Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | October 19, 2011

Characters We Love to Hate and Characters We Hate to Love by Karen McCullough

The Author Chronicles gives a very warm welcome and thanks to Karen McCullough, our third Mystery Month author guest, who discusses villains and what makes a good villain.

To enter the contest to win a signed copy of her book A Gift for Murder, simply leave a comment at the end of the post – just saying ‘hi’ is fine.


by Karen McCullough

As you might have guessed, this post is about villains and what makes a good villain. Yes, I realize that sounds like an oxymoron, but there’s good and then there’s good. In this case, I mean “good” in the sense of effective.

Every story needs an antagonist, someone the heroes or heroines pit themselves again. It’s the process of facing the obstacles thrown up by an opposing force that creates conflict, and thus your story. The better the villain, the more challenges our heroes face to find ways to defeat him or her. A good, strong villain can make the story; a weak one can break it. So, what makes a good villain?

First and foremost, your villain has to be believable. The over-the-top-evil megalomaniac who strives for world domination just because he wants it works in comic books, but rarely in other fiction.

In my opinion, the best villains are people driven by needs and motivations we can all relate to; they’re just driven harder, are more ruthless, or have few internal controls. But at base they’re pushed to evil deeds by the same sets of things that move all of us.

Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we’ve all had some murderous urges, though most of us don’t act on them. I felt one just a couple of days ago when some idiot cut me off on the highway, changing lanes in a way that almost caused a wreck. For a couple of moments I darn well wanted to kill him!

Who among us hasn’t “borrowed” a few pens or pads from our offices? Yes, it’s small change, but there’s only a quantitative difference between that and embezzling millions from the company.

It’s when they tap into those deep, dark secret places in our psyches that good villains come alive for the reader. We all have things we’ll fight for. Most of us attempt to do so in a legitimate and legal way, but we also know that there are situations that could drive us to push against our conscience, compromise our principals, and skirt, if not outright flout, the law.

Sociopaths, serial killers, and other utterly despicable types are especially common in suspense novels and thrillers and they can seem over-the-top and unrelatable. But even though they are driven by an internal logic that might seem bizarre to most normal people, there’s still a germ of that logic which most people can relate to, whether they want to admit or not.

I once heard someone say something so profound for authors that I’ve used it as the basis of much of my writing ever since. I don’t know who said it, but I wish I did so I could give it the proper attribution.

It goes like this: Everyone is the hero of his or her own story.

It sounds simple, but the implications are profound for storytellers. Even the most despicable villains don’t see themselves as bad or evil. They’re striving to fulfill needs most of us can relate to, if sometimes in ways that make us cringe, wince or hate them.

So, what else does it take to make a good villain? Intelligence is important. Stupid villains are no challenge. Any villains who make it too easy for the hero or heroine to beat them are just no use for a story.

Strength is also a good characteristic for your antagonist—not necessarily physical strength, though depending on the story, that can be important, but also nerves of steel and a will that refuses to accept defeat—create a more satisfying challenge level.

Finally, charisma is a good trait for villains. It makes them harder to defeat, yet ultimately, when the hero triumphs, it’s that much more satisfying .

Think of some of the more memorable villains in stories—Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, etc.—and consider how they embody many of these qualities and how that complicates the lives of some of our favorite heroes and heroines … and makes the victory that much sweeter.

Karen McCullough with her newborn grandson

Karen McCullough is the author of ten published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. Her most recent release is A GIFT FOR MURDER, published in hardcover by Five Star/Gale Group Mysteries. Late October 2011 will see the release of a paranormal romantic suspense novel, MAGIC, MURDER AND MICROCIRCUITS in ebook formats. She invites visitors to check out her home on the web at and her site for the Market Center Mysteries series,


  1. As always you inform and entertain.

    Anna T.S.
    P.S. Love the picture : )


  2. Wonderful piece. I also wonder if the villain thinks of him/herself as such. Is a good villain righteous in his/her own view?


  3. Thanks, Anna and Merry! Merry, I think most people believe they’re doing the right thing by whatever standards they use to judge, even when everyone else would disagree. Even some of the worst villains the world has ever seen believed they had some sort of justification for horrible and despicable deeds. – Karen


  4. If everyone is the hero of his or her own story, are they also the converse and the villian in their own story too?
    Great piece. Thanks.


    • HI Ann —
      Interesting question! Not many people want to think of themselves as any kind of villain, but I suppose if we’re truthful with ourselves, the answer is, on some level, at least, yes. -Karen


  5. Good article, Karen. So glad the baby is gaining weight and doing well. Jane


  6. This should be required reading for authors. The only thing I hate reading worse than a stupid villain is a too stupid to live protagonist. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.


    • Thanks, Elysa! I’m with you on the stupid villain and the stupid protagonist. Unfortunately stupid villains tend to beget stupid protagonists, or you have no story. A smart protagonist will sniff out a stupid villain in minutes, as any police officer can tell you. – Karen


  7. Thanks, Jane!


  8. This is great advice, and one area I am always working on. Thank you!


  9. Loved this article – as I love writing villains. Interesting to think that the villains themselves think of themselves as heroes – that can dramatically change your writing of them thinking in their mindset. Thanks for that insight!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: