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Every villain a hero

…every villain is a hero in his own mind. ~ Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Thor)

LokiI’ve read—and even written about—how writing an empathetic antagonist makes for a stronger story. I know I prefer those where the villain isn’t just pure evil for evil’s sake, but rather a person acting in a way that makes sense based on his backstory, goals, and motivations.

Loki, Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Fugitive), Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, Magneto, Moriarty.

We may root against these guys, but we understand them on some level. Their choices and actions make sense based on their worldview.

As a writer, I think it’s easy to give our antagonists short shrift, to make them ghosts of what they could be. Not that they need lots of air time to be effective—think of Moriarty, for example—but that they need to be fully realized.

An exercise I plan to try is one proposed by Laura DiSilverio in the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest. In her article “Amp Up Your Antagonists: 6 Ways to Make the Bad Better”, she suggests writing the antagonist’s first scene as if he or she were the protagonist.


How much better might I flesh out this character, how much more sympathetic and relatable might I make her, if I took her side? And if I’m writing a series, that deeper understanding of the antagonist even opens up the possibility of casting her as the protagonist in a future book. My friend Manda Collins did this beautifully in her latest novella, The Perks of Being a Beauty.

In the first three books of the series, Amelia is a jealous, backstabbing bully, and yet Manda handled her so well in the novella that I couldn’t help but root for Amelia to get her own happy ending. Once I understood why she’d done the things she’d done—and felt that she’d paid for, and regretted, her actions—she became fully redeemable.

Feel free to share your own example of a well-drawn villain from a book or movie. How might you give your own antagonist a richer role in your story?

Photo credit: Loki, courtesy of Marvel (

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  1. Reply

    I love my villains, Gwen, so I really appreciated this post. You’re right, Manda Collins did it beautifully in the Perks of Being a Beauty. I find, figuring out why the antagonist does the things they do can be infinitely interesting. Besides, it’s fun to get into the mind of someone truly wicked, once in a while, too.

    • Reply

      Diana: This is an area I need to work on more, but I admire when it’s done well. I thought Man of Steel’s increased focus on Zod was interesting. And Smallville (guess I have Superman on the brain today) did a great job of making me empathize with, and even like at times, Lex Luthor. I agree, sometimes it’s fun to be bad. 😉

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