Bad Villains Happen
Look, just because you're writing someone bad doesn't mean you need to write them badly.
Sure, people do write poorly constructed antagonists into their books, shows, and movies with sad regularity. And good writers get away with it. They're most common and excusable in movies, which allow only so much time to really delve into them, but they happen in written fiction, too. Even in some very popular books that sell like hotcakes full of money.
What you only see once in a blue moon is a really, really, good book or series without a great villain. What you see all the damned time is a book that's pretty good getting completely hamstrung by an antagonist suffering from one of the following maladies, which themselves tend to fall into three broad-strokes types.
Lazy writers tend to just have the bad guy doing something for the heck of it, and that's just . . . lazy. Lazy and dumb. Especially if it's extremely difficult. I mean, you've got some guy trying to overthrow a government or kill the nigh-invincible hero at great effort, expense, and personal risk, there should be a reason for it.
More than "for money" and "for power". Especially if there's a real risk of losing whatever money and power the antagonist currently has. What do they want the money for? What do they want the power for?
There's a damned good reason they have Walter White say, "I did it for me." at the end of Breaking Bad. It transforms him from someone who did a bad thing to provide for his family into someone who ruined a lot of lives because he was tired of being someone who was pushed around.
It doesn't take a lot of work to find a convincing reason for your antagonist to do what they do, usually, and if it does take a lot of work on your part, it's probably a good sign that you haven't created a very realistic antagonist.
1. For the Evil!
Nobody does anything for the evil of it. That’s just how it goes. People tend to think they’re the good guy in their own story. Hitler, Stalin, Attila, they all thought they were on the side of right, or the gods, or whatever. Sure, now and then we all do something just for the pure chaotic joy of it. Sometimes we light things on fire to see how fast they’ll burn, or set up the odd harmless booby trap for our friends just to see the looks on their faces, but by and large we don’t do these things mean-spiritedly, and neither does anyone else.
Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t mean or cruel people out there in the world, but, with rare exceptions, they’ve got miles of rationalizations for why they are that way, and how it’s not their fault, or not that bad, etc. Give them a better reason than just because it’s evil. Find a way to make them the hero of their own story.
2. No Motivation at All
From time-to-time, writers seem to just wave their hands in the air and just not really bother to give their antagonist a reason for doing what they do. People tend to do things for reasons.
I know, it blows my mind to.
Now, this can be done in order to increase the mystery or fear of the antagonist. The thing we do not understand can be the most terrifying of all. Still, it’s usually pretty clear when the author is withholding information on the antagonist because they want to create dramatic tension for the reader, versus when they’re withholding information because they don’t have a damned clue themselves.
Don’t be lazy. If you’re going to the trouble to write a book, go to the trouble of thinking of a good reason for your antagonist to do what they do.
3. Disproportionate Retribution
Sometimes some antagonist goes to a lot of trouble to make our protagonist’s life miserable and difficult. They work really hard. They’re clever, ruthless, brutal . . . and totally working too hard. They’ve been chasing the protagonist across the city because they stepped on their toe or whatnot. That’s enough to get them across the street, sure, but not across town. I get it, I do: the writer needed them in order to push the plot along somehow, thought of the simplest way to handwave them in, and called it good enough.
Well, if I’m on to you, writer, then you can bet most of your readers are, too. Give your antagonist a reason to react the way they do—don’t give them a cross the street motivation and use it to get them across town. Unless, of course, you can be convincing, creative, and entertaining about it, in which case have fun.
Inexplicable Villain Behavior
Sometimes the inexplicable behavior moves beyond motivation and into the actions of the antagonist. The antagonists undertake actions that undercut the readers’ perceptions of the them as dangerous. It’s hard to be afraid of a bad guy who’s a total idiot, or constantly doing pointless things for just no good reason. A good enemy should be clever, competent, and willing to change things up when the first thing they try doesn’t work.
The most commonly cited example of this ridiculousness is no doubt the "villain monologue" by way the lazy ass writer or director simply skips over putting in the work of creating a narrative in favor of the bad guy just blurting his plan and flimsy excuse for acting as they do at the audience. Personally, I don't get that. It's just lazy, it's boring. No fun, whatsoever, to write.
Far better to create a character whose motivations make sense (from their perspective) so the the reader/viewer can, you know, understand them, without having them (literally, in the case of books) written out. Blegh.
4. Killing Henchmen for NO Reason
This has to be one of the most infuriating things in fiction, at least for me. Some henchman either screws up or just happens to be standing in the wrong place when the antagonist gets some news they don’t like and WHAM! They’re dead. Historically, leaders who are particularly cruel or arbitrary, by the standards of the time, tended to arrive reliably at a single particular fate, irrespective of culture or civilization: Dead at the hands of one or more subordinates who just didn’t feel like being arbitrarily murdered or tortured for some reason. There’s a reason King Joffrey in the Song of Ice and Fire series barely manages to get some skull-on-crown contact before he dies choking on his own throat.
5. No Redeeming Leadership Qualities
Even bad guys shouldn’t be all bad and, in fact, bad guys with lots of followers, power, and so on should have a whole host of very impressive traits. The sort of traits that allowed them to attract loads of loyal followers, or make gobs of money. People should have a reason to follow them, and, indeed, readers should be able to feel what those people felt to attract them to this person. Who wants to follow the guy who’s leading them from defeat to defeat?
6. Overdone Weaknesses
Some folks seem to delight in creating an antagonist with no redeeming qualities, and just a slew of terrible traits to make people hate them—and yet they rule, or lead, or run some amazing evil empire or high tech evil(er) version of Google, etc. What is up with that? You know what happens to people with lots of enemies, or even just lots of money, and glaring weaknesses? They fall. They fall like small children on long stairways. A good bad guy should be an unassailable monstrosity. Or, better yet, someone with complex human emotions, a drive equal to or greater than the protagonist, and, hey, maybe a really great cook, too. The fun, as a reader, as a writer, comes from the experience of taking on an enemy that’s superior to the protagonist in most ways, and winning anyway.
7. Just Terrible, Terrible, Plans
Speaking of. Villains should have simple, effective, plans, with built-in redundancies. They should not have a Rube Goldberg machine of an evil plot, complete with flow charts, utterly dependent on a million dominoes falling exactly right, and untold numbers of people doing exactly this one thing at exactly this one time. Now, I’m not saying there should not be necessary complexities, and tricks, and twists, and so on, but it takes something away from a plot when the whole thing would have fallen apart if the hero had stubbed their toe on the way to work that day. As a general rule in life, plans work best when they are no more complex than the circumstances necessitate. Or, if most potential outcomes lead to victory, and the exact details don’t matter.
Mostly, I like Game of Thrones, but one thing that irks me a bit, considering the world is meant to be a more “realistic” medieval fantasy world, where the bad guys often win (because they’re competent, powerful, etc.) is that everyone should've starved to death a couple seasons ago. And even if they had stores at the beginning, they’ve been rampaging around burning farms just before Winter comes. Maybe that’s how the series ends, with Jaime Lannister, Danaerys, and Jon Snow huddled around a campfire drawing straws to see who gets eaten first?
The biggest major success with absolutely nonsense bonkers supply chains is probably the Hunger Games. Nothing about the Districts, their populations, what they produce, or their functions make any sense at all. I get that’s not really the focus of the books, but it’s difficult to tell whether there are 50,000 or 50,000,000 people living in Panam. Most people get past this sort of thing with no problem, so maybe it’s just me. And, of course, the examples I'm giving are wildly successful. It's worth noting that's because they do a bunch of other difficult things extremely well.
8. Zero Supplies, Giant Army
I touched on this a bit in the intro to the section, but I’m just so tired of endless hordes of enemies issuing forth from wastelands or the black caverns, etc. Things eat stuff. If they don’t, they starve to death. Of all the great armies of history, rampaging around, there was very little getting stabbed to death, and a great deal more starving to death, freezing to death, or dying from excessive pooping. Rome conquered the known world in large part because they really paid attention to supply chains, sanitation, and how much food people needed to survive and fight. That’s why they could afford to invest in highly trained blocks of effective career soldiers. Training someone is expensive, and it’s not really economical if half your army is dying of the poops every time they march out the front gate.
9. Access to Extraordinary Weapons That Go Unused
This is part-in-parcel of the whole, “I’ll just send progressively more powerful henchman at my enemy until I have to solve this problem myself,” trope. Guess what? That’s not a very effective way to do anything. To his credit J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sauron immediately sends his most powerful mobile troops out in search of the One Ring, as soon as he has a clue where it might be. And it’s terrifying. We feel intrinsically for our protagonists because all they can do is run, hide, and try to get to safety before their vastly more dangerous enemies are upon them.
In far more cases, however, antagonists have access to resources that they withhold for no obvious reason except that it would be inconvenient to the plot if they were to arrive too soon. It’s frustrating, of course, but as authors it’s our responsibility to give a believable reason the antagonist holds those weapons in reserve.
10. Too Few Resources to be a Credible Threat
On the flipside of the first two, there is the enemy who is treated as a major threat, but simply doesn’t really have the resources to be the threat the author builds them up to be. This crops up most on the shows that have “villains of the week” in them, for obvious reasons. Now, make no mistake here: cleverness is a resource, creativity is a resource, brutality is a resource. An antagonist who is adept at taking their enemy’s strengths and turning them around is really among the most impressive and threatening. But man, you can’t just say they’re clever, or creative, or brutal, you gotta show, show, show it! The flaw in this plan is obviously that it requires us to be clever, creative, and so on, and that’s just so damned much work at times.
That's Not All
What bothers one person might not bother another, so this list is a fairly personal to me, but I tried to focus on the mistakes I see over and over again from new writers in writing groups, online, and in the course of professional editing jobs, etc.
It's also not an exhaustive list, so I'd like to invite you (and, really, if we're quite honest, pressure you) to add a few of your own in the comments section: What are some of the biggest antagonist-building mistakes you see in writing?