At Story Grid we spend a lot of time studying and analyzing story. We look at the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey and the side characters that make up a facet of the main character. But what about the villain? What is a story without a really good antagonist? It can be a good story or even a great story. But once you experience a truly amazing villain, you can never go back. The following examples are stories, both in film and literature, that have stayed with me over the years, not only because the protagonist was flawed and interesting, but because I caught myself at one point or another rooting for the villain.
Having a villain that stands out either as one that readers love to hate or even love, can take your story to the next level. At the same time, a villain that is subpar or evil for the sake of evil can make your story fall flat.
So what makes a good villain? Let’s have a look at some of the best, and figure it out.
Billy Russo: Netflix Original The Punisher
The first villain I chose was the first one that truly had me losing my story-loving mind by the end of the season. Billy Russo in the Netflix original, The Punisher. If you haven’t seen it and want to, there are spoilers ahead.
Why did I choose a TV show instead of a book for the first villain? I’ve noticed that while nothing beats studying the written word of masters like Jane Austen and Thomas Harris, there is something to be said about the way actors portray characters. The way that Jon Bernthal (Frank Castle), Ben Barnes (Billy Russo) and Amber Rose Revah (Madani) portray these characters is a lesson in and of itself. They take it to the next level and figuring out how to describe that in a book without slowing down the pace or making it boring is something we as authors, should be looking at during revisions.
Back to Billy. Anyone who’s familiar with the comics can tell you Billy is destined to become Jigsaw, one of Frank Castle’s nemeses. Far from a comic aficionado, I also knew this to be Billy’s fate from the first episode so I wasn’t expecting much. Boy was I surprised in the best way.
A little back story: Frank Castle, AKA the Punisher, is a Marine who finished up his time in Afghanistan and came home only to see his family murdered. The season opens with Frank, killing a member of a drug cartel he believes is responsible for killing his family. Then he’s trying his best to live a normal life. Go to work, eat, go to sleep, read a little and fight his severe PTSD.
Meanwhile, Agent Madani of Homeland Security is investigating a case and Frank is her best lead.
Billy is Frank’s best friend who transitioned into civilian life by starting a mercenary firm that hires former military and trains them to the standard created by his Marine Corps background. As the show progresses we learn that there is another villain, known as Agent Orange, a member of the CIA who was Frank and Billy’s superior. He also used the bodies of KIA’s to run heroin from Afghanistan to the States. Not cool.
Why is Billy the focus instead of Agent Orange for this demonstration? They are both motivated by greed and money but Billy has a much more personal connection to Frank and motivations you can understand even if you don’t agree with him. He also has on-screen moments that really made him real, while Agent Orange is left feeling flat and evil for the sake of evil. If you choose to watch the show after reading this I recommend paying close attention to both characters.
Let’s focus on the moments Billy shows his true colors. Or at least that he’s a Shapeshifter.
- We discover Billy knew Frank and his family would be in the middle of the gang war that killed his family. Not only did Billy know about the hit. He knew it was set up to kill Frank. And he did nothing about it. Remember, Frank’s family was Billy’s family.
- Next, the Agent of Homeland Security who was in Afghanistan and investigating the death of an Afghani cop (who was killed by Frank and Billy and their men at the behest of–you guessed it– Agent Orange) is called home and told to stop investigating. Agent Madani can’t let it go though, as she knew the cop personally and felt she was close to getting answers. She gets put on the trail of Frank and there for Billy when she gets an anonymous tip in the form of a video. She meets Billy as Frank is in hiding with a new identity and, you know, supposed to be dead. However, this is where the romance between Billy and Madani begins. This is key to understanding one of Billy’s most standout, evil moments.
- When Frank realizes the cartel was not responsible for the death of his family, he starts to stir things up. This gets both Madani and Billy’s attention. Billy needs to kill Frank and Madani needs to catch him in order to put the pieces of her case together. Madani and her partner, Sam, set a trap. Who they catch in the trap, though, is not Frank. It’s Billy and his team of mercenaries. Sam catches Billy as he tries to escape and Billy removes his ski mask, revealing his identity to the agent. He then waits for Sam to try and cuff him and stabs him in the throat. The actors portray this scene beautifully. Billy watches as Sam’s emotions shoot across his face, surprise, betrayal, fear. Billy runs off as Madani approaches. She holds Sam as he dies. The next time we see Billy and Madani, he’s washing Sam’s blood off her in her bathroom as she shakes, clearly in shock and then tucks her into bed. To cause that kind of pain and then wash the blood from the person most affected by it is profound. And to watch these amazing actors bring that to life. It’s still burned into my mind.
Billy does more and there’s a whole lot between him and Frank, but this moment, when he’s tenderly washing her friend’s blood from Madani’s body, knowing her history and knowing that he was the one who killed her friend. That’s the moment I realized villains who are more than just evil, but cunning and manipulative, charismatic even, are better. I knew his history and still wouldn’t have thought him capable of that.
How actors can help you write
Before I wrap up this part of our study, I need to mention the use of humor in this show. Just reading what I’ve written here it sounds overbearingly awful. It sounds painfully horrific. And when you look at it like this it is. But, the actual story is broken up with humor, as even the worst moments of life truly are. Billy is funny and entertaining as he is causing complete and utter chaos on all those around him. Frank, also wreaking havoc, has that same sense of humor you find in all Marines. Dark, a little inappropriate and perfectly timed. A character I haven’t mentioned yet is a CIA analyst who found the video and provided the tip for Madani. Micro is his pseudonym and he teams up with Frank to create a fantastic comic relief duo that lightens up the series and helps you keep going despite the horrible moments these characters have to endure.
Agent Orange and Billy Russo Comparison/Overview
- Murderous: As a Marine, he gets used to doing what has to be done but, like Frank, he loses sight of when it’s actually necessary. Which is part of why fans like this duo. We root for Frank to succeed because he motivated by revenge. Billy has a lot of the same motivations but he still comes out the villain because he chooses himself over his friend.
- Personal: He’s Frank’s best friend. They’ve been brothers since they met in the Marines. He hangs out with Frank’s family and the kids call him “Uncle Billy”.
- Manipulative: Particularly regarding Agent Madani. Cleaning Sam’s blood off her after he was the one who slit his throat being the pivotal moment.
- Desperate: Billy is desperate to overcome his troubled past as a kid in the foster system through money and power.
- Strategic: Everything Billy does is to maintain his power. Even though he ends up essentially being Agent Orange’s attack dog, he’s desperate to maintain that illusion.
- Cruel: If we weren’t sure how nasty he was, we find out his mother is in a hospital and being kept there by him. He injects her with some serum that keeps her completely immobile because she was a drug addict and couldn’t take care of him as a child.
- Murderous: This guy is pretty much evil for the sake of evil and doesn’t care about the lives of others. This is one of the things that makes him feel flat.
- Personal: It’s personal for Agent Orange, not so much for Frank and Billy until he orders Billy to kill Frank’s family. He was Frank and Billy’s superior in Afghanistan and a politician. Frank punched him so hard after making a bad call that got a lot of Marines killed and injured that it messed up his eye.
- Manipulative: He uses power and his injured eye to lie, cheat, and steal anything he wants or needs, including a coveted position in the CIA, dragging a politician with a spotless career into the mud with him.
- We don’t know much about his past at all. It’s still super satisfying when he gets what’s coming to him. More about villains we love to hate later.
- Strategic: He has his sights set on political office and will say and do anything to keep it.
Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice
All right, not everything is a military revenge story so let’s have a look at a great villain from Jane Austen. The handsome, manipulative–there’s that word again–Mr. Wickham. Along with Wickham, Pride and Prejudice has a villain in society. By all means, Lizzy and Mr. Darcy should not end up together. It’s not how these things worked back then and, in fact, destroyed Austen’s own chance at marriage according to the letters that remain from her and her sister’s correspondence. But for today, I want to focus on active characters. It’s also one of the driving forces behind Mr. Wickham’s misdeeds.
From the moment Wickham meets Lizzy, he’s manipulating her, playing off her family’s circumstances and her desire to find love. You can see him getting close to Lydia at the same time he’s sowing his seeds of doubt about Darcy. Of course, Lizzy has already made up her mind about Darcy and laps up all the bad Wickham wants to dish out so she’s not completely innocent in this. But it also plays right back into the main theme of the book. Don’t assume you know someone because of their first meeting or appearance. You don’t, and can’t, know someone after that short time. Ask someone who’s been married for years and they’ll tell you they’re still learning things about their spouse.
It’s hard to say, but since Wickam seems to be keeping tabs on Darcy it’s fair to say that news of Darcy’s feelings for Lizzy reached Wickham’s ears before he decided to really go after Lydia. Either that or he must have learned about her uncle’s wealth. He wouldn’t have gone after her just because she was an easy target. He’s more manipulative than that and, as is speculated, there’s no way he would have married her for the one hundred pounds a year her father was able to offer. I’d love to see more of Wickam and what Austen had been thinking about his targeting Lydia.
Austen writes in little nuances that help the reader decipher Wickham’s motives looking back. If you haven’t read it in a while, or ever, read the parts with Wickham and pay attention to where Lydia is and what she’s doing. You’ll be surprised.
Wickham is malicious in his plotting and desperate to go up in the world. Even when he gets what he wants (the cost of the living from Darcy) he gambles it away in an attempt to quickly and easily make more money.
Overview of Mr. Wickham
- Murderous: Only of reputations. He’s a soldier sure but he’s far from a killer of anything other than a Lady’s reputation.
- Personal: He grew up with Darcy and believes he should have an equal station to Darcy despite his birth. He can’t comprehend how to have a good life with the cards he was dealt. Had he taken the rectory on the Darcy estate he would have been comfortable and could have a good life for the time. Instead, he wanted more and chose gambling as the way to get it. Naturally, that didn’t work out.
- Manipulation: To get what he wants, he is constantly manipulating young women and ruining their futures. Luckily Miss Darcy had her brother looking out for her. And luckily he was also there to help Lydia out of a bind she had no idea she was even in. He also manipulates Lizzy when they first meet. Whether to try and get her to run off with him or simply to keep at arm’s length from the person who could out his nasty behavior, I’m not sure.
- Strategic: I always assumed Wickam was interested in Lizzy at first. But now I think he had his sights set on the less proper sister from the outset and he was just covering his butt. It’s like he was playing a game of chess no one else, except perhaps Darcy, was aware of.
Rhoda: The Bad Seed by William March
This is a case where I feel the screenplay plays up Rhoda a bit better than the book. The idea behind this story was, what if some people are just born bad? What if nurture had little to do with it?
Little Rhoda Penmark is an eight-year-old serial killer. In the book, William March focuses a little too much on the parents feeling that Rhoda is different and strange. In the movie, we see Rhoda and can tell she’s good at —wait for it– manipulating adults to get her way, but children are manipulative. They just are. So this isn’t terribly concerning. The film jumps into the root of the problem right away. At the end-of-year picnic for Rhoda’s school, a little boy, Claude Dagel, drowns. It’s ruled an accident at first but we quickly learn Rhoda had been paying the boy more attention than normal. He’d won a penmanship medal she worked all year for and she was chasing him and trying to take it.
She tells her mother and the authorities that it was just a game and she didn’t mean any harm. But it becomes clearer as her mother, Christine, learns more and more disturbing facts about her daughter. She realizes the Daigle boy was not the first time Rhoda had killed because of greed or pride either. Finding the penmanship medal in Rhoda’s things is the last piece of evidence she needs. When confronted, Rhoda plays on Christine’s need to shelter and protect her child. Again, manipulating her mother to get what she wants.
The reason Rhoda makes this list isn’t that she’s overly cunning. She’s not, she’s an eight-year-old. It’s the fact that she’s so young and so clearly evil. Oddly enough, her real-world counterpart, Mary Bell, was born the year after the film was released, two years after the book. Mary Bell was ten when she took her first life. She strangled a toddler in her neighborhood. She had a far from ideal upbringing though, unlike Rhoda. Her mother suffered from Munchausen by proxy and was constantly tormenting her child and making her ill to get attention. Mary did receive help and was released from the mental hospital at 21. She has a new identity and a family. I bring up the real-world example for a few reasons. March was trying to explore a possibility and was not overly concerned with the real world, simply the “what if?” of it all.
As authors, we can benefit from real-world examples. The writers for The Punisher knew Marines and their culture, making it fit the audience beautifully. March did fairly well telling this story and showing the horror of a good parent realizing their child went so horribly wrong, but I think he may have benefitted from and been able to bring Christine’s pain to life a bit better with some real-world research. Perhaps if he was writing it in 2019 instead of 1954. Still a great story to look into as you study villains.
One thing March nailed with this story was the reader’s inability to look away as soon as you realize what Rhoda is capable of. In the book, Christine drops Rhoda off for the picnic after a morning of hearing about how Rhoda and not the Daigle boy should have won the medal. Then while they’re at the picnic we learn more about Rhoda’s history. How and why she was expelled from her last school and so on. A feeling of dread for the little boy starts to set in long before you learn his fate.
If you watch the movie, watch the 1956 one with Nancy Kelly and Patty MacCormack. The 2018 remake with Rob Lowe leaves something to be desired. And I didn’t care enough to figure out what.
- Murderous: By the end of the story she has killed three people. The first, a neighbor she pushed down the stairs for a trinket the older woman said she’d leave to Rhoda in her will. The second, the little Daigle boy, and the last one is the groundskeeper who figured out she’d killed the little boy and threatened to turn her in. She’s young and rash. She noticed when she kills someone to get what she wants, no one looks twice at her because of her age. As with all children, she learned from experience. In this case though, what she learned was that murder is a good way to get what you want.
- Personal: It can’t get more personal than a mother and child. Rhoda’s deeds, however, were never against her mother. At least not yet. A brief study of serial killers can tell you it would only be a matter of time. Though Jeffrey Dahmer never did and he had a childhood that could be considered ideal until the divorce of his parents when he was eighteen.
- Manipulative: She manipulates every situation and everyone around her. She fails to hide it well enough though. The janitor, another disturbed individual, recognizes it in Rhoda right away and so do her own mother and father.
- Strategic: It’s obvious Rhoda is calculating but she fails to see the long term effects of her actions, as you’d expect from a child. She started killing long before she could see “20 moves ahead”.
Emily: A Simple Favor by Darcy Bell
This is another one where you can catch the film or read the book. The book is from the perspective of Stephanie. A widowed mommy blogger who is asked to take her friend Emily’s son after school. A simple favor that is asked of her fairly often so she thinks nothing of it. Until no one comes to pick little Nicky up. When she tries to get help everyone tells her Emily is on a business trip. Stephanie assumes she misunderstood Emily. It becomes apparent, however, that Emily is missing. Her body is found by her family’s lake house. And that’s where the story really starts to get interesting.
Adapted beautifully into a film by making Stephanie a Mommy Vlogger, this is one where the actors really brought a lot to the table. I enjoyed the book as well but the way the film is shot and cut together added a lot that is hard to create in written form, though Darcey Bell did a wonderful job.
Stephanie becomes an amateur sleuth unraveling a web of lies. What makes Emily hit this list is her weaknesses. She’s a con artist who essentially catches feelings for her life and particularly her child, Nicky. This makes her 100% relatable. As a mom, I connected with Stephanie and her loneliness. As she picks apart Emily’s life though, you find yourself thinking she did what she had to. Can you really blame her? Yes, you can, she’s a murderer, but the point is you have a moment of doubt and understanding. If you were in her position, would you have made a different choice?
- Murderous: Only when she has to be. She’s calculating and murder is messy and tends to draw attention so she doesn’t do it often but won’t shy away from it either.
- Make it Personal: Emily only knows the personal game. She kills members of her family then makes a new family and then selects her husband and Stephanie because she can manipulate them.
- Manipulative: As soon as Stephanie starts talking to Emily’s husband it becomes clear she’s been lying. But to who? And why? She manipulates both her friend and her spouse into position for the ultimate game of cat and mouse.
- Strategic: See the above. She is not only setting up the game thinking twenty moves out, but she’s also got the other two players doing everything she wants. When they start to put the pieces together and play for themselves, that’s when things get really interesting.
Artemis Entreri originally from the Legend of Drizzt series by RA Salvatore and Striker from Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series
Artemis Entreri is an assassin and thief in the Forgotten Realms universe. For those who don’t know, the Forgotten Realms started out as a D&D campaign back in the 60s. The first Forgotten Realms products rolled onto the scene in the late 80s. As it picked up steam, authors were brought on board to write for the universe and their characters.
The first time readers meet Artemis he’s been hired to kidnap the halfling, Regis. Regis is with the dark elf, Drizzt, who also happens to be the protagonist of the books and the opposite of Artemis.
In Streams of Silver (Drizzt book 2) Artemis and Drizzt are fighting in a mountain tunnel that collapses. Finding themselves trapped in a tunnel of Mithral Hall surrounded by a mutual foe. Forced to die or work together, the pair team up to escape. Once out, Artemis snatches Regis but instead of running off to complete the task he was hired for, he lures Drizzt into another battle. Why? Because Artemis is motivated not by money, but by competition. He loves a challenge and needs to beat the dark elf to be the best fighter. Anyone with a competitive bone in their body can relate to this character. He’s also fairly easy to write. He’s motivated by being the best, no matter what else is going on, if he finds a competent fighter, it’s on.
Drizzt is a relatable protagonist as well. He comes from a horrible city where men are used for making babies and hard labor and that’s about it. But growing up in a warrior culture where he was hated and despised made him seek acceptance.
Artemis grew up as an orphan trying to join a guild. His past is revealed in later books as the character grew a cult following. This is why I chose him. It’s not every day an author gets to take their villain and make them the protagonist of their own series and a slew of short stories.
Artemis’ motivations are understandable. When he returns to a town from his youth and kills the man who molested him, you’re rooting for him the whole time. When he threatens a church, who abused his mother, to treat the locals well or he’ll be back to kill them all, you find yourself almost daring them not to listen. There’s something satisfying about a vigilante. And when he is the bad guy, people know the lengths he’ll go to win, making him infinitely more terrifying.
- Murderous: The guy is an assassin so yeah, he’s murderous. For the right price, be it coin or justice.
- Personal: It’s more personal for Artemis than Drizzt. When Artemis takes Regis, Drizzt’s friend, it’s personal. But once his friend is safe, Drizzt has no reason to fight Artemis anymore. Artemis needs to be the best fighter and he doesn’t know he is until he defeats the dark elf.
- Manipulative: While he uses the fear caused by his reputation, he doesn’t deliberately manipulate people to get what he wants. He is manipulated, however, by the dark elf Jarlaxle who finds him amusing and helpful. This is key to taking a villain and making them a protagonist. No one likes to be manipulated so it’s tough for a reader to get behind a protagonist who does this.
- Strategic: Artemis is definitely thinking at least 20 moves ahead. If not more.
Striker is the villain of a number of the Dark-Hunter books by Sherrilyn Kenyon. He never really stood out to me though. He was almost annoying. The same villain every time, fighting the same fight he couldn’t win because this is, at its heart, a romance series.
Until Kenyon wrote a book where he was the hero. It was a great read and made the Dark-Hunter universe uncertain. At the time I was starting to get bored with it (and eventually did) but this book pulled me back in. If you can use a villain to pull readers in, do it.
In this case, it wasn’t the fan base that liked the character so much we demanded this book. It was the author letting us know she had more to say. It was almost like she had challenged herself. “Readers hate this guy, so I’m going to make them love him.” What we need to look at here is why she was able to make us love him after he tortured our favorite heroes and killed thousands of people?
She made it his life or theirs. She showed the readers his kids. His children were going to die because their grandfather cursed them to die a slow and painful death on their 27th birthday. What would you do to save your children from a fate like that? I can’t say honestly, but I can now understand why he went to the extremes he did. Why he fights the way he does.
If you had to die a painful death over 24 hours on your 27th birthday or kill someone else and live longer, which would you choose?
- Murderous: He kills on a daily basis to keep himself and his family alive.
- Manipulative: He’s actually pretty straightforward when it comes to the protagonist in the stories. However, he is constantly manipulating the other villains and gods around him.
- Strategic: He is not 20 moves ahead, though you think he is in the books leading up to his. He feels all-powerful and unbeatable. Until you see he’s almost in a constant state of reaction from the curse his father put on him and his family.
- Personal: He goes for the hurt every time. He will do what he has to do to throw you off balance so he can kill you. I guess after your children are attacked by your own father, anything goes.
Joffrey from A Song of Ice and Fire
A character who fans love to hate is rare. They’re usually found in revenge stories and often you can come across them in history books and politics.
One such character can be found in George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, aptly renamed after the first book in the series by HBO, Game of Thrones. This series is rife with characters who fans wanted to see die. This is not normal for me, I don’t generally call for a character’s death but I found myself wishing for it over and over. For Cersei, Littlefinger, and Theon (though I hate what happened to him. Death would have been kinder.) and many more. But Joffrey was the one that takes the cake. When he called for the death of his future bride’s dog. That was the moment many of us started watching just to see when that little turd was going to get what was coming to him. And that wasn’t even the worst thing he ended up doing.
In case you missed it, here it is again. I and other fans I know watched specifically to see what would happen to this villain. The main characters were interesting. The Starks and Tyrion Lannister and of course the Mother of Dragons, but I was there to see Joffrey’s demise. In fact, I all but stopped watching after he died. I never finished the series. Once Ramsey died, I was good. I could stop and not worry about it.
A lot of people don’t want to watch The Game of Thrones and the books might be even harder to digest but George can write a damn good villain. If you want to write someone who is truly evil but well rounded with very human motives, check out that series.
What if your villain isn’t human?
Sometimes villains aren’t human. Think The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. A book based on the true story of some Boston fisherman who inadvertently plots their course between two hurricanes. Or an animal like Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.
In these cases, it’s less about making the villain human and more about making it merciless. Have you ever been in the middle of a powerful storm? The storm will do what it’s going to do regardless of you.
The same when an animal is hunting you. They need food. It’s very basic and merciless.
Recap: What makes a good villain?
Really good villains are human. They have honor and beliefs. Shawn Coyne makes a really good point in the Story Grid Podcast Episode 139 “Writing a Good Villain.” He talks about exploring what makes a person “go to the dark side”. You need to step into your villain’s shoes so to speak and argue his point until you buy it. Let’s look go back to Mr. Wickham from Pride and Predjudice for a moment. All he really wanted, was more out of life than the class he was born into would allow. Can you blame him? We don’t know what he tried before Lizzy meets him. He has a very real and very human motivation that most of us can understand. You don’t have to go hungry for long to realize that’s not something you ever want to do again. Now, had he taken the living Darcy promised him he could have raised a nice family and had a satisfactory life for most people. But he never would have been satisfied. Which is worse?
Now Rhoda is different. As a child, her world is small and so are her motivations. A medal seems so silly to kill over but for Rhoda, that medal represented an entire year of dedication and hard work that she was told didn’t matter. As an eight-year-old, that’s a big deal. Make sure your villain’s motivations suit them.
Once your villain has a good argument, you need to figure out what you want from them. Are they going to be funny? Horrific? A character readers love to hate? This choice is key to the tone of your story. Your hero may have a devil may care attitude and the villain should be just the opposite kind of crazy. A yin and yang so to speak. I like to look at my protagonist and imagine if they were the antagonist. Flip-flopping the roles can help you work in realistic reactions and know exactly where everyone’s breaking points are. There’s a symmetry to a villain who is the protagonist had they made one different decision. The idea that the MC is teetering on the edge and that the villain is even helping them stay on the side of “good” is always interesting.
I like humorous villains. I like to laugh in general, you may like to be terrified. Whatever you choose, make sure you have it nailed down before you begin writing or your next round of revisions. Do what you like and you’ll never get bored.
I asked a lot of questions and you’ll notice Shawn asks a lot in the podcast on this subject. That’s because your answers will help you figure out your antagonist. They don’t have to be just like you. But if you need your villain to kill a dog, take a minute and think about the kind of person that could do it and think about what could drive you to that point. Now that I’ve given you a whole lot to think about, get back to it. That draft won’t finish itself.
Need help getting back to writing? Visit RavensQuillPublishing.com to receive a free guide to choosing the right editor at the right time.