How to make evil characters complex

How to make evil characters complex

Yesterday I warned against flattening your characters, especially the “enemy” ones you want your readers to hate. Today, I want to provide some tangible advice on how to accomplish this.

Below are some simple suggestions to make your villains, antagonists, enemies (characters) more complex. I think complexity is about compassion and conflict. It’s too easy to write a drunk abusive father, a womanizing pimp or a violent killer. For them to become round characters — to avoid being FLAT — you’ve got to write something in them that brings out their humanity.

Exposing our vulnerability is what makes us appreciate and connect with one another’s hurts. Typically, in therapy, a major goal for breakthrough is to help a patient become openly vulnerable, so to release the pain and shame inside. That’s what a good author does: make a villain vulnerable in the reader’s eyes. It will build tremendous conflict and help form characters who are more real. This advice will help you prevent forming caricatures in place of characters.

Imagine your villain has gone through years and years and years of therapy? What might you uncover in that one revealing session?

Here are a few suggestion:



It’s harder to hate someone when you discover he genuine loves someone other than himself. Villains who are self-absorbed, self-adoring are just laughably annoying. I read a novel once where the villain was so infatuated with himself that it made me hate him, which was probably well intended, but it was so overly done that it made me dislike the novel, too. That’s never good. Maybe it’s the loss of someone he loved that propels your villain to do evil (a little cliche, but this tactic is often used). I think that’s why people have grown such a fascination for Bonnie and Clyde, because as murderous and selfish and corrupt as they were, they loved each other and died together.



When we learn a villain had been a long-time victim of child abuse, whether physical, sexual or psychological, we suddenly bring our pitchforks down a little. We withdraw our attacks slightly. I believe in personal responsibility and a man who becomes a murderer is accountable for his own actions, but it does tug at our compassion sensibility when we learn someone had suffered great damage or hurt in his past. In the TV show, Lost, for example, Sawyer was a selfish con artist who robbed rich women by having their husbands buy in on a hokey investment, only to rob them and walk away. Except, during one of the cons, Sawyer walks away when he realizes a child is involved in the mix. As we learn, he was a victim of someone else’s con when he was a kid.



On the opposite scale of victim-hood, your enemy character could have once been someone of valor, bravery and integrity once. Maybe there is a residual hint of his former self in his current character. I’m not much of a Star Wars fan, but Darth Vader comes to mind in this case.


Mysterious or Eccentric

Maybe there isn’t anything morally redeemable about your villain. Instead, as bad as it sounds, your villain is simply fun to watch. He’s eccentric. Charismatic. Maybe he carries a mysterious past, with only hints of truth coming to the surface. One of my favorite Batman villains is the Joker. He’s so completely out of his mind and clearly unstable, yet he’s so incredibly charismatic. Even as he’s holding a knife to a girl’s cheek, he makes you want to listen to what he has to say, even if it’s all fabricated lies.



During a recent interview, short story writer George Saunders talked about how he had created a character who was a wretched womanizer. He ogled and degraded a woman’s image to sexual meat. How could Saunders make this character in any way likeable? He couldn’t. He made him deformed instead by cutting off the toes from one of his foot. The idea was to have the reader feel sorry for a man who might not receive any pity otherwise.



Maybe your villain doesn’t like doing evil. Maybe he’s obsessed or demented but he’s constantly hurting inside over this fact. We discover this in the serial killer in Red Dragon, when he desperately argues with his mother (in his head) that he doesn’t want to kill the blind woman he’s kidnapped at the end of the film. When Will Graham, the detective, reads the killer’s diary, he actually feels bad for the killer.



This, in a sense, ties back to the lover idea, but it doesn’t necessarily have to involve a love relationship. Your villain could simply care about a cause or a group of people that, as a result, has driven him to do evil. Is he justified in his actions? No, but it might be understandable or even earn the villain a little grace in the reader’s eyes. The compassion could appear for just a moment, as a hint to something greater. Imagine your villain rescuing an injured creature, nursing it back to life and letting it free.


Everyone has a weakness, and “enemy” characters shouldn’t be excluded. This, in a sense, falls along the category of “deformed” but this vulnerability doesn’t have to be physically visible. It could be emotional or psychological. Maybe your villain is deeply depressed or suicidal. In part, this idea runs along with an antagonist who is conflicted, but not necessarily. He could simply have a real weakness that would defeat him if left exposed to his enemies. Weakness, like all the other items on this list, is what makes people human.


Keep in mind that this list is not all inclusive. As I come up with more suggestions and ideas, I’ll fill them in. I’ve used the word “villain” a lot in this article, but we could simply be talking about a secondary character who is minor but pertinent to the story. It could be anyone, any character, you invent.


What about you?

What are some other methods to make antagonists more complex?

(Feature photo by PixieCold)


About Michel Sauret

I'm a independent and literary fiction author and Pittsburgh-based photographer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Scroll To Top