How to Create 3D Villains

by Morgan L. Busse, @MorganLBusse

As writers, we spend a lot of time with our protagonist. We flesh out every part of his/her life to ensure our main character is fully developed and someone our readers will want to follow for chapters on end.

However, I think sometimes our villain gets the leftovers. He or she (or it) is only there to stop our hero. He sits there, twirling his mustache while monologuing, and coming across as very flat and predictable.

But the villain is important. Without the villain, the hero has no story. There is no obstacle to overcome, no wondering on the part of the reader if the hero will win. And so the villain should receive more development. As someone once said, the villain is the hero of his or her own story. And as the writer, it is your job to discover the heart of your villain and mold him/her into a 3D, believable—might I even add sympathetic—antagonist.

So how do you do that?

Study your villain. What is his story? His history? Her past hurts and pain? What does she believe in so strongly she’s willing to die for it? Interview your antagonist, find out who he/she is under the surface. After all, hardly anyone starts off as pure evil. What happened to your villain to make him/her the person they are today?

Every villain I create has a large picture agenda (the evil plan), and also a personal agenda. To make a 3D villain, you need both. The evil plan is what we expect from the villain (take over the world, destroy the protagonist’s career, the popular but mean high school girl who wants the nice boy). But it is the personal agenda that makes the villain human.

For example: the man who wants to take over the world is doing it so he can create a safer place for his children since he was a victim in his past. We can relate to that, even though the way he is going about it is wrong.

Or the woman who is trying to destroy the protagonist’s career. She was raised by a mother who always pushed her relentlessly, but she never measured up. So now she lives that way, always needs to be at the top of the corporate chain no matter who she hurts because that was modeled for her.

Or the popular mean girl who wants the nice boy your heroine also likes. Secretly, she is attracted to the young man because she never had a guy treat her nice before, and he does, but she is also selfish, so she wants him all to herself. See, both something we can relate to on a personal level, but also see how wrong it is.

For a book example, in my steampunk novel, Tainted, the antagonist is Kat’s father. He is a brilliant scientist who has had little to do with his daughter. He is so focused on his work that he fails to see or care about who he hurts in order to achieve his goals. But what you realize near the end of the novel is the reason he is so driven is because he deeply loved his wife whom he lost at Kat’s birth. He is willing to do anything to bring Helen back, even if it means crossing moral and scientific lines and hurting his own daughter.

Big picture agenda: A drive to break all scientific laws in order to find ultimate power.

Personal agenda: Find a way to bring his wife back.

See how that makes Kat’s father both evil and relatable? You hurt for his loss, but are appalled at his methods.

To create a 3D villain, we must see the antagonist as both evil and relatable. In some ways, the villain shows us what would happen if the hero chooses the wrong path. There your hero would go but for a different choice.

So the next time you’re creating a villain, consider these questions:

  • What is his background? What happened to make him like this today? What his family background? Economic status? Loves? Fears? Hopes? Dreams?
  • What is her big picture agenda (the evil plan)? To cause a war? To win the football game no matter what it costs? To go to homecoming with the nice boy?
  • Now what is his personal agenda? What private part of the villain’s life is driving the large agenda? What is the human aspect of the villain can the reader relate to and sympathize with?

Create a villain that moves your reader just as much as your main character does. If you do this, you will connect your reader on a deeper level to your story.

Tainted (Book 1, The Soul Chronicles)

What Happens When Your Soul Dies?

Kat Bloodmayne is one of the first women chosen to attend the Tower Academy of Sciences. But she carries a secret: she can twist the natural laws of life. She has no idea where this ability came from, only that every time she loses control and unleashes this power, it kills a part of her soul. If she doesn’t find a cure soon, her soul will die and she will become something else entirely.

After a devastating personal loss, Stephen Grey leaves the World City Police Force to become a bounty hunter. He believes in justice and will stop at nothing to ensure criminals are caught and locked up. However, when Kat Bloodmayne shows up in his office seeking his help, his world is turned upside down.

Together they search World City and beyond for a doctor who can cure Kat. But what they discover on the way goes beyond science and into the dark sphere of magic.

Book one of The Soul Chronicles series.

Morgan L. Busse is a writer by day and a mother by night. She is the author of the Follower of the Word series and the award-winning steampunk series, The Soul Chronicles. Her debut novel, Daughter of Light, was a Christy and Carol Award finalist. During her spare time she enjoys playing games, taking long walks, and dreaming about her next novel. Website: Facebook: Twitter: (@MorganLBusse) Pinterest: Goodreads: My books: