Moral Villain

The Moral Villain – and a Giveaway!

As readers, what inspires empathy for the hero and makes us root for him? His flaws? His admirable qualities? His hopeless circumstances? Yes, to all of the above. But none of these elements would be effective without a worthy villain to complicate matters.

This is the real purpose of the antagonist: to make things unlivable for the hero and ramp up reader empathy. I mean, would we care so much about Snow White without the Queen? Harry Potter without Voldemort? Danny Torrance without his father? Villains are important because they’re the ones who determine how bad things will get for the hero. It is fear of the bad guy that inspires empathy in readers, putting them firmly in the hero’s cheering section and ensuring they will keep turning pages to see if he succeeds. So it’s crucial you create a villain who is just as unique, interesting, and believable as the main character.

One way to do this is by including what I like to call the Evil-By-Nature Villain. These are the antagonists who don’t have a backstory. They do what they do because it’s in their blood or their programming. The shark in Jaws. Ellen Ripley’s alien. The Terminator. Such a ruthless and seemingly unstoppable villain puts the hero in extreme danger because the enemy can’t be reasoned with or talked out of its determination to destroy. Villains like these, with little or no backstory, can be terrifying in their own right.

But, in my humble opinion, there are worse bad guys. While a twenty-five foot shark might keep me out of the water, it won’t keep me up at night. The villain who accomplishes this is the one who feels real. He has morals—albeit skewed—and lives by them. Though a nightmare now, he wasn’t born that way; life, past events, and the evil of others have made him the villain that he is today. He’s terrifying because he was once normal—just like me.

It is this kind of bad guy I strive to create in my stories: a moral villain who religiously adheres to his twisted moral codes. Here are some tips on how to bring these awful antagonists to life:

Know the villain’s backstory.

We spend a lot of time digging into the hero’s history, but what if we dedicated even half as much energy researching our villain? Who were his caregivers? What was he like in the past? What happened that changed him? Who was kind to him? Who was cruel? Every villain has a backstory that should explain why he is the way he is today. Dredge it up and create a profile. Then dole out the important bits to readers so they can get a glimpse of who he used to be and how he became a monster.

Know the villain’s moral code.

We don’t tend to think of villains as moral individuals, but they usually are. They just live according to a different set of values than the rest of society. Morals have to do with our beliefs about right and wrong. To make your villain truly ominous, give her a reason for doing the things she does. Make her believe there is value in her repulsive choices. For example, through her abusive past and twisted religious beliefs, Margaret White (Carrie) finds it acceptable to verbally and physically abuse her daughter. Anton Chigurh, the heartless villain from No Country for Old Men, adheres to a moral code that isn’t explained; the audience doesn’t know why he chooses to let some people live and others die, but whatever his reasons, he believes firmly in them and acts accordingly.

It’s one thing for a character to engage in reprehensible behavior. An element of creepiness is added when she defends that behavior as being upright and acceptable. To pull this off, you need to know your villain’s moral code.

Know the villain’s boundaries.

Morality isn’t just about what’s right; it also includes a belief that certain ideas are inherently wrong. Are there things your villain won’t do, lines he won’t cross? Why? Show that your villain has a human side and you’ll make him more interesting. You might even manage to create some reader empathy, which is always a good thing.

Give the villain someone to care about.

Love is a moral concept—the idea that a person cares more for someone else than he does for himself. Show that your villain is capable of caring, and you’ll add a layer of depth to his character. On the TV show The Blacklist, serial criminal Raymond Reddington seems to have no boundaries; as long as it suits his purposes, he’ll sell out anybody—except FBI Agent Elizabeth Keen. This obsessive attachment not only gives him a human side, but it’s intriguing to the audience, who wants to know why he cares so much for her when he’s so ruthless in every other area of life.

No one’s going to cheer for a hero who has nothing to overcome. Turn your villain into a truly horrific creature by giving him a moral code to live by. Unearth his backstory and show readers that, at one point, he was human. It’s a good reminder that we’re all just one bad experience away from becoming monsters ourselves.

Thank you, Katie, for hosting me today. As a special thanks for the warm welcome, I’d like to give away a PDF copy of my book, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. Just leave a comment to enter for a chance to win. The giveaway runs through December 21st, when I’ll pick a winner. Best of luck!

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever written a moral villain?

The Moral Villain

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About Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of books for writers—including her latest publication: a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the original volume. Her books are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.


  1. Villains are my favorite characters. It is not difficult to write a great hero. It is generally easy to make him/her likeable, therefore adored by readers. It is so much harder to create the epic villain. It is the villains who are only “villains by perspective” that are the best.

  2. Yup, villains need even more depht tan the hero sometimes, because héroes can be boring at the end, but your villain should never be!

  3. Thank you so much! This post helped me figure out a huge plot hole that I had been wondering about for a long time. Now, not only will I have a hopefully better antagonist, I’ll have a better plot, too.

  4. I admit, I don’t usually have villains. I have characters who all have different backgrounds, stories, and agendas which are often pointed in the opposite or simply cross directions from each other’s. Real life is complex and my characters interact in complex ways. Even the ones who love each other cause plenty of growth and change—good and bad—in each other. That works for me. I do see the point in certain kinds of stories in needing an villain, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer by far, far, far to have antagonists who aren’t villains at all. They just have a completely different goal or mindset.

    But then, a large part of the difference can also come down to is your story based on the plot goal? If it is and the plot involves any kind of crime or war, you’re more likely to have a ‘bad guy.’ If it’s based around the character growth or if the plot involves nonviolent stakes, you can have a bad guy, but you can just as easily have an antagonist or a non-person obstacle to resolve.

  5. I have often been creeped out by the villain with kids. The hero ends up in their home, captured. And they are such good hosts, good parents, and extremely amiable until they send the children out of the room. Then they are capable of murder.
    Another one is the fastidious killer. For some reason a clean process brings out their “loveable” side. Doesn’t matter that the process is killing someone.
    Real good article. Makes me think about the reasons my villains are the way they are.

  6. You listed my favorite “villan’, Reddington. He’s such an intriguing character and I can’t help but like him even though I know that most of the time I shouldn’t.
    I love the moral villian. I hope I can do one justice in my own work.


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  2. […] As writers, we notice things. And sometimes, being the perceptive breed we are, we especially enjoy noticing other people’s faults and our own glowing attributes. In her blog post “The Moral Villain,” K.M. Weiland offers this suggestion for developing your antagonist: “Unearth his backstory and show readers that, at one point, he was human. It’s a good reminder that we’re all just one bad experience away from becoming monsters ourselves.” Read the whole fantastic article here: […]

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