Motivations driving the villain

What makes us love the villain?

A good villain can make or break a story. Our heroes need someone to root against, someone we can hate, someone who makes us love our main characters even more. If our villain falls flat, oftentimes our story will too. The cardboard cutout villains with no ulterior motives just don’t make for a good story. Give me your complex villains that we can love in our own way. The evildoers that we can sympathize with because we realize that given the right set of circumstances that could be you. The villain is the hero of his own story after all.


One of my favorite villains in recent pop culture is Zod from the Man of Steel movie. Zod is not evil, per se. Since birth he has been bred for one purpose: to protect Krypton. And he fails. Miserably. As in the planet implodes on itself, but not before General Zod and his comrades are blasted into space for their crimes. And their heinous acts? Acting against the government to do what he felt needed to be done to preserve his species. Fast forward a few decades and Kal-El is on planet Earth holding the only key to re-create Krypton, the planet Zod dedicated his life to protect. Of course, Zod’s master plan involves annihilating the human race and recolonizing Earth to allow the rebirth of his people. Superman just ain’t having that.


Evil plans aside, we would have no movie if it weren’t for Zod. The entirety of the plot is moved forward as Kal-El struggles with his identity and fitting in on a planet where he doesn’t belong. So when Zod threatens to destroy it all, Kal’El must react. Without Zod, we have a Nicholas Sparks novel. Yuck.

And if you want to get to the crux of the matter, Zod isn’t necessarily evil: He was born and bred for the sole purpose of protecting his people and he sees Earth as his chance for redemption. How does that make him evil? On top of it, he doesn’t believe what’s he’s doing is evil.

These types of motivation make for the best villains, in my opinion. It’s easy for me to look down on the big bad evil who kills for fun, or those that kill for a litany of other problems: money, power, revenge, or jealousy. But those sympathetic characters are the ones we love to hate. And boy do we love them.


Creating Legendary Villains

Since this podcast is focused on the bad guys of the literary world, I thought we’d take a moment to talk about what makes a great villain.  Sure, we’ve looked at making sure your baddies align themselves with some sort of overall scheme, and how forensic psychology can play a role in creating the perfect (or at least realistic) villain, but how do you go about writing one?

Well, I don’t have all the answers.

Writing villains can be very difficult, especially if you’re writing the villain from first person POV, because then we *only* see the villain through the eyes of our hero.  And that’s usually very biased.

To compound the issue, oftentimes we don’t meet the villain, so to speak, until closer to the end of the book.  So how do you make your readers fall in love with one?

The best piece of advice I’ve heard: 

The villain is the hero of his own story. 


Most villains are not evil by nature (setting aside the psychopath for a moment, that is). The best villains on the page, or screen, are those who are flawed, who are real, who have a rich backstory. Because it creates a small sliver of doubt in the reader: Could I possibly be turn out that way?

I recently ran into this problem in my current MS. I had a great story (first person POV) and though we knew the bad guy from early on, we don’t *know* he’s the villain until the end of the story.  Sound familiar? 

My problem was, how did I make the reader like this guy without shoving him down your throat? In fact, he’s not really close to my MC, he’s more on the fringes.  But then it hit me: If I show how much another character – my secondary main character, K – loves him, then I don’t need to worry about his overt interactions with my MC. I can make the readers fall in love with him because K is head over heels in love with him.

By doing this he’s not ‘just the villain’ anymore.  He’s a guy who comes from a home who took in stray kids to have one, big crazy family. He’s had to work hard to get to where he is in life. He fell in love with a great girl. He’s smart, good looking and cares about others. Sure, maybe he’s a little bit nerdy and overprotective, but everyone has a flaw, right? He’s human. He’s relatable. Maybe even lovable. Which makes his betrayal so much worse. 

What are your tips for writing a great villain?  

Some great articles on writing a legendary villain:

6 Ways to Write Better Bad Guys – Writer’s Digest

How to Create Legendary Villains – Kristen Lamb

Three Steps to Creating a Complex Villain

Dissecting Villains Part 2: Profiling

There has been a lot of thought and effort into profiling serial killers, carried out by people much smarter than we are.  And thank god for that.  As much fun as playing around in the heads of killers can be, having to truly delve into their minds and then shuffle them into helpful categories is a challenge.  So we are perfectly content to let others do that for us.profiling words

One of the first things profilers look at was whether or not serial killers are organized or disorganized; which is extremely helpful to law enforcement in a number of ways. And really, writers benefit from knowing the distinction as well.  Because the organizational methods of a killer, or a villain in general, speaks volumes to what the character is like when they aren’t off reaping havoc.

So let’s take a look at organized versus disorganized serial killers:

Organized: average to high intelligence, socially competent, and more likely than the disorganized offender to have skilled employment. It is also claimed that he is apt to plan his offenses, use restraints on his victim, and to bring a weapon with him to commit the murder and to take the weapon away with him from the crime scene.

Disorganized: little, if any, preplanning of the murder. The disarray present at the crime scene may include evidence such as blood, semen, fingerprints, and the murder weapon. There is minimal use of restraints and the body is often displayed in open view. The disorganized offender is thought to be socially incompetent and to have below-average intelligence.

So right there, we can see how your villains methods will change based on intellect. And a good writer will make that come alive in their stories.

The other helpful bit of profiling (as it relates to writing) is the type of killer you are writing.  We’re not just talking about what motivates them, but what are they getting out of it?  This one is a bit harder to stretch when looking at non-serial killer based bad guys, but let’s start with the profiling aspect, shall we?

holmes typology

  • Act Focused v. Process Focused
    • ACT-FOCUSED (quick kill)
      • THE VISIONARY – hears voices or sees visions that tell him to kill (psychotic), the voices tend to be either God or the devil, legitimating the violence.
      • THE MISSIONARY – goes on hunting “missions” to eradicate a group of people (prostitutes, Jews, etc.) from face of earth, seems like “fine young man” to neighbors.
    • PROCESS-FOCUSED (slow kill)
      • THE COMFORT-ORIENTED HEDONIST – takes pleasure from killing, but also gets some profit or personal gain from it. Females usually in this category.
      • THE LUST-ORIENTED HEDONIST – associates sexual pleasure with murder, sex while killing and necrophilia are eroticized experiences.
      • THE THRILL-ORIENTED HEDONIST – gets a “rush” or “high” from killing, an elixir of thrills, excitement, and euphoria at victim’s final anguish.
      • THE POWER/CONTROL FREAK – takes pleasure from manipulation and domination (sociopath), experiences a “rush” or “high” from victim’s misery.

If you break the above down into writing (non-serial killer) villains, your breakdown may look more like this:

  • Act Focused v. Process Focused
    • ACT-FOCUSED (quick kill)
      • THE VISIONARY – while these villains may still be considered “psychotic”, not all of them all.  When writing, it’s easier to view this as those individuals who have outside forces controlling their actions.  Take away those forces, and would they kill?
      • THE MISSIONARY – These are your questors, and the ones seeking revenge. They have one goal in mind and the end justifies the means.
    • PROCESS-FOCUSED (slow kill)
      • THE COMFORT-ORIENTED HEDONIST – These are your characters that gain social standing from killing.  Yes, they may enjoy it, but the killing is part of a plan to be more comfortable in life.
      • THE LUST-ORIENTED HEDONIST – this one is a lot harder to look at when you’re not dealing with serial killers: mainly because if you kill to get off, you’re going to do it again and again; and it is the MOST common type of serial killer.  That being said, we would love to hear some literary villains out there that fall under this category!
      • THE THRILL-ORIENTED HEDONIST – These individuals don’t care about who or what they kill, as long as they get to kill.  These villains generally don’t last long because they lack focus, planning and organization, but boy do they have a good time doing so.
      • THE POWER/CONTROL FREAK – These are the characters who use their underlings as chess pieces for their own personal pleasure and care little about the misery it causes.  They have one goal: to take over the world (or kingdom, or galaxy)

So now that all that is out of the way, you may ask ‘well, what the fuck was the point of all that?’  And there’s a simple answer.  People who profile the worst of the worse villains have come up with these typologies to explain away behavior.  So when you’re writing realistic bad guys, it’s important to ask yourself: is my villain believable?  Because if it’s not you will lose your readers.  Trust me.

If you missed Part One you can read it here.

The Podcast…It’s Almost Here!

So why a podcast? Why listen to us? What makes us different from all the others?


Behold! All the answers you seek:

And, of course, the schedule*:

  Episode Date Book Topic
1 9/30/16 Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas Motivations driving the villain
2 10/14/16 Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews Plotter v. Pantster villains
3 10/28/16 False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen Villains present from page one
4 11/11/16 Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo The Antihero
5 11/25/16 Alpha & Omega by Patricia Briggs The Path to evil is paved with good intentions
6 12/9/16 Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud Absent parents tropes
7 12/23/16 The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater Quest/Journey turns characters evil
8 1/6/17 Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost Supernatural Racism
9 1/20/17 Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence Evil Protagonist
10 2/3/17 Crimes Against Magic by Steve McHugh Time jumps throughout narrative
11 2/17/17 Free Agent by J.C. Nelson  TBD
12 3/3/17 TBD  TBD


*Schedule is subject to change. Because we’re unpredictable like that.  It makes it harder to stalk us.

Villains: D&D Style

It’s Friday night. You’re hanging out with four of your best friends when suddenly darkness descends on the group and the temperature drops. Your breath comes out in a fog as numbness creeps into your extremities.  If you don’t act fast, you’re dead.  Fumbling, you reach into your bag and dig through it, frantically searching. There.  Finally. You thumb through the pages of the ancient text, searching before the cold reaches your brain, clouding your thoughts, forcing you into paralysis.

*Cast spell of everlasting warmth!*

The DM rolls.


You’re safe, but your hair catches on fire.

No. This isn’t the opening scene of Netflix’s Stranger Things, but it’s a scene all too familiar to my generation, the one now pushing mainstream media to accept our awesome nerdiness.



Photo courtesy of Netflix

Now that we’ve established our awesomeness, what does that mean for writing villains in fiction? Well, we’ll tell you: we spent our childhoods going on dangerous quests and journeys across a multitude of landscapes and have battled our fair share of evil.  Then we went back for more, again and again.

And I guarantee you, if the villains in our worlds had been stale, cardboard cutouts, D&D would have died out long ago. Instead, we took the mainstream definitions of good vs. evil and we morphed them into our own and came up with nine separate alignments:

Lawful good

A lawful good character typically acts with compassion and always with honor and a sense of duty. Such characters include righteous knights, paladins, and most dwarves. Lawful good creatures include the noble golden dragons.

Neutral good

A neutral good character typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A neutral good character has no problems with cooperating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a lawful good character would.

Chaotic good

A chaotic good character does what is necessary to bring about change for the better, disdains bureaucratic organizations that get in the way of social improvement, and places a high value on personal freedom, not only for oneself, but for others as well. Chaotic good characters usually intend to do the right thing, but their methods are generally disorganized and often out of sync with the rest of society.

Lawful neutral

A lawful neutral character typically believes strongly in lawful concepts such as honor, order, rules, and tradition, and often follows a personal code. Examples of lawful neutral characters include a soldier who always follows orders, a judge or enforcer that adheres mercilessly to the word of the law, and a disciplined monk.


A neutral character (a.k.a. true neutral) is neutral on both axes and tends not to feel strongly towards any alignment, or actively seeks their balance. Druids frequently follow this dedication to balance, and under Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, were required to be this alignment. In an example given in the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, a typical druid might fight against a band of marauding gnolls, only to switch sides to save the gnolls’ clan from being totally exterminated.

Most animals, lacking the capacity for moral judgment, are of this alignment, since they are guided by instinct rather than conscious decision (although in 5th edition animals are “unaligned”, not sapient enough to actively make a decision based on alignment, even that of neutrality).

Chaotic neutral

A chaotic neutral character is an individualist who follows their own heart and generally shirks rules and traditions. Although chaotic neutral characters promote the ideals of freedom, it is their own freedom that comes first; good and evil come second to their need to be free.

Lawful evil

A lawful evil character sees a well-ordered system as being easier to exploit and shows a combination of desirable and undesirable traits. Examples of this alignment include tyrants, devils, and undiscriminating mercenary types who have a strict code of conduct.

Neutral evil

A neutral evil character is typically selfish and has no qualms about turning on its allies-of-the-moment, and usually makes allies primarily to further their own goals. A neutral evil character has no compunctions about harming others to get what they want, but neither will they go out of their way to cause carnage or mayhem when they see no direct benefit for themselves. Another valid interpretation of neutral evil holds up evil as an ideal, doing evil for evil’s sake and trying to spread its influence.

Examples of the first type are an assassin who has little regard for formal laws but does not needlessly kill, a henchman who plots behind their superior’s back, or a mercenary who switches sides if made a better offer. An example of the second type would be a masked killer who strikes only for the sake of causing fear and distrust in the community.

Chaotic evil

A chaotic evil character tends to have no respect for rules, other people’s lives, or anything but their own desires, which are typically selfish and cruel. They set a high value on personal freedom, but do not have much regard for the lives or freedom of other people. Chaotic evil characters do not work well in groups because they resent being given orders and do not usually behave themselves unless there is no alternative.


We did this, because in the realm of fantasy, role playing and make believe, evil wears many different hats, for many different reasons. And when you can’t quite fit these villains in to the roles assigned to real life baddies, you can nearly always figure out how they are aligned.  Fantasy writers often take to heart the nine alignments when crafting their characters.  Each villain is governed by his or her own set of rules – or lack thereof.

When looking at spec fic novels, it becomes easier to see and understand the type of characters we are drawn to using these terms, because people have been using these archetypes for generations.

Where do your favorite villains fall? Where do you fall?