We writers can often fall into the very tempting trap of over-developing our protagonists and ignoring our villains. We tend to put all of our fantasies into our hero. We make them dashing, charming, quick of wit and quicker with a blade and we make sure no one can stand before them. But then, inevitably the story becomes flat, one dimensional, boring.
A good villain adds drama and suspense and challenges your hero, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually and morally. If your hero spends the whole book with the unyielding belief that they are perfect then they become unlikable.
But we can just as easily fall prey to the opposite. Creating a monster, a caricature of evil who is evil just for the sheer pleasure of it can become just as tedious. Villains need depth, history and motive. The more real they are, the more terrifying they are.
There’s no recipe for a perfect villain, but I’ve read advice from some of the finest writers in the world, (and sprinkled in some of my far less valuable insight), and put it together so hopefully you can at least get started.
Figure out why your villain is the way they are. The loss of a loved one? A traumatic experience or injury? Have they lost their rationale or are they seeking revenge? If your reader understands your villain, and can relate to his process in some way, then their evil becomes more believable, and thus more impactful. Put yourself in your villain’s shoes. What would have to happen for you to become as villainous as them. A good writer must become every one of their characters.
Your villain shouldn’t be 100% evil. Don’t spoil your reader’s experience by offering them a pantomime villain strutting about among your well-written characters. Your villain needs depth as much as, if not more, than any other character. They need doubt and motivation to be believable. “Villains are real people whom terrible things have happened.”
I’ve mentioned a lot that a good villain needs to have depth. That depth may come in the form of positive qualities. I don’t necessarily mean your villain has to care for the poor or help an old lady across the street. But maybe they’re a good leader, an honorable soldier or show wisdom. In my opinion the perfect villain is a character your readers root against whole-heatedly, but whom they can’t wait to read about.