How to Write Engaging Villains

Villains should offer more than scheming, cackling, and insanity. A convincing villain is the protagonist of their own, personal story. Even the most evil people in history saw themselves as the good guys, from serial killers to dictators. Writing a villain who views themselves as evil without good reason will result in a comical antagonist. People make the best monsters and the most terrifying monsters are human. I’m discussing how humanizing your villain actually makes them scarier and more infuriating by looking at two of the best antagonists of all time: Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and “Big” Jim Rennie from Under the Dome.

The commercial success of John Carpenter’s Halloween spawned a decade of faceless killing machines in horror films. Michael Myers takes human form but doesn’t share many aspects with humanity. Same goes for copycat Jason from Friday the 13th. Neither of them speak, we don’t see their faces, and they possess borderline supernatural vitality. While this worked for the slasher genre, the best villains will work opposite to these monsters, especially in prose. The more human characteristics your villain has, the scarier they will be, especially if they have POV scenes.

Dolores Umbridge might just be one of the most hateable antagonists in history. In the Order of the Phoenix, where Umbridge first appears, she establishes herself as an enemy of truth. Using an enchanted quill, she forced Harry to write “I will not tell lies” into his own skin. This infuriates us because we know Harry’s telling the truth and because we’re certain Umbridge doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to know, the truth. A hunger for power might just be Umbridge’s most human characteristic. The way she lords her position over some of Hogwarts more questionable educators draws our ire. We hate that she bullies likeable Hagrid, and the dreamy Professor Trelawney. When she usurps Dumbledore’s position at the head of the school, Umbridge comes full circle and we recognize her truth. Umbridge is a power hungry politician who’s greed, meglomania, and ambitious self-interest actively hurt Harry and the entire wizarding world. There’s few characteristics more human than ambition, and her intense desire for power makes her superbly distasteful to the reader.

Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome features a truly despicable antagonist. Big Jim Rennie is your stereotypical small town douchebag. He runs a used car dealership, a hunting ground for con artists, and his son’s a rapist. Under the Dome is a novel about power in a vacuum. When the dome drops and cuts off Chester’s Mill, Maine, from the rest of the world, Big Jim rushes to consolidate his hold on power. He’s the only councilman left in town, and the sheriff recently died. Big Jim rapidly installs his lackeys and sycophants in the police department and sets himself up as a dictator.

The POV scenes for Big Jim make him even more detestable. In public he explains all of his decisions in the scope of what’s best for Chester’s Mill. In private, we learn his actions have nothing to do with public welfare, and he does all the bad things for his own self interest as a servant of God. Never once does Jim consider his actions evil, even though his behaviour reminds the reader of dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. He always justifies his actions as good, even when managing his meth business. This hypocrisy infuriates us as readers because his actions have real, lethal consequences on people. Big Jim Rennie seems to abandon traditional morality – harm no other – to adopt his own personal morality guided by the teachings of God.

Who are your favourite villains? What do you think makes a good villain? Drop in the comments and let me know! Follow for more writing thoughts from a daily discovery writers.

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