maybe your bad guy is right

Maybe Your Bad Guy Is RIGHT!

How do you know if you’ve written a good bad guy? There are many possible qualifiers. He’s scary. He’s hatable. He’s a formidable obstacle to the protagonist’s goal. All of which are valid. But today what I’m talking about is the kind of bad guy who isn’t black and white. He’s solidly the hero of his own story, to the point he deepens the theme by compelling the protagonist—and even the reader—to see things his way, if only briefly.

Here’s a little exercise for you. Write a scene in which your antagonist is confronting your protagonist about their central difference in beliefs. The good guy believes stealing is wrong; the bad guy justifies it. On the surface, that’s a pretty black and white discussion, and of course readers are going to side with the protagonist and think the bad guy is load of tripe.

But what if he’s not? What if he’s right? Or, better put, what if you could make readers think he’s right?

I want you write this scene as if you believe every word the bad guy is saying. Explain his point of view so completely and compellingly that you make readers wonder if, hey, maybe he has a point. Your protagonist should wonder too. He should stand there, gun lowered, mouth agape, experiencing a feeling of panic: I never thought about it that way before! What if he’s right? What if everything I’ve believed and have been fighting for all this time is wrong?

Naturally, I’m not campaigning for a repeal of the laws on stealing. Neither am I suggesting you encourage readers to believe stealing is the right thing to do. What I’m saying is that if you can infuse a high level of honesty and realism into your antagonist’s worldview, you can create the kind of theme and conflict that will provoke readerly thoughts all over the place.

Readers can always tell when you’re not fully investing in a character—especially when that character is a “bad” one. Even if you find the bad guy generally repulsive, you need to be able to put yourself so thoroughly into his shoes while you’re writing him that, just for those moments, you almost believe his slant yourself.

If you can accomplish that, the threat against the protagonist will be stronger. The theme will grow deeper and more faceted. And reader investment will skyrocket. Give it a try!

Tell me your opinion: What’s a belief your bad guy has that your protagonist doesn’t?

Maybe Your Bad Guy Is Right!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Great article, K.M. With the exception of my last novel, I find my villains aren’t all that evil. They’re not motivated by wanting to hurt other people. They’re just regular people who’ve made moral and life choices my protagonists find questionable. I don’t think it’s so much that these villains are right, but they find reasons within themselves and in their circumstances that when looked upon in the right (or wrong) light can justify their course of action. This is far more compelling for me because that’s the way life works. But for the grace of God, the protagonist could him/herself be a villain. My most recent novel explores that very point.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I actually *really* like this approach. The most dimensional villains are always those that readers can find themselves relating to, if only on some small level.

  2. Can’t be more agreed. After all, a bad guy IS a person. He is doing the bad thing for some reason.
    Which, if thought through, can enormously deepen a story 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “A bad guy is a person” – it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of that sometimes. Too often, we stick the bad guy in merely as a technique, an obstacle to drive the plot.

      • Exactly–and a lot of problems emerge from that. If the antagonist has only been conceived to the point of *obstacle for the hero*, then not only won’t he be an effective character, but he won’t be convincing either. He won’t make sense. He’ll do things that don’t serve his supposed ends at all, or things that contradict other things he’s done or choices he’s made, because the sole motivating factor will be whatever the author needs from him at any given time.

        A lot of early draft mysteries have this problem. The killer commits a series of crimes so that the detective has mysteries to solve, even though the crimes make no sense for the character. When the detective needs a break, the killer will ignore his modus operandi or make an obvious mistake for no good reason.

        Harrison Demchick
        Developmental Editor, Ambitious Enterprises

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          As a reader, I don’t generally enjoy antagonist POVs. But, as a writer, they are incredibly helpful in reminding us of the humanity of our villains and fleshing out the continuity of their logic behind the scenes.

  3. Robert Burroughs says

    I always love your articles. I believe that antagonist should be well developed characters, there should be a reason why they do what they do. Terminator is a great example, in his mind he is fighting for his own survival and the survival of the other machines. This was conveyed so well that in Terminator 2 he has been transformed into the hero.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You *know* you’re doing something right with your antagonists when readers love them as much, if not more, than the hero. By the same token, it probably means you need to up your game with your protagonists!

      • You know that enormous budget Spider-Man play that was on Broadway a while back? I saw it. I couldn’t stand the protagonist and the villain was such a ham, I would have liked to see him rule Manhattan in the end.

  4. There are also times when the protagonist and antagonist are on the same page about a problem. The just have differing opinions on the solution. For instance, the antagonist wants to “kill all lawyers” (W. Shakespeare) The protagonist would rather take an approach of disbaring bad lawyers. The antagonist approach would be very hard on the carpets.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The best conflicts are the result of a protagonist and an antagonist who actually bear great similarities to one another: whether it’s beliefs, goals, or methods. Their similarities, much more than differences, define the theme.

      • A very good point. I think that while the basic good versus evil classic conflict is good when you’ve got very clear and contrasted goals for each, it’s even better to have similarities between the pro and antagonist or have a more complex antagonist where they have relate-able reasons that even inspire some sympathy. What makes the antagonist the antagonist usually comes when they take a wrong turn or go about solving things the wrong way.

  5. As always, you make excellent and important points in your blog posts! I liked the above comment that a bad guy is a person. In real life, the criminals and abusers and dictators are real people and usually justify their behavior in some way. A realistic villain in a story is the same way.

    And even in a fantasy story (like what I’m writing), where the bad guy is nothing close to human, he’s still a sentient being with free will. This post is a good reminder to me to get inside his head more, at least for myself as the writer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The ante always gets upped in stories in which the antagonist is beyond the normal human ken. But, at the same time, the possibilities really open up as well.

  6. One word: Loki

  7. pamelacreese says

    He totally believes that, in the case of his actions, the ends justify the means…. and since he fully believes that what he is doing a) only he can achieve and b) is ‘best’ regardless of the consequences to others not important to him then his means are necessary and justified.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is a classic bad guy outlook. Their motives are “pure” but their methods are horrible.

  8. thomas h cullen says

    In terms of goals, Krenok’s just like Croyan – a final of expressions.

    There’d be no way to persuade someone of Krenok, but then there doesn’t need to be: again, just like Croyan, his is an insurmountably ‘cool’ story aim.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The goal isn’t so much to persuade reader’s the bad guy’s outlook (why would we want to, after all?), but rather to give the bad guy aims that are relatable enough to help the hero question and hopefully strengthen his own outlook.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Thanks for the advice – it can’t be applied to The Representative however:

        Here the setup’s one completely in the opposite direction – Krenok’s intention, insofar as it’s connected to Croyan’s, is only to remind the latter of how impossibly dissociated he is from him.

        It is brilliant, and it is unique, the plot point surrounding Krenok’s goal – however also it’s the final expression of life’s ugliest facet.

  9. I have just done exactly this in a book I am writing. Good to know that I was on the right track! 🙂

  10. I’ve got two bad guys in my current WIP which is proving to be a challenge. One is very easy to write, however the second is being a pain. I love this exercise and will try it tonight! Thanks, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Well, he *is* a bad guy. I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised when they turn out to be pains. :p

  11. Oh! Oh! Sudden inspiration… thanks!

  12. I think this is possibly why so many people (myself included), love Loki. We know he’s “bad,” but there’s so much realism and truth to certain things he says, that we can see past his villainy.


  13. pamela c reese says

    I never ‘got’ the fascination with Loki. He is scrawny, unappreciative, and whiny. My favorite scene is Hulk slamming him into the ground. Puny god. 😀

  14. Love this — such great advice! I don’t write villains, just well-meaning people whose wants and values clash. That’s the way life is, most of the time. For me, ambiguity is more interesting than right vs. wrong (and more intractable). I strive for endings where the protagonist and antagonist both get what they need, even if they can’t both get what they want.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So many stories require a “bad guy” for an antagonist that we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that an antagonist can be the sweetest, nicest person the book. The only requirement is that he be an obstacle between the protagonist and his goal.

  15. Gideon Grey says

    This is why I like having all sorts of villains in my novels. I have villains who are struggling for their souls and deep down you pray that they make the right decision and you just don’t know if they will… And then I have the villains that are so dark, so terrible, so despicable that there is no hope for them and they just need to die…but there’s always a story as to how they became that way (because 3D characters). Villains are fun. Protagonists are fun. Characters are fun. I’m going to go back to writing now….

  16. oh dear… that could be ‘good’… unless that makes it cliche and predictable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Really, the idea is to make it anything *but* cliche. If both the antagonist and the protagonist are presenting compelling arguments, they’ll only deepen both their own characters and the overall theme.

  17. I’ve loved this idea with villains. My WIP has two villains who have fine motives, and I understand where they’re coming from and to an extent I even agree with them. One wants to fix the world, the other just wants to live. It’s a little scary how much I find myself tending to side with them. O_O

    The goals can make a villain admirable, but it’s the way they go about getting what they want is what gives them the evil that makes them villainous. Readers understand what the villain is getting at, and maybe agree with him, but it’s his actions that also repel them and makes them side with the hero.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Scary maybe, but it’s definitely a sign you have the capability to create a realistic and compelling antagonist!

    • thomas h cullen says

      A villain who’s “figured out”, and yet at fault……it’s once you possess awareness such as this the very concept of villainy gets downgraded – and even to a point without merit.

      Just great and exciting plot situations – that’s my inclination now.

  18. I haven’t written a scene yet starring my antagonist. I’m glad that I’ve read this first. It’s going to enrich the scene a lot.

    • thomas h cullen says

      I barely indulged the antagonist, in The Representative:

      I kept references to him to a minimum.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In general, I dislike antagonist POVs, mostly because they’re too often boring. And they’re too often boring *because* the antagonist’s perspective isn’t fully fleshed out.

      • thomas h cullen says

        The problem is innate: villainy isn’t just boring, it’s always unequivocally unworthy….

        Why indulge someone who’s unintelligent?

        Merely for me it’s down to necessity; Krenok’s only part of The Representative as and when to serve Croyan.

        (To be candid though – his own objective’s just as compelling and mind-blowing).

  19. I like grey characters. I love them. There’s been a couple of really evil antagonists on my stories, but because they had such pleasure from the pain they gave they were addicted to it, like a hard drug.
    My other antagonists are those characters moved by beliefs and they don’t consider themselves evil or bad, just that they differ on povs with the protagonist.
    It’s fun to make the protagonist doubt.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. The nuances of degree can make even “bad” characters extremely interesting, thought-provoking, and compelling.

  20. I have written novels which gave my reader’s the protagonist’s POV. Some of my readers not only understood their motivation, but became fans of the ‘bad guy’. Other’s became confused and didn’t understand the concept of ‘even a clock that stopped; is right two times a day’. They only wanted black and white characters; not shades of gray. (And YES! I’m sorry to have to use that reference!)
    Not everyone will embrace the idea of alternate POV’s; but what is writing but a reason to provoke thought and controversy.
    Tell the story your heart wants to tell. use any device you need to get the characters to come to life for your readers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Life isn’t black and white, so, of course, neither is the best of fiction. But I suppose that doesn’t mean we all don’t wish it was sometimes. 😛

  21. The one thing I’ve always strived for when writing scenes with my antagonist is it not sounding like a bad “B” rate movie. You know, the typical words like, evil, and have them cackle like a witch. Rub their hands together or sound like Brain in Pinky and the Brain – I will rule the world! It leaves the reader feeling as though it doesn’t ring true because, well, it doesn’t! In my second book I wrote a lot about how my bad guy came to be “the bad guy”. I showed his weaknesses and strengths. I actually like my antagonist!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very smart. There needs to be a little (or big!) part of us that’s capable of loving our antagonists just as much as we do our protags.

  22. Love it! So glad I wasn’t the only one thinking that my protagonist might be thinking the same thoughts as my antagonist. I think she’ll take a slightly different take (People generally don’t like being forced to do things) but the core idea is the same. A great way to deepen both the protag and antag characters!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always fascinating when the protagonist has to face the fact that he’s even just a little bit like the antagonist.

  23. While nobody who has read my last book thinks any of the antagonists are right, some readers state that my protagonist doesn’t help himself. He gives the antagonists the rope in which to hang him by.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Balance between protag and antag is a good thing. The protag isn’t flawless, and the antag isn’t entirely evil.

  24. I’ve actually got a bad guy in my story who is doing the right thing, and the mc agrees, he’s just going about it the wrong way. After he is taken down by the mc, she continues his work in a more progressive, better way with less violence.

  25. Connie Driver says

    I’ve always taken the approach of making my villains people like everyone else, and they naturally turned into good-ish guys who just took the wrong path or took things too far. For a while, I thought this was a sign of weak writing. Seeing articles like this makes me feel better. A couple of beliefs some of my villains hold are that order is more important than freedom, and that the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few. (I know that second one is iffy for a villainous belief, but from the POV the story is set in, it makes said person a villain because he drives a 17-year-old to suicide with it.)

  26. I love this! I have three villains in my book. They are each a different level of villainy. One is simply blood thirsty and wants to turn the world into an all you can eat buffet. One is focused on ultimate power. These two are my “pure evil” villains. The third, however, gets the spotlight as the grey villain. My protagonist, who is new to the world and doesn’t know what’s been going on, is told right off the bat how cruel and evil my grey character is by her mentor. Because she knows her mentor isn’t lying, this goes unchallenged until she is forced to actually talk to the villain and realizes both sides have been mistaken in their assumptions. The hardest part is not revealing who has really been pulling the evil strings this whole time because the true villain is seen throughout the book and is so perfectly villainous. 🙂

  27. I have a hard time with relating to my antagonist… she’s my protagonist’s half-sister and has been lying to and manipulating the protagonist all her life. She’s the mastermind over a wildlife smuggling operation and as such has forced her lackeys (protagonist’s husband and her half-brother) into doing her dirty work of blackmail and murder. I’m hard pressed to find any good qualities in her. The antagonist doesn’t want to be found out, or lose all the money she’s bringing in from the animal smuggling, or go to jail, and so she’s obviously against the protagonist’s goal of uncovering all the illegal activities and deceit that have been rampant in the family for years. Like me, the protagonist is a softy who can’t stand cruelty to animals or bullying of people, and that’s exactly what my antagonist is doing, so how do I relate to her or try to present her side in a way that would make my protagonist or readers think: “I never thought about it that way before! What if she’s right? What if everything I’ve believed and have been fighting for all this time is wrong?”
    Any suggestions?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Take a look at your antagonist’s motives. *Why* is she doing what she’s doing? To make money in order to survive and take care of her family? To punish a person or system that hurt her? There must always be a reason for an action, however dark. To the person performing that action, her motive is what ultimately justifies her. She’ll have a good argument for why that motive is a good one. Find that argument and make it as convincing as possible when coming out of her mouth.

      • Okay, thanks, that makes sense. I’ll have to dig deeper and come up with something. She’s doing it for the money, but not because she needs it to survive or take care of her family. She’s just money hungry. The antagonist has a grudge against her younger half-sister, the protagonist, because she had to look after her after the protagonist’s father died and he’s the one who got her involved in the animal smuggling but that doesn’t really make for a good argument as to why she’s still doing it.

  28. This is great! In my magical realism story, the antagonist is not entirely human, and represented in many big and tiny disguises. But the point is, as I figured out only recently, is that my antagonist has what protagonist needs, and does everything possible to prevent protagonist from getting what she wants and going for what she needs (which is dangerous, and hard, and horrible, but worth it). Do you think it’s going to work?

  29. When I read this post, all I could think about was my previous antag. And it was actually funny, because I loved and believed in the goodness of my villain so much, I had actually done it unknowingly. It has convinced my friends that he’s not completely bad anyway, so I think I succeeded.

  30. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says

    I wrote the scene recently that first introduces the antagonist to the reader (and to the protagonist) and it was one of the more disturbing emotionally scenes for me to write because everything I had the antagonist say I disagree with on a profound level but I am banking on the idea that the reader will find it all sounding completely (or mostly) reasonable and normal.

    My question is, the scene is told from the protagonist’s point of view, so while I wrote what the antagonist was actually saying to sound normal and not in any way outright sinister, there are little hints that the protagonist finds it uncomfortable, although not saying why (he’s not sure why himself yet), such her smile seeming insincere, etc. But will doing it that way draw away from the reader and protagonist being unsure what they object to that is being said by the antagonist and make it too obvious that I, as the writer, have a bias against what is being said, or will it just work to introduce a thread of doubt to be explored later?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ultimately, of course (in most stories anyway), you want your protagonist to overcome the antagonist’s false view of the world. However, in order for the thematic argument to be as convincing as possible, you want there to be a section of the story in which the protagonist is really confused by and almost convinced by the antagonist. You want readers to be right there with the protagonist, experiencing what he’s experiencing, almost believing it right alongside him. It’s fine to foreshadow doubt, but try to do it in a way that presents the antagonist as objectively as possible.


  1. […] what he does? Could you push him harder? One good measure is K.M. Weiland’s challenge that “Maybe your bad guy is right.” Myself, I think it all comes down to, based on what the reader […]

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