…and how do I genuinely make my villain more human?

If the villain of your story insists on demanding huge ransoms while cackling demonically and perhaps even stroking a pet cat, it’s time to do some serious editing! And your villain doesn’t need to be exaggerated to need editing – they may be just a little bit too much on the unrealistic side to be believable. Writing believably evil characters is hard.

If you want your reader to see your villain as human, and not as a caricature, there’s a simple exercise you can do. It will take some work, but the results will be worth it.

And no, it’s not a case of simply adding a couple of ‘nice’ or ‘redeeming’ characteristics to your villain. There can be a temptation to do just that – perhaps the villain really loves animals (and especially their pet cat Fluffy) or perhaps they enjoy reading classic novels and dancing ballet in their spare time. No one can be all bad if they love Jane Austen, right?

The trouble is, those redeeming characteristics that try to ‘balance out’ the evilness won’t make the villain more human if they’re still cackling away and following other classic villain behaviours. Worse, the redeeming characteristics have no bearing on the story. We’ll get a scene where the villain feeds Fluffy his favourite cat food that’s imported specially from some remote corner of the Seychelles, and we think “what was the point of that scene?”

To make a villain more human, the writer needs to get inside the mind of the villain and understand why they’re behaving the way they are. This takes more than just giving the villain an arbitrary motivation: ‘the villain has always been an outcast and has come to believe everyone hates him/her and now wants revenge’. That’s too haphazard – people simply don’t work like that. One of our jobs as writers is to understand people, and we can do better than that.

Spend some time inside the mind of your villain. What has brought your villain to this point in their life? How do they feel about their life? What does your villain want, and how do they think they would feel if they achieved that goal? What do they stand to lose if they fail to reach that goal, and how would that make them feel? Emotions are often the key to why people do what they do, so dig deep – consider what’s going on under the surface. What are the emotions your villain might not want to admit to experiencing? Could they feel jealous, ashamed, scared, guilty, powerless, embarrassed, unworthy?

When we truly understand what makes the villain tick, we create the most frightening villains of all – because those are the villains that the readers can relate to.