereotypical villains never do this, but a truly human villain just might. This doesn’t mean he’ll abandon his aims and his plan. It doesn’t mean he’ll change anything about his strategy (though he could). It just means that, like we all do, he’ll take a moment to reassess himself and what he’s doing. He’ll doubt himself.

Villains can be complex and tricky to write, but they are also TONS of fun. One thing I do, I’ve found, to humanize my villains is to insert a piece of me in each one of them. Some neutral or positive aspect of my own personality becomes part of my villains. I don’t generally do that on purpose; it just happens.

So, who are your favorite humanized villains? Do you have tips you use to craft an engaging antagonist?

If you enjoyed this post and you’re having trouble with a villain, this post oncharacter flaws versus faults might also prove helpful to you. And don’t forget you can follow my blog by email: just sign up at the top right of the page. That way you won’t miss out on the rest of the villain series.

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