How to Write a Good Villain
A long time ago, I was running one of my first games for my friends. We were playing some D&D 3.0, and they had made their way through the swarms of orcs to face off against the orc chieftain. The usual pre-fight banter ensued, and one of my players hit me with a simple yet powerful question. He asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ (Attacking and slaughtering the nearby churches) The only answer I could think of was ‘Because we’re orcs. It’s what we do.’ My players bought that and proceeded to exchange unpleasantries with the chieftain. Looking back on it now, I realized that in my years of running games, I have made some LOUSY villains. I’m going to cover common mistakes I made over the years in hopes that your next BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) will be someone memorable.
Evil for Evil’s Sake
This was my number one mistake that I made for many years; my BBEGs were evil just for fun. They didn’t have any overarching goals or reasons for what they did. They were just really naughty because they could be. Take my above example. If I were running that adventure now I would have the warchief say ‘The churches attacked and killed our people years ago. They ran us out of the region. We are going to take back what is rightfully ours.’ Now I’ve done three things that makes the BBEG much more interesting:
- He is attacking the churches out of vengeance; it’s no longer for funzies. The churches committed genocide on the orcs and they are rightfully pissed off. Maybe the orcs kept to themselves before the church attack, but who knows.
- The orcs are now viewing themselves as the good guys. This is a big one. A lot of times the villain doesn’t consider himself a bad guy. Unpopular among certain groups, sure, but not evil.
- The warchief has a clear objective. He’s not just attacking the churches because it made a good adventure hook, but because it would claim vengeance and would also show where the orcs would probably stop.
These three items are the most important thing to keep in mind when writing a BBEG.
All BBEGs need an objective. This may seem fairly obvious, but when I was younger, sometimes my BBEG didn’t have an objective. He stole the MacGuffin just so that someone would try to take it back. If the players don’t ask questions, then I guess you can get away with it but that’s no fun. What if the players fail? Then what does Mr. BBEG do? If you have no objective, then you have no direction for the story to go. Always have a clear objective in mind for your BBEG, and making decisions for him and your story will come much more easily.
This will tie in with your objective pretty fiercely. The reason your BBEG is attempting his objective is just as important as the objective itself. Let’s take the power-mad mage. His objective is to finish a ritual that will summon a monster that will destroy his enemy (the country’s king). Now with just an objective the mage can make decisions but with different reasons the BBEG takes on many different tones. The mage might be doing this because
- He wants the throne for himself
- The king took the wizard’s childhood friend/love and forced her to be the king’s wife
- The mage looked to the future and saw that the king is the reason for the end of the world
All three of these reasons give the mage a different look and feel. Reason one makes him look like a crazy tyrant, reason two makes him a jilted and justified lover, and reason three makes the mage a hero. Whatever reason you go with with help give the BBEG a solid tone and will flavor decisions that affect the players.
Make Him a Good Bad Guy
Lastly, my favorite BBEGs don’t see themselves as evil. This could be due to the fact that they are delusional, but more often than not, their reason is a good one that has gone astray. Take Magneto. He wants to keep his people (Mutants) safe from harm, but he decided that the best way to do this was to declare war on humanity. Hitler (most likely) thought he was bringing the German people to a golden age and did so by putting the problems of the country on the shoulders of minorities. Ozymandias from Watchmen is another that went to extremes to bring about world peace. He destroyed a city to get humanity to band together.
Making the BBEG a good guy in his own eyes isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are some great bad guys that know they are evil. The Joker from Batman comes to mind. He knows what he’s doing is evil, but his reason is simply that he wants to watch the world burn, but at the same time there are people out there that think the Joker is a hero. Harley Quinn and the Joker’s gang members look to him as a beacon and don’t think of him as this evil man. Now mind you there are mental health issues galore in that family but notwithstanding the people/gang don’t see Joker as evil. So even if the BBEG himself knows he’s evil, there should be someone that considers him a hero of sorts.
A well written villain should
- Have a clear objective
- Have a solid reason for trying to accomplish the objective
- Not be evil just for the sake of being evil. Someone (either the BBEG himself or someone else) should look at the villain as a hero or some sort.
Now when I follow these steps my BBEGs are worth remembering and can stand up to PCs asking about their motives and history. If you have any ideas about what else a villain should have leave a comment.