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 The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by U.S. 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. You can find Becca on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Thanks Becca, the moral villain is a really interesting concept. I’ve been working on developing my villain’s backstory, but haven’t considered his moral code before. I love the idea of what won’t they do and why. It definitely reveals more about the character than what they will do. I’ll have to ask myself some of these questions while I develop my outline. Thanks again!

  2. This really gives me food for thought. Maybe my villain will have a part to play in the sequel…

  3. Great post.Thank you 🙂

  4. Chiara Keren Button says:

    Good post–something I’ve been revising in my WIP. Villains really are scariest when they believe that their actions are right almost with more conviction than the hero believes in his own actions. Thanks for clarifying this aspect of story craft!

  5. Thank you very much. I better understand the antagonist because of this article. This will definitely go into my writing in the future.

  6. Great blog topic!! I have to admit the moral villain is definitely more interesting than the killing machine. I try to make mine pillars of society, respected, trusted, loved. And yet, there is definitely an open window that shows that they’re not all they appear to be. Ruthless, deadly, a true opponent of the hero or heroine.

  7. I made my villian a more sinister Javert-type (Les Miserables). My hero is an American spy in the British army during the American Revolutionary War, and my villian’s job is to prove it and hang him. It made my villian really fun to write, because there was a good reason for his actions, and he will stop at nothing until he succeeds.

  8. Of all of my villains, I think that my first was the most… moral. She was related to most of my characters, so when she had the chance to kill the MC, she decided not to. Something–morals–kept her from killing her own kin. So, yes, she was moral in a way. 🙂


    • becca puglisi says:

      A lot of times, it takes just that one little thing to create depth for the character and interest on the reader’s part. Bravo!

  9. I’ll admit! I love the moral villain who in his/her own right could be the protagonist if the tables were turned! 🙂

  10. Richard M. says:

    Very cool post! While I am terrified of the shark from Jaws (and have been since my dad decided it was okay to leave the TV on during Robert Shaw’s gruesome end with my 4-year-old self in the room), I also agree that there is a much deeper element of interest in a villain who acts based on a code or even just a plan. I am in the process of writing a story in which my villain grew up as an average individual, which set him apart in the pristine society he was surrounded by. This made him vulnerable to a certain malevolent outside influence. When he grows up and manipulates his way into a powerful position, this influence directs his behavior, which he sees as right. Now, while his actions are nothing short of genocidal toward other groups of people, he never purposefully kills members of his own group, even after the most stalwart of rebellions. Moral code? Sure. Moral individual? Only if you gauge him by his own morals.

    • becca puglisi says:

      The backstory is so incredibly important in figuring out what your villain believes and why. Good for you for going the distance in that regard.

  11. great post. I like to think my villian in my first book love bites first bite is moral. he does what he has to but he has his standards. He lieve by oldtime rules and is als gentlemen he cant help he has been cursed to be a vampire but tries to keep his tru self as much as possible.

  12. Thank you for the post ~ that was excellent advice! In the book series I’m crafting now, I couldn’t help but dredge up things about my villain that made him tick. Made him into what he is today ~ it’s nice to have affirmation that I was headed in the right direction! Now, I’m encouraged to go back through and actually write out his profile so I can nail him down better. 🙂

  13. The scariest people I’ve ever met are the ones you just described. They don’t think what they’re doing is wrong, or if they do, they justify it however they neet to in order to make it sound better. They’re horrifying to be around. I know exactly how some of those main characters feel …Now if only there was a way to imprint those mental images into paper without them becoming totally flat… but I guess it couldn’t be called ‘writing’ then, would it?

    • becca puglisi says:

      If you’ve been around people like this, then you’re ahead of the game: you’ve got what it takes to write that emotion realistically. I’d do some journaling; get those moments—the details—down so you don’t forget. Then work those emotions into your story :).

      • I hope so. I also hope more writers are able to add stuff like that in. Realistically. It definitely adds to the feeling of a story. I do know you have to know all of your characters very well to understand their reactions and thoughts and write them well. Especially if their personalities are all very different from your own.

        Thank you for your suggestion. I do have an ongoing journal-type-thing for notes like that. As you say, it helps to understand from the (I’m gonna say) ‘victim’s’ side of the story. I was around that kind of situation long enough, and am now far enough away from it, to understand the ‘bad guy’ a little better for his part, too. What I’m working on the most lately are actually the side characters! Sigh. The people who don’t really know what’s going on but have all their own opinions, anyway… (On purpose, for the story, of course. And hopefully realistically.) They’re so sad and funny all at the same time. I love them. Sometimes I think they’re the most fun to try and figure out.

  14. Larissa Hardesty says:

    Great post! I do always try to have backstory and a reason for why my villains do what they do. 🙂

  15. Researching the villain is something I haven’t thought much about. Good point. Great post! Please enter me in the drawing too.

  16. I agree. The villian who has a moral code is much more frightenting than a shark (assuming I’m high and dry). It is espcially enjoyable if the villian can convince the reader that he is justified. Even Hitler laid out some pretty impressive sounding reasons for his actions. Impressive enough that an entire country of intelligent people followed him. It is even better if the hero created the villian. Frankenstein is the classic tale. More recently, the Joker. Or how about the villian in The Incredibles. Mr. Incredible wounded him emotionally as a boy. When he grew up, he enacted his revenge. We still knew he was wrong, but we could certainly feel his pain.

    Thanks for the guest post. Good stuff.

    • becca puglisi says:

      Great examples! As unsettling as it is, Hitler is a good example of an evil person who’s 100% guaranteed that he’s right. Look at the terror he elicited with that conviction. Scary stuff.

  17. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Becca!

  18. Great post!

  19. Bryn Clark says:

    I love villains and the moral villain is my favorite. I also love the self-loathing villain where they can invoke a spark of pity while they do some of the most horrible things! Loved this article and shared it with my writer dad, as well!

  20. My WIP has a moral villan. It’s fun and freaky giving someone a reason for their actions.

    Enjoyed the post, thank you!

  21. I have a backstory – and if not backstory, motivation- for most of my villains, but my trouble comes with the moral code. I seem to have trouble imagining that they wouldn’t do anything for their own purposes. 😛

    • becca puglisi says:

      I know; it’s so hard to imagine that the villain wouldn’t do absolutely anything. But finding even one thing that the antagonist isn’t comfortable doing or believes is wrong adds an interesting twist. 🙂

  22. Well-written, and thanks for sharing! In my own endeavors I try to make my antagonists as plausible, even human, as possible because the better the antagonist, the more one can relate to his or her motives, the more questions they may ask as the hero journeys forth. I especially enjoy the antagonists I can empathize with, because who knows how any of us might have turned out under different circumstances?

    That said, I do have a soft spot for the villains to whom their is no rhyme or reason, merely the madness. The Joker and Michael Myers are excellent example of this. Maybe they don’t understand why they do what they do, but they are horrifying, nightmare – inducing presences, simply because there IS no way they can ever be satiated. They simply are, and I love that evil simplicity.

  23. This post was an eye-opener.
    Yes, the antagonist in my latest work definetly got a moral code. He behaves really creepy sometimes, but his reason for working against my protagonist is a just one. He wants to take over the throne, and the truth is that it rightfully should be his.
    Now, his way of getting the throne is by no means likeable, but his strive are justified – and the society he lives in is one that gererally is letting “end justify the means”….

  24. Great post! Sometimes a well written villain can be much more interesting than the hero.

  25. Wendy Jones says:

    In my first book I have tried to make my villain a moral villain. However, the above has given me much food for thought and has been extremely helpful. Thank you

  26. Patti J. Kurtz says:

    My current antagonist is a moral villain– she really believes that her by friend (the protagonist’s brother) is still alive and that he wants her to help my main character win her races– no matter who gets hurt in the process. My antagonist is also a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” character– the other characters in the story need to learn to grieve and talk about their brother’s death. My antagonist illustrates what can happen if you slip into extreme denial.

  27. K.M.–For me, what comes to mind after reading your intriguing discussion–and the comments–is Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, and the murderer of Hamlet’s father. Claudius is fully aware of his crimes. He would like to make them all go away by praying for forgiveness. But even as he does so, he realizes that he isn’t prepared to give up what he killed for–his queen (Hamlet’s mother), and his kingship–and therefore he also realizes that his prayer will never be accepted. He is tormented because he has a moral aspect to his makeup, but in the end his selfishness is stronger.

  28. Terrific post. Gave me some ideas for my WIP. Thanks. 🙂

  29. It’s too easy to create a one-dimensional villain who has no motivation other than to be a villain. Thanks for a checklist to make sure my antagonists are deeper than that.

  30. Thank you for this, Becca! I have been trying to create a moral villain in a WIP and kept stumbling around. I couldn’t make him believable. Turns out, I didn’t give him any boundaries. Now, it’s time for me to head out and make a list of his will-never-dos =)

  31. I’ve always found moral villians to be the most interesting. Thanks for the fantastic article!

    I’ve toyed around with the idea, but never gotten very far of a character who we see as the villain all the way through the novel, but at the end realize is actually the true hero, and that our hero was actually the villain all along… I think it’s the idea that what we perceive as right and wrong is just that… a perception.

    I might think that killing an innocent is morally wrong, but someone who has been wronged in the past and out for vengeance might see it differently. Maybe they wouldn’t see that person as an innocent.

    An excellent article. Thank you so much for writing it!

  32. S. A. Tudhope says:

    I’ve heard this before, from Donald Maass and from others. Great reminder as I start my next novel. I’m always happy to hear/read anything that enhances my writing. Thank you for the post.

  33. What a terrific post! Thanks, Becca, for saying this, and thanks, K. M., for posting it. This gives me such good ideas for some of my characters. Yay! Just what I needed today. Also, thanks for the chance to win The Positive Trait Thesaurus. It’s on my wish list.

  34. This is a great post–and it completely describes how I went about creating the main villain in the YA trilogy I’m currently writing! I knew just one thing about how she would appear when I first started working on the idea, and her backstory and boundaries really informed the rest of the story. She is absolutely a protagonist in her own right, and sometimes I wish she and the heroine could have found a way to work together…

  35. This could almost have been written just for me. I’m fact, Katie and I were discussing this aspect of my villain the other day. Mine, I think will requirea a slightly different angle as he is a deity not a “person”, but the considerations are mostly the same – especially the moral code.

    • becca puglisi says:

      Thats true: A deific villain would definitely need to be worked differently than a human one. Their rules, their perspectives, their capabilities—everything is different than ours. I’m so glad you’re taking that into consideration.

  36. Stephen G. Zoldi says:

    As a reader and writer of fantasy, I find that most villains in the genre are just evil for the sake of being evil. I am trying to cast my antagonist as the hero in his own story. Thank you for this post.


    • becca puglisi says:

      Stephen, this is exactly what I’m trying to get away from in my own fantasy writing. Thanks for fighting the good fight 😉

  37. As someone starting out, I don’t want to burden my inspirations with too much analysis, however, as I review drafts, having excellent concepts in mind will certainly be an aid and a self-check. After I’ve made review-use of this and other concepts several times over, I expect I’ll have them comfortably in my thoughts as ideas are first formed.


  38. My favorite “bad guy” comes from the idea that the best conflict is between good and good. I always go back to The Rock when describing it. The villains have a deep need to further their cause and it is one we can all understand. It leaves a bit of dissonance in wanting them stopped, I think ,and their morals are fairly clear.

    • becca puglisi says:

      Another great example of a villain acting from a moral and just place. Even though we disagree with him and know that what he’s doing is wrong, seeing him as a human being with good intentions does make it difficult to outright hate him and want him destroyed.

  39. This is really helpful. For me the villain always was against the protagonist–but it was not until recently when I would divulge why the antagonist was such a pain. Back story, back story, back story. It always matters.

  40. This thread has spawned some terrific conversation and ideas.

  41. becca puglisi says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the positive thoughts and interesting conversation. And now for the winner of The Positive Trait Thesaurus…Dave Ally! Dave, if you can message me at, I’ll be able to send you your PDF copy. Congrats! And thanks, Katie, for hosting me :).

  42. Having strong backstory for a villain is always great…

    Meet The Robinsons or Up or The Incredibles did great job establishing villains with strong backstories!

    The more stonecold character for me was T Bag from Prison Break he had so many complex layers for one person and definitely nightmare villain

    Same way the Trinity killer , that was incredibly crafted I mean we got to see the evil so much closely !!!

    That “Hello Dexter Morgan” episode was epic those 3 words just gave me the chills .. its still so vivid !!

    Also recently I really loved the Rise of The Guardians most for its treatment of villain Pitch

    because in an essence Jack Frost and him they both are the same, Jack has every reason to be exactly like Pitch and he can be but he doesn’t.

    I really loved the way writers defined both characters from the same seed and sculpted them to be different…

  43. Hi K.M.,

    Congratulations for being named one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers for 2013. This is indeed an honor since according to Mary Jaksch, the chief editor at Write to Done, the sponsor of the contest, over 1,100 writers nominated their favorite blogs.

  44. Great and timely post for me concerning writing the “moral” villain. I’m in the process of editing and rewriting a novel I composed (but never published) 30 years ago, and currently I’m giving my female protagonist a fuller backstory to eliminate some major motivational gaps. Trouble is, now she’s becoming so real I’ll either have to flatten her out again, or do the hard work to make my villain a lot more rounded. As presently written he’s a cartoon character.

  45. Helen Earl says:

    This made me think of something a vicar friend once said. Judas is portrayed as almost the ultimate villain but, without his betrayal nobody would be talking about Jesus today. Without the death on the cross and subsequent resurrection, Jesus is just a do-gooder prophet, and those things only happened because of Judas. Judas, of course, felt himself fully justified in his actions, even if he later regretted them.

  46. 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.

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

  48. 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.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. Laurie Johannah says:

    While I am not currently writing fiction, this is the very real situation I am writing about in my memoir. My husband was a sociopath and a dedicated church goer. Those two characteristics ruled his–and our–lives. It was a dichotomy he balanced expertly.

  53. becca puglisi says:

    As a church-goer myself, it saddens me to hear stories like yours. I’m so sorry for the pain you’ve been through. I hope that writing your memoir is a cathartic experience that brings clarity and possibly some resolution to your situation.


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  2. […] 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.  […]

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  7. […] resources….Read the whole fantastic article here, guest-posted on K.M. Weiland’s Blog And check out the blog she does with Angela Ackerman, Writers Helping […]

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