How to Write an Effective Villain

by Elizabeth Mazer

Romantic suspense writers are amazing. The way that my fantastic Love Inspired Suspense authors balance compelling characters, fast pacing, strong conflicts, terrifying danger, deep faith and sweet, satisfying romance into each story never fails to impress me. Writing a good romantic suspense story isn’t easy, but when it works wow how it dazzles. How can you make that happen for your story? There’s plenty of advice I could give about where to focus your efforts, and yet the first thing that comes to mind might surprise you. It’s not the hero, the heroine, the setting, pacing, level of danger, intricacy of the plot…

It’s the villain. I am a champion of those poor, underappreciated bad guys—those immoral killers, those conniving tricksters—and you should be, too. Show them more love! Give them your time and attention and watch how they flourish, achieving whole new heights of wicked villainy.

Honestly, the villain is the heart of your story. He (or she! or they!) makes it all happen. In your mental plot party, the hero and heroine bring the warmth, the charm, the strong sense of duty and gradually blossoming love—but the excitement and adrenaline-rush don’t step through the door until the villain arrives, complete with gunshots and heart-stopping danger.

As well as you know your protagonists, that’s how well you should know your villain. What are his goals and motivations? What is he willing to do to get what he wants? What’s standing in his way? And how does every action he takes play into his grand scheme?

Imagine a heroine sees something she wasn’t supposed to see, and bolts before the villain can stop her. Once the villain tracks her down, what does he do? Does he send her a threatening note? Why would he do that? He doesn’t want her on her guard, he wants her oblivious so he can sneak up right behind her. Warning her would defeat the purpose—and might make her go to the police, who could get in the way of the villain’s plan. So don’t start your story with a threatening note—start it with the heroine waking up in the middle of the night to someone breaking into her house. Start it with her discovering her car brakes have been cut. Start it with a gunshot that comes out of nowhere as the heroine’s first hint that she’s not safe anymore.

Or if you want something more complicated, maybe the heroine knows some info the villain badly needs—something only she can tell him. Will he try to kill her? Nah, she can’t tell him anything if she’s dead. Will he threaten her? Maybe…but with what? Death? Killing her is a no-go and scaring her with almost deadly situations could lead to her accidentally dying after all. Could he hold one of her loved ones hostage? Could he blackmail her with the threatened exposure of some past secret? Could he trick his way into her trust, manipulating her into thinking he’s trying to help her find the culprit of the attacks he planned himself? Before the story even starts, your villain needs to be asking himself these questions—and finding answers that get him everything he wants.

That’s the fun part of villains—they have a plan. Whether they want to steal an inheritance, cover up a murder, orchestrate a smuggling ring, or take over the world, the villain knows what he needs to do from the start. Villains aren’t reactive—they start the ball rolling and keep it rolling. While the hero and heroine are dodging bullets and wondering what on earth is going on, the villain is giving an evil laugh and telling his hairless cat that everything is going according to plan.

Dig deeper into your villains, and watch the story fall into place. Once you know how your villain has decided to threaten/attack/connive his way into what he wants, you’ll know what your hero and heroine are up against. And with those high stakes and ruthless plans in place… the party begins! Questions? Thoughts? Villainous plans you’d like to share? Leave a comment! I’ll be checking in to reply.

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Comments

  1. LeTeisha Newton

    Wow. This was really informative! That’s so true. I worked with my villain for my Nocturne piece for about a weak creating her back-story and to what extent she’s willing to go. She’s not about killing outright, but she sure will make you wish you were, so you don’t want to ignore what she tells you to do in the future!

  2. Carol Opalinski

    Great post! Thank you so much.

    In my romantic suspense entry, the villain is a traitor within law enforcement who has revealed the location of a witness my heroine is protecting. There are some narrow misses as the villain tracks them.

    My question is: Should the villain be allowed to succeed part of the time to make him more menacing? Or are narrow misses by the H/h okay?

  3. Wow, thank you so much!!! I’ve always thought my villains just evil–and they are–but now I see I need to know them better than I do, the why behind them, I think I’ve neglected my bad guys.

    If my villain is partly/temporarily successful, I can see it’s going to cause angst and issues for my hero, is that ok as long as it makes sense and if it’s a series of stories, can the bad guy move on to the next story in a Harlequin?

  4. Jacquie Biggar

    This was so helpful, I’m working on my first ms of RS and my villian is a large part of the story. I know that he can’t be the main character but his story was as important to me as the hero and Heroine’s are, just in a different way. I agree that they should be an integral part of a good Suspense, 🙂

  5. Thank you Elizabeth! I’ve given my villain a lot of depth in my paranormal romance ms and am frankly a little concerned he may be a little too wicked, especially after the Twitter session today lol!!! Are there lines a romance author should not cross when creating a villain even if it makes sense within the story? For example, sexual aggression from villain to heroine? Thanks again for imparting your wisdom!

  6. Elizabeth– In reading LIS books, I find most begin with danger . . . . Is there no option to begin, as Robert McKee would suggest, on a positive and end on a negative? Begin in world of common day then turn dark and dangerous with the heroine being irrevocably committed to the new circumstances? Lulling but with elements of foreshadowing? Don’t want to kick myself in the shins by not following rules. Guidelines say introduced in chapter one, but most LIS start right off the bat with danger so I wondered if it were a mark of genre or style.

  7. Elizabeth Mazer

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! I’m glad you all found the post interesting and helpful. As for the specific questions:

    Carol: I think narrow misses might actually be cases where the villain IS succeeding. After all, they think they’re well-hidden and yet he keeps finding them, right? Other villain victories could be him managing to eliminate some of the hero or heroine’s allies, or putting allies of his own in a position to harm them. Don’t forget, the excitement comes from wondering if THIS is going to be the time the villain manages to stop the hero and heroine once and for all, so let him come close to succeeding–it’ll just make your story that much more exciting.

    Melinda: Part of the happily-ever-after at the end of the story is knowing that the hero and heroine are no longer in harm’s way which usually means that the villain has to be neutralized so he can’t hurt them anymore. That’s not to say it would be impossible to use the same villain in a later story–perhaps he breaks out of jail, seeking revenge, and since he can’t find the hero, he decides to target the hero’s sister, for example–but I feel like it would be challenging to pull off.

    CJ: Interesting question! One of the real difficulties you’ll face as an author is deciding just how much your hero or heroine can realistically handle. It takes me out of the story when I don’t believe the character can recover quickly enough from the villain has thrown at them to be strong and put-together again by the final showdown. Can the heroine be assaulted by the villain? Yes–but I’d recommend against having it happen within the course of the story. Putting it in the backstory means the heroine will have time to deal with what she experienced and find coping methods, hopefully get counseling. By the time the events of the story roll around, she’ll still be scared, still have to struggle through her anxieties, but it’ll be more believable that she can deal with it. Having her move past that kind of experience too quickly wouldn’t feel realistic to the reader–and might seem to downplay just how tough the assault would be on the heroine. Additionally, putting the assault in the past means that the reader doesn’t have to live through the experience of what’s happening with her. I hope that makes sense!

    Thanks for the great questions! Feel free to keep them coming!

    -Elizabeth

  8. Thank you so much for the response Elizabeth. You have given me a feast for thought! Although my heroine is a dragon shapeshifter that pretty much gets her therapy from killing her assailant, lol, you’ve made me realize I need to reinforce/modify certain key points. I also feel a lot better that I am not completely twisted in thinking up such an assault! I truly appreciate it.

  9. This is a great article, Elizabeth, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us.
    My question: is villain pov acceptable in the LIS line? My plot is about a serial killer (actually, is *that* acceptable within LIS? I think I have read one there before) who’s attention is fixed on the heroine before she realises it is, and I thought a couple of paragraphs from his pov might be a good way to build tension.
    Majority is H/h of course.
    Thankyou!

  10. Thank you, Elizabeth!! I will take a better look at that, I know I don’t like bad guys that drag on forever, but it seems I need to have a good end in the first story and if he reappears, he’ll be permanently defeated then. Definitely some more thought needed, thank you for the advice and your time!!

  11. Elizabeth Mazer

    Lauren: You’re absolutely right that danger is where we usually prefer to see our LIS stories begin. Of course, that’s not to say that the first word of every story needs to be the “pow!” of a gunshot. If it fits better for your story to have the dramatic action kick off the suspense as the dramatic closing to your first chapter, then that can definitely work, too! But by the end of the first chapter, we need to see that the characters are very clearly in danger. And even up to that point, we’d like you to really hook the reader as strongly as possible, and action and excitement can be great hooks! Be wary of starting stories with lots of background or backstory. Make your opening dynamic and engaging as you set up the characters…and then drop them into a boatload of trouble!

    Amber: Well…that all depends–mostly on why he’s stalking her. Does he want to kill her? Kidnap her? Figure out her schedule so he can break into her house and steal something he badly wants that she doesn’t even realize she has? Is his plan to lock her in a basement as keep her as his prisoner? Does he want to scare her into leaving town, or quitting her job, or giving into his blackmail scheme? Before you can figure out what the villain will do, you have to know what he wants, and what he sees as the best way to get it. I hope that helps!

    Rachel: Thanks so much for asking, since this is a question that comes up a lot. The answer is no–we need our stories to stick to just hero and heroine POV. There can’t be scenes from the perspective of other characters, not even the villain. On the bright side, we’d be fine with serial killer villains!

    Feel free to keep the questions coming. 🙂 I’ll be checking in at least once a day all week.

    -Elizabeth

  12. Elizabeth Mazer

    Hi Lauren,
    Personally, I have a weakness for reunion romance stories. It just makes the tension that much tighter when the characters are struggling with unresolved feelings even as they’re forced to depend on each other. And since I’m close to my family, especially my sister, stories that include tight family connections really resonate with me. Also, it would be great to get atypical professions for the hero and heroine–or at least, atypical for suspense. Bodyguards, private investigators, and policemen make for great heroes, but there are so many other professions that could tie into really intriguing stories, and make yours stand out from the pack!
    -Elizabeth

  13. I have written two reunion romances, my favorite theme. Those are LI, however. Glad to hear you like close family stories– we have a close family as well and that resonates with me. Brainstorming plots all over my cork board . . . messy. 🙂 Thanks so much for taking time to answer.