5 ways to find inspiration for the next great villain #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

5 ways to find inspiration for the next great villain #amwriting #writingtips #authors

The following five methods for brainstorming villains are most applicable if your manuscript or screenplay contains at least an element of the thriller, suspense, or horror genres.

  1. Update a real-life villain from history: The genius behind the latest season of Sherlock rests in part with the villain they created for the second episode: philanthropist and serial killer Culverton Smith (spoiler alert) murders people in the hospital he endows with the help of secret passages he’s had engineered into the facility. Unfortunately for Chicagoans circa 1880, a man like this actually existed. H.H. Holmes built what is referred to now as the “Murder Castle,” and though authorities held him responsible for nine deaths, the tabloids of the time place the number closer to 200. It doesn’t matter that 200 is a fantastical exaggeration. What matters is that it’s fantastic fodder for fiction. So start reading up on real-life criminals of yesteryear, and see if anything sparks.
  2. A fictional delusion or obsession: what happens when a physically abused boy from Fort Worth visits New York with a gun and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye? He murders John Lennon. The delusion or the object of obsession for a villain can be based on real life or fiction, but the key is to marry it with a form of psychosis. I’m over-simplifying, because it’s impossible for me to diagnose Mark David Chapman’s state of mind at the time.
  3. Go back to the beginning: every great character has a great backstory, and that 5 ways to find inspiration for the next great villain #amwriting #writingtips #authorsbackstory explains a lot about who they’ve become at the junction of their life at which you’re telling the story. In comic-book lingo, we’re talking about a super villain’s origin story. Depending on which The Joker origin story you believe, the Gotham villain was a failed comedian forced into a life of crime to support his pregnant wife. But when Batman tried to stop a crime-in-progress, the comedian foiled his escape by jumping into a vat of chemicals, forever disfiguring himself. To create your own Joker, get into that victim-of-circumstances mindset. If you can stomach it, starting at childhood, brainstorm the most tragic life you can imagine. Now that you have the backstory, what type of horror will your victim-of-circumstances unleash on an unprepared world?
  4. Examine the current climate: whether we’re talking political or ecological, the current climate is a messed up, scary place. One of the most memorable recent villains, Ben Foster in Inferno, (spoiler alert) tries to solve the world’s overpopulation crisis. Now let’s imagine what was going through Dan Brown’s head at the time: Okay, so in terms of villains, how do I top ancient societies and the freaking Vatican? Oh, I know, let me invent a character who wants to save the planet by killing half the people on it.
  5. The homegrown terrorist: without going into too much of a rant about how villainizing Middle Eastern and Asian countries or their people in fiction reinforces Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism, can I just point out that it’s overdone, cliché? In my opinion, the cleverest of screenwriters and authors are shining a big fat spotlight on another kind of threat: under-addressed, homegrown white nationalist terrorism. For examples, I give you the 2014 novel The Skin Collector by Jeffery Deaver and the 2016 film Imperium starring Daniel Radcliffe, both of which (spoiler alert) portray white supremacist sects as the villains.

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.

Whatever your genre, where do you look for inspiration when creating antagonists or villains? Let’s chat below in the comments.

Thank you to Freepik for the image I used for this post.

59 thoughts on “5 ways to find inspiration for the next great villain #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. History is a great reference tool for finding and adapting a villain to your story.
    The key thing to remember is the villain does not see himself as the bad guy. His choices are logical and his motives rational.My last villainess just wanted to be loved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had reservations about publishing this post for this very reason, but I wrote this last month. I’m worried it’s too tongue-in-cheek considering the severity of the Charlottesville events. I made an amendments to point number 5 for this reason. I don’t know if it’s enough. Probably nothing is enough.


  2. Haha, I’m one of those odd people that nearly always makes a place/setting/problem the villain instead of a character, even though I love crafting villains like nobody’s business. These are good ideas, though!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very good points. I found number one and five the most useful. I’m not sure if I like to have villains (I’m more a protagonist vs the world or protagonist vs themselves kind of writer) but if I decide to write a Baddie, I’m sure I’ll come back to your list!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved this post, especially the idea of researching real-life villains to get fodder for your next bad-guy. Usually I let my imagination run rampart to create my villains. I know that part of my subconscious is fueled by stories my husband has told me. He’s a psychiatrist. But, it also comes from reading and studying human behavior.

    Let me add one more tip about villains. They can’t be all bad. With of the real killers (like Deaver or Manson) it’s hard to find any redeeming characteristics. But, readers want to see villains who are complex. Not all bad!

    Thanks for this great post. I will bookmark it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Really great suggestions for creating a villain. History and using examples of successful characters are an excellent starting point to developing your own. Tapping into current events and issues is a great way to help your villain resonate as well. Thanks so much for this post.
    (I skimmed a bit on number one since I haven’t caught up on Sherlock though. 😉 )

    Liked by 2 people

  6. A good villain is the best part of a story! I love the idea of #1 – I get a lot of my contexts from realworld experiences, but I haven’t really tried sourcing characters that way. I’ll give it a shot the next time I’m stuck!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great post Raimey. I think about those folks in the news through time. Then I think about my college course in abnormal psychology. Sometimes, I think about those people in my life who have really hurt me and I merge all of these points of inspiration into the perfect villian. 🙂 Have a great rest of your week 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Excellent info here on villains, Raimey. Great suggestions. I’ve shared this post online. Thanks again for creating this network of writers all sharing advice on Author Toolbox.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is such a useful post Raimey! I love the first tip, I think the Murder Castle thing was the inspiration for American Horror Story: Hotel too. I love all the Jack the Ripper and Dracula/Vlad the Impaler retellings, but lesser known serial killers can be a great source of inspiration too. I’ll definitely use these tips for my next villain, especially the last two, real life is so much scarier than any fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. These are great thoughts on villians. In my current WIP I actually borrowed a lot from the Branch Davidians, though my villian is not Koresh, he’s definitely inspird by him.
    I skipped some of your post for spoilers because I’m a slow tv watcher and I have a lot of Sherlock to catch up on… maybe this winter when there are no daisies…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Raimey, your post made me think of a book I read several years ago. It was a true crime story that gave me chills because it was about a real killer who was quite scary. I couldn’t think of the name of the book when I wrote my comment, but I’ve got it now. You might enjoy the book as inspiration from real life. The title is The Devil in White City by Erik Larson. Quite chilling…

    Liked by 1 person

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