In the Novel Writing Group in The Hague last month, writer Suzanna Tjoa led an impressively bilingual workshop on crafting believable villains.
There are many things you can do to make your villains more believable. There are countless articles on the web about those things which elevate a villain from a mere baddy to a complex antagonist worthy of fear, compassion, sorrow, pity, and terror.
Instead of going into all of them here, I wanted to share a 15 minute writing exercise you can do, right now, to help you get inside of your villain’s head and understand where they are coming from. For this exercise, it helps if you already have an antagonist in your story or novel. Whoever they are, it’s important for you to know them well if your readers are going to care whenever the antagonist brushes up against your main character.
Before this exercise, my villain was a little too villainous. Sure, they had a family (as most villains do) which made them more sympathetic, but I wasn’t fully clear on the events that had created this most villainous worldview. Once I finished this exercise, it dawned on me how my baddie grew up the way he did, and how he justifies his actions to himself. Since then, the scenes where he is present have become so much more multidimensional and truly menacing. I’m more afraid of him (and for my main character) now than I was when he was 100% evil.
So trust me when I tell you you’re about to have a 15 minutes of your life well-spent.
To make your villain more believable, give yourself 15 uninterrupted minutes with a pad of paper and pen, or a keyboard and word processor (or hell, the memo function on your mobile phone- whatever works for you). Next you’ll choose a controversial subject about which your villain believes differently from you. You can choose any controversial stance your villain has already taken in the past (“It’s alright to kill in order to get what I want,” or “It’s only wrong to swindle/steal if you get caught,” or “It’s ok to cheat on your spouse”), or you can go for a controversial stance applicable to your life now (“Euthanasia is never acceptable,” or “freedom of religion should extend to freedom from religion,” or “we have an obligation to protect ourselves from terrorism, even if it means infringing on the rights of suspects”). Be sure to choose a topic in which you are emotionally invested in some way, and one on which you and your antagonist would disagree.
Now set yourself a timer for 15 minutes, argue their POV as passionately as possible. Have your villain explain why they believe that way. What experiences shaped their worldview, and how would they defend their position? How does their worldview benefit them? What have they invested in believing the way they do?
Once your 15 minutes are up, take a look at what you’ve written. Now you know something very personal and important about your antagonist that will help you predict their thoughts and actions, and will help you write them in a way that calls to your reader to keep turning those pages long past their bedtime.