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10/29/2014 06:31 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2014

How To Be Good At Writing Bad Characters

Ezra Bailey via Getty Images

By Writer's Relief staff:

Are you ready for the most despicable, evil, heartless character you’ve ever met? Wonderful! You’re ready to write your story’s antagonist.

Once you’ve decided on your perfect protagonist—someone everyone will love and root for; someone inherently noble and willing to risk everything to save the day -- you need to address the flip side of the coin. Unless your story also has a wickedly good antagonist, it’s destined to be a yawn-fest.

Every great hero needs an equally great villain. If your main character easily accomplishes his or her goals without even a hint of conflict or interference looming on the next pages, the story is not going to engage your reader. Introducing a worthy adversary adds tension to the plot.

So how do you write a great arch-enemy?

Make sure your antagonist is three dimensional. Some writers spend countless hours researching and developing a detailed backstory for their protagonist. But when it’s time to write the villain, they slap together a few broad strokes to paint someone who simply functions as a reverse deus ex machina -- a character that suddenly pops up and is conveniently evil. Instead, your antihero should be just as three dimensional as your main character.

Create a villain with capabilities equal, if not superior, to the abilities of the hero. A stupid rival is too easily vanquished and offers no challenge. The best bad guys and gals are brilliant and talented. But unlike heroes, they’re also usually lacking any sense of morality.

Explore the character’s motivation. Is it fear? Revenge? Power? Greed? Or is it actually a misdirected attempt at trying to do what’s best?

Have sympathy for the devil. Don’t create an opponent who’s completely invincible. The best antagonists will also have weaknesses and experience inner conflicts. Norman Bates may be a psycho, but he definitely loves his mother.

Embrace your dark side. While your protagonist’s actions will be constrained by what’s good and right, your dastardly villain is free to chew up the scenery. And let’s face it; a morally bankrupt, no-good, rotten character is lots of fun to write.

Here are a few literary characters who are really good at being bad:

Lord Voldemort – the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. A wizard so feared, his name cannot be spoken. His plan for pure-bred dominance reeks of true evil.

The Grand Witch – The Witches by Roald Dahl. A creature without mercy, she preys on children by turning them into mice to be killed by their unknowing parents.

Professor Moriarity – The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This ruthless criminal mastermind is the ultimate nemesis for Sherlock Holmes.

Lady Macbeth – Macbeth by William Shakespeare. The unrelenting, power-hungry force behind her husband’s murder of the King.

Nurse Ratched – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kensey. Every patient’s nightmare nurse, she cruelly abuses her power over the helpless occupants of her psychiatric ward.

Sweeney Todd – The String of Pearls: A Romance by Jaymes Malcolm Ryder. The demon barber of Fleet Street gives a sinister new meaning to a close shave…and a worse reputation to meat pies.

HAL9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. This is what happens when artificial intelligence goes bad. A supercomputer’s mission conflict results in a simple, logical solution: No surviving crew, no conflict.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled Nurse Ratched's name.]

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