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4 Techniques for Creating Believable Villains

The protagonist's conflict with an opposing force—usually in the form of another character—is the essence of every novel.

The protagonist's conflict with an opposing force—usually in the form of another character—is the essence of every novel. And what can be more fun than turning that opposing character into a serious baddie—a truly despicable fellow with no redeeming qualities? Take the fun too far, though, and you'll create a one-dimensional "cartoon character" who leaves readers feeling cheated, says author James Scott Bell in Conflict & Suspense.

Bell offers these strategies for creating multifaceted, believable bad guys:

  1. Do a complete backstory for your villain. Look for those places in his past that explain why he does what he does in the present.
  2. Allow yourself to find a sympathy factor. If you can make the reader feel this, it lends a powerful current of emotion to the experience. It's not that you're approving of the action of the bad guy, but you're forcing yourself to see him as less than pure evil.
  3. Justify the bad guy's position. No matter how bad it seems to you, the bad guy thinks he's in the right. He does what he does because he thinks he's entitled.
  4. Give at least one beat in your story where the justification is made clear. This will create a crosscurrent of emotion in the reader, and that is what you want.

Read an excerpt from Conflict & Suspense here:

Conflict & Suspense excerpt

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