Stories Need Great Villains

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic


Every story needs a great villain because without him, the hero can’t shine. He’s the force of antagonism that keeps the action moving and the reader engaged. He pokes and prods at the protagonist, forcing her to stretch, grow and change. 

Stories, after all, are about change. 

For change to happen, there needs to be conflict and the villain provides that. For our hero to be heroic, she has to be challenged. Someone (or something) needs to be actively working against her, throwing obstacles in her path and making her work for her objects of desire. What’s more, it’s by watching the hero face incredible odds that the reader develops empathy.

“The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized character and story must become.” (Robert McKee, Story)

As writers, we spend a lot of time developing our hero but relatively little time on the villain. As a result, we’re often unclear about who the villain is and what he wants. When that happens, the story suffers. It meanders and loses steam, and the reader loses interest. We can even forget what our story is about or why we’re telling it in the first place. 

“The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story. In working out the struggle between these two characters, the larger issues and themes of the story unfold.” (John Truby, The Anatomy of Story)

There isn’t, to my knowledge, one comprehensive resource on how to create an amazing villain. However, there are books on the writing craft that reference villains in the context of other tools (plot and character development for example), and there are some incredible blog posts scattered around the internet. So until I, or someone else, gets around to writing that guide, here are three key points to remember when creating your villain:

  1. The villain is the hero of his own story, therefore he needs a speech.
  2. The villain owns the middle build. 
  3. The villain can be external, social, internal or all of the above. 


The villain is the hero of his own story, therefore he needs a speech.

The villain doesn’t think he’s a villain. In fact, he’s the hero of his own story which means that when the world is looked at from his perspective, his actions are understandable. As much as the audience might hate him, on some level they’ve got to concede that the guy makes sense. As the hero of his own story “the antagonist needs to be given a great villain speech, a moment when he or she gets to try to convince us that greed is good or that we can’t handle the truth”. (Steven Pressfield, Give Your Hero a Hero Speech)

A Few Good Men: You Can’t Handle the Truth

“I can’t judge them. I have to write them as if they’re making their case to God why they would be allowed into Heaven….There are a lot of people who get inspriation from [Colonel Jessup’s] speech because when they hear [it] they think, ‘you know what? He’s absolutely right. He has a point.’ I’ve gotta believe in that argument when I’m writing it. If [I] don’t, [I] really run the risk of having someone twirling their moustache”. (Aaron Sorkin, Masterclass)

The villain’s speech must be eloquent, logical and above all, without remorse. (Steven Pressfield, Give Your Villain a Great Villain Speech)


The villain owns the middle build. 

While the antagonist is introduced in the beginning hook, that part of a story is usually dominated by the hero; who she is, what she wants and so on. Since we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and developing the protagonist the first act usually unfolds smoothly. Then we hit the middle build and the story goes south; we’re lost and can waste thousands of words trying to find the thread of the story again. Luckily, we’ve got the villain to help us out. 

“Writers become so enamoured with their protagonist that they lose the fact that the protagonist is not the driving force that really keeps people reading….The thing that really keeps people glued to [the story] is the villain. It’s the force of evil.” (Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid Podcast Episode 40)

The villain forces the hero to act. In The Hunger Games, the force of antagonism (the Capitol and its representatives) is introduced in the beginning hook during the reaping. Throughout the entire middle build, the game master and other tributes pose one challenge after another. In doing so, they move the story forward and cause Katniss to take action. If it wasn’t for Snow and his cronies, there’d be no story.


The villain can be external, social, internal or all of the above. 

External: These are the villians that exist on a superficial level and pose a threat to the external world. The Bond villains, comic book villains, aliens and monsters would fall into this category. These are physical beings in the material world. There may not be any reason given as to why the antagonist is behaving a certain way, and it may or may not have anything to do with the protagonist. For example, in Jaws the shark is simply looking for its next meal. It doesn’t have a personal vendetta against the people of Amity Island. 

Jaws: You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat


Societal: Societal villains tend to be belief structures stemming from culture, race or class issues (to name a few). Stories that feature this brand of antagonism may, or may not, present it in physical form; that is, there may not be ‘a bad guy’. Instead, the evil can reside within a number of characters, including the protagonist. Examples include The Way We Were, Get Out and Pride and Prejudice. Darcy and Elizabeth are kept apart because of society’s belief in the class system, and about people who live in each class. Elizabeth’s prejudice and Darcy’s pride are manifestations of this belief, but it also exists in every other character in the novel.

Pride and Prejudice: Darcy’s First Proposal


Internal: As the name suggests, with these stories the force of antagonism exists within the protagonist. It’s the hero’s own fear, anxiety, obsession or doubt (etc) that is keeping him from reaching his objects of desire. In Silver Linings Playbook, the internal villain is Pat’s obsession with reuniting with Nikki. Writers face this villain every day in the form or Resistance; we’ve convinced ourselves that writing is tortorous, we’re afraid of failing or of succeeding, or … the list goes on. 

“The archetype known as the Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected apsects of something. Often it’s the home of the suppressed monsters of our inner world. Shadows can be all things we don’t like about ourselves, all the dark secrets we can’t admit, even to ourselves. The qualities we have renounced and tried to root out still lurk within operating in the Shadow world of the unconscious.” (Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey)

Steven Pressfield argues that Every Villain is a Metaphor for ResistanceIf you read the article you’ll see that what he’s talking about is the human condition and J.K. Rowling tackled this same issue brilliantly in the Harry Potter series. She explains the human condition in a way that young audiences can easily understand. It just so happens to also be an easy way for writers to understand the internal villain. 

Harry is dealing with a level of anger and teenage angst that is off the charts and he doesn’t know why. The reason, he finds out later, is that he’s a horcrux. Voldemort has hidden a bit of his villanous soul within the hero. So, in the series, the villain is literally internal. However, no protagonist – and no person – is wholly pure. There is a little darkness inside each of us.  

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Light and Dark


All Of The Above

If you really want to create a villain that will knock people’s socks off, make him a combination of all of the above; external, societal and internal. That’s what Bram Stoker did when he created Dracula. To be clear, the character from the novel is not the character from the films. Bela Lugosi’s portrayal certainly contributed to the longevity of the Prince of Darkness, but it’s a heavily sanitized version of the disturbing creature Stoker dreamed up.

As a vampire, Dracula is a classic supernatural monster. On the external level, he attacks his victims at random and like the great white shark in Jaws, seems to be cruising for his next meal. Lugosi’s character, indeed most movie versions of Dracula, keep the villain on this external level only and it works incredibly well. 

However, when we look at Dracula as a societal and internal villain, he gets truly interesting. Dracula, like many vampire novels that followed, is a book about sex and sexuality. Any intimate relationship that is not between one man and one woman is presented as evil. (Given that the novel was written during the Victorian Era, the entire topic is handled through metaphor and subtext.) Dracula’s desires don’t recognize the accepted norms of the day. He goes after whomever he wants, whenever he wants them, be it a man, a woman, or a man and woman together. Dracula then, who personifies everything outside society’s narrow definition of acceptable behavior, is evil. 

When Jonathan Harker enters his world, he his horrified to discover that he enjoys his experience with three women at once. If you’ve read the novel all the way to the end, you’ll have noticed that he explores his sexuality a second time in a menage with Dracula and his wife, Mina. This is pretty racy stuff and is well outside acceptable practices for the day. Harker began as a man engaged to a respectable woman as society dictated, but his stay in Transylvania and the revelation of his deepest desires, causes him to have a nervous breakdown. Dracula represents everything Harker comes to loathe about himself; he is the physical manifestation of Harker’s inner demon and shadow self.

Since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) is the closest film adaptation to the novel (close being a relative term), I wanted to include a clip or two to illustrate my points above, but they’re nowhere near G-Rated. So instead, I’ll leave you with this excellent study of villains (The Joker in The Dark Knight) prepared by Lessons from the Screenplay.

Creating the Ultimate Antagonist


How do you create the villain(s) in your book(s)? I’d love for you to let me know in the comments below.

To learn how to put storytelling theory into practice, subscribe to UP (the Un-Podcast) with Valerie Francis and Leslie Watts.

Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors become better storytellers. To learn how to put story theory into practice join Valerie's inner circle:
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
Paperback: $19.99
Ebook: $0
Audiobook: $14.99
Author Valerie Francis


Rachelle Ramirez says:

Valerie’s done an excellent job of distilling the villain’s role and giving us the building blocks. Thanks Valerie! I loved this article, a fresh approach to the Story Grid.
For those of you looking for more on villains, there is a great book called Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches, written by Jessica Morrell.
Also Thirteen Steps to Evil by Sacha Black.,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=detail
A couple of great tools for crafting villains are The Negative Trait Thesaurus
And the Emotional Wound Thesaurus
I can’t say enough about those last two in terms of how helpful they can be.

Valerie Francis says:

Hi Rachelle! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. 😀 Yes, I’ve read the books you recommended and they some writers, especially at the beginning of their careers, do find them helpful.

Deb Farag says:

Love this article. I like being reminded of the complexity of the antagonist. I spend a lot of time thinking about my hero but I must remember that the hero is only as complex as the villain forces him to be. Thanks for a super article.

Valerie Francis says:

Hi Deb! If you spend most of your time thinking about the hero, then you’re like most writers. lol! Hopefully this article will give you some ideas for your villain(s). Happy writing!

Capt Jack says:

Awesome piece, I’m taking notes. Thank you, My villain’s developing intto nasty sort on all levels. Wonderful! Thanks again! Jack

Valerie Francis says:

That’s fantastic Jack! The bigger the obstacle, the more heroic your protagonist can be. 😀 And, you’re kindly welcome.

JP says:

Thanks for the post. I bookmarked this for future reference. The “villain” in my story is a demon taken from Talmudic myth. I’ve referenced the late William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist for help. Why not learn from the best? My villain communicates to its victims via dreams and signs, and uses the internal weaknesses of its victims to weaken and destroy them.

Andre Michael Pietroschek says:

Thanks for a good summary. Especially Dracula is still part of my contemplations, as lately I listened to a BBC audio drama version, which had two possible endings (rumor, I only listened to one very classic Stoker).

I am a MUCH less successful lil author, but I worked through a story from villain perspective, and as a roleplayer I considered separating the final endings of stories, as killing the opposition is not the possible way.

The story i consider a failed attempt is available cost free:

And no, I need no reviews (got my critics & beta-readers by now). 😉

Valerie Francis says:

Hi Andre,

I’m so glad you found the article helpful. There’s a full Story Grid analysis of Dracula coming out later this year. You might find that interesting as well.

Andre Michael Pietroschek says:

Dear Valerie, thanks for your precious time & the hint on the analysis! Have a nice day.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.