Bad Guys: Thoughts on Writing Them

Posted: October 9th, 2014 under Craft.

Many stories–especially in fantasy–include one or more bad guys–defined for the moment as someone in opposition to the protagonist.   I’ve written before about characterization, ways to approach creating characters that work as fiction but appeal to readers as real people.   But I haven’t specifically dealt with writing bad guys (villains, traitors, tyrants, etc.) , and there are differences in writing them because of the different roles they play in the story being written.   It would take a book (or more) to deal with all aspects of writing bad guys–and then it wouldn’t be complete because someone would invent another, and besides no two writers are likely to agree on what the difficulties are–but this is one way–just one way–to consider what goes into making a bad guy who is not too weak, too strong, too boring, too fascinating, too…much of anything, for the story in hand.

One of the first things to consider is the probable length of the story you’re writing.   I know, I keep writing books that I thought would be short stories (or at least not many-volume epics!), but story length has an effect on what kind of bad guy you can fit into it and still have room for anyone else.    In “Bargains,” a mere 1497 words,  the good guys were a pair of friends, an ex-mercenary and a modestly successful wizard: the bad guys were some dishonest merchants in league with a bandit gang.  There was no room for serious deep characterization of any of them, least of all the merchants and bandits–character was defined entirely by action.   The good guys paid honest money for what they bought; the bad guys cheated them and tried to rob and kill them.  Labels worked fine for readers to understand that the horse dealer, magic weapons seller, and bandits were bad guys.    Should a writer want to do a deep psychological study of a mass murderer/child rapist/torturer/ tyrant, etc. and the person who eventually brings that bad guy to judgment or rough justice or whatever,  a short story isn’t the right form to do it in.

Shorter works call for fewer characters and–with the possible exception of a single protagonist–simpler ones.  The longer the story, the deeper you can go in more characters, including the bad guys.   But even in very fat books, when you may technically have room to dig into everyone’s deepest psyche, there’s a reason to spend more words on the character you want readers to identify with, the protagonist.   Several reasons, in fact.  One is strength of viewpoint.  The more time you spend in a character’s viewpoint, the more readers will slip into that viewpoint and identify with that character.   So the protagonist’s POV wordage should be more than anyone else’s.   In that case, the reader will see the bad guy(s) through the protagonist’s viewpoint…which also allows for more suspense, since the protagonist will not know exactly why the bad guy stole the horse, robbed the traveler, condemned someone to a painful death, burned down the town.  The protagonist’s guesses about the bad guy’s identity (if it’s not known) and motivation enriches the protagonist’s characterization and glues the reader more firmly to the main plotline of the story even when later events show that the protagonist guessed wrong a lot of the time.

Another thing to consider is how many bad guys a given story needs.   In that very short-short story, although there were several individual bad guys (horse dealer, wizard-supplies merchant, bandits) one of them never appeared onstage (the wizard-supplies merchant) and only the horse dealer had significant wordage.  Basically, the opponent was one gang, comprising the cheats and the bandits (how many times had they sold that trick horse trained to bolt at a whistle signal?)    In any story, from 1500 words up, there’s room for sketched bad guys.  They don’t take up much room, and they can populate a story-canvas with realistic social background, according to the writer’s opinion about what percent of people are minor bad guys.   Their story function is to get in the way of the protagonist while something else happens: delay, confuse, frustrate, create an emotional response that then affects how the protagonist reacts afterwards.  They may be related to a primary bad guy (or bad guys), or unrelated; they may be in direct, active opposition, or merely “there” and require the protagonist to notice and evade them.    On Paks’s journey south from Dwarftwatch, the escapees were delayed repeatedly:  a party of Siniava’s cavalry gathering supplies from a farm,  by flanking scouts as Siniava moved south with prisoners: indirect interference related to that book’s primary antagonist.  But in the encounter with the scout posted on a hilltop–direct opposition.   Direct but unrelated opposition when they encountered the “farm family” that habitually attacked travelers.   Direct and related opposition again, when the bandits Siniava had bribed to watch for any soldiers they found in the woods near Rotengere attacked them.   Minor bad guys provide the writer with opportunities to reveal how nuanced the protagonist’s response to bad guys is–or isn’t.

But that book has many bad guys–most of them unrelated to Siniava.  The two bad recruits in Paks’s cohort Korryn and Simits.    The steward at Duke’s Stronghold.   Barranyi, who is clearly moving toward her final decision to commit to evil by the end of the book–she is jealous, resentful, very rigid in her standards for others, with no insight into her own character.   Alured the Black, pirate and robber, accepted as an ally in time of need, proves to be greedy, power-hungry, and cruel at the end.    Siniava, the main bad guy, also power hungry and cruel from the get go.   The mage in the crypts and caves under the old guardpost near Brewersbridge, doing blood magery.   And many more:  even in that first volume.    All the characters–including Paks–have flaws, make mistakes,  and many do one ore more bad things–but the bad guys give their flaws free rein.  It is more realistic to have a range of bad guys–some operating in concert and some independently–if the length of story allows that much detail in the fabric.   No matter what the culture, there will be a range of bad guys and a range of motivations.

Yet another consideration is what kind of bad guy(s) will be the main opponent, the main antagonist.   Is the bad guy a person already in power?  (And in what? )   Seeking power (and where on the ladder?)    Seeking power in an alternative power structure (as organized crime is to legitimate politics and commerce?)    A complete rebel rejecting all existing power structures?    Is the bad guy sane (by most definitions)  or is the bad guy mentally ill–and if so, what kind?    Is the venue political, religious, commercial, military, agricultural, domestic, or something else?  Will this bad guy pursue the bad deeds in person, or have others who actually commit the deeds?   That depends in part on culture and in part on position: heads of state use the existing structures of that state–bureaucracy, law enforcement, military, etc.–to impose their will.   The culture in which the bad guy develops and lives up defines at what level certain powers are available…defines whether the same opportunities for gaining from being bad are open to all sexes, all races, all religions.    The main antagonist needs to be a serious threat to the protagonist–and here having lesser bad guys helps, because it’s easier to show how bad the BIG bad guy is if there are smaller bad guys for comparison.

Enough to think about for now, right?   More another time.



  • Comment by patricia n — October 9, 2014 @ 2:17 pm


    as I read this post, the first BAD GUY who came to mind was LAUP. For me he ticks all the boxes, mainly the seeking of power, and of course he had a lot of help from others like him. This has given me a lot of food for thought

  • Comment by Doug H — October 9, 2014 @ 5:56 pm


    I enjoyed reading this post. One thing I find annoying is when an author (I have one in particular) resorts to swearing to show just how “bad” the bad guy is. By the third chapter you knew who was working for the bad guys because they had the potty mouths.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 9, 2014 @ 6:08 pm


    Luap is indeed a bad guy–and in the next post and those following I’ll be laying out some of the information people can use to create the bad guys they need for particular stories.

    I don’t discuss Luap specifically…yet. But behind Luap is a concept of “bad guys” based on both character studies in the ancient world and their concept of good and bad men, and elements of modern psychology.

  • Comment by GinnyW — October 12, 2014 @ 3:32 pm


    I personally was thinking of the way that bad guy Alured served to focus Sekkady as big bad guy in Limits. I really thought that was remarkably well done in the way it developed throughout the book and played into the ending. And I don’t think I have complimented Elizabeth on that masterful twist yet.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 14, 2014 @ 9:58 pm


    Thanks, Ginny. It took me longer than I’d hoped to get Alured figured out.

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