Three Tips to Writing Good Bad Guys

The author, Bethany Jennings (, recently sent out a list of thirty-one WIP Joy Themes. It got me thinking. I had to add my own joy theme: why I love writing about villains.

Writing about villains gives us a chance to be bad. The author gets carte blanche to say bad things, do bad things, think bad things on the page. And each and every choice is legitimate and can be excused because he’s bad, right?

Um, no.

Here are a few tips to writing good bad guys.
1. He or she won’t be bad all the time. If they are, they come across as two-dimensional, cardboard cutout bad guys. Make them interesting by making their choices interesting. For example, he’s a serial killer, but has a penchant for rescuing stray dogs. This leads to my second point.

2. Give him a chance for redemption. To make your bad guy more thought provoking, give him the chance to make a good choice. Think Darth Vader’s saving of Luke in The Return of the Jedi or Severus Snape’s deathbed tears given to Harry in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (I apologize to those of you who haven’t seen either of these movies. If you haven’t, go watch them. Now.) Both Darth Vader and Severus Snape became infinitely more fascinating when they made choices that seemed out of character.

3. Make sure there’s motivation for his behavior, either good or bad. To follow up my theme in #1, he’s a serial killer because his mother beat him all through his childhood. When he kills, he releases the anger and powerlessness he carried all through his teens. In addition, every person he kills resembles his mother. Nothing is worse than excusing his choices by claiming, “He’s a bad guy!” Yes, he is, but there should be a reason for his bad actions.

So check your work in progress. Give your baddie a goal, a story arc, and an excellent backstory. Flesh him out; make him three-dimensional. Don’t allow your villain to be fade-into-the-page boring. After all, there’s no excuse for bad writing.

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