Pacific Northwest Writers Association

How to Craft Anti-Heroes, Villains, and Scoundrels

July 28, 2016

 Presented by G. Elizabeth Kretchmer and Christine Z. Mason

Overview of Bad Guys and Girls


The bad guy or girl is the character that doesn’t conform with normal social conventions, has at least one unsavory personality trait, and plays a key role in the story arc.  He can be anywhere on a spectrum from anti-hero to flawed scoundrel to antagonistic villain or monster. He is usually at least slightly dangerous, always creates conflict, and often has a moral code that differs from others. He is always vulnerable, and in one way or another reveals the vulnerabilities of others

The bad guy or girl can be animal or otherwise nonhuman, an environmental concern, or a broad societal evil.

Some types of bad guys and girls

a) The UNLIKEABLE PROTAGONIST – complicated; will reveal important themes or statements about the human psyche. Must be understandable, even if not likeable.

b) The ANTI-HERO or DARK HERO – mysterious and flawed; disturbs the reader with his or her weaknesses. May be considered an outlaw or bad guy who can’t play by the rules, but is sympathetically portrayed.

c) The ANTAGONIST or VILLAIN – motivated by an agenda that opposes the protagonist’s goals, providing obstacles and conflict.

d) The SHAPESHIFTER – may change appearance and/or mood; can be difficult for the protagonist to understand. Brings doubt and suspense into a story and is often a catalyst for change.

e) The MONSTER – so terrifying that the victim’s sanity and sense of reality is challenged.Encounters with such monsters as the dead, the undead, or other creatures are the emotional highpoints of the story.

Understanding how your bad guy fits into your story – factors to consider

a) What general themes are in your story?

b) What is your genre?

c) When and where does your bad guy appear in your plotline?

d) What does your protagonist’s character arc look like? What is his/her background, motives, and?

e) How does your bad guy interact with the protagonist? Does he/she serve as a foil?

f) What is the character arc for your bad guy? What are his/her goals, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, desires and key background points?

Understanding your bad guy’s specific function

 a) Reveal the flawed world of your story, e.g., an unfair criminal justice system

b) Create the basic conflict for your protagonist

c) Expose how your protagonist reacts to challenges

d) Teach the protagonist a lesson

e) Force the protagonist to grow or change.

Understanding why readers are drawn to unlikeable characters

a) We love to be scared

b) Bad guys are fun to read about

c) We see a little bit of ourselves in them

d) We have our own shadow selves that long for recognition and/or redemption

e) We empathize with them because of their unfortunate backstories

f) Bad guys make our good guys look better or personally grow

g) The bad guys teach us about our world

Understanding your bad guy’s character in depth

a) Various personality trait models to refer to when crafting any character¾not just bad guys:

  • Myers-Briggs
  • Five-factor model
  • Lists of personality traits
  • Enneagrams

b) Abnormal psychology and criminal considerations:

  • Shadow syndromes
  • Narcissists
  • Antisocial behavioral characteristics
  • Psychopaths

c) Moral codes, passions, and root causes:

  • Moral code – we all have one
  • Passion – the energy that fuels us
  • Root cause
  • Biological
  • Neurological
  • Evil spirits and curses
  • Societal influences

Other considerations for crafting your bad guy

a) Family history

b) Home (or lair), automobile, and occupation details

c) How others view him or her

d) Mannerisms, clothing style, voice and syntax

e) Thoughts and emotional reactions to different situations

f) Friends, associates, enemies

g) The good side: the kind things he or she may do

h) Special skills and/or modus operandi

The final conflict – especially relevant in high-action stories, thrillers, sci fi

a) Where is it? Should it be on the bad guy’s turf?

b) Has your protagonist gained some new skills so he/she can now overcome the bad guy?

c) What weapons, skills or tools does each of them use?

d) Avoid clichés; make your bad guy as original as your protagonist.

Recommended Resources and Reading


Student Pulse Academic Journal

The Myers & Briggs Foundation

University of Oregon Personality and Social Dynamics Lab

The Synthetic Aperture Personality Assessment Project

Live Bold & Bloom

Out of the Fog


“Writing Good Bad Guys”, Susan Vinocour, attorney and clinical psychologist, The Writer’s Chronicle March/April 2016


Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction

Jessica Morrell (Writer’s Digest Books; 2008)

Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature

Edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams (TarcherPerigee; 1st edition 1991)

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!): STEALING HOLLYWOOD: Story structure secrets for writing your BEST book (Volume 3)

Alexandra Sokoloff (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2015)

Shadow Syndromes: The Mild Forms of Major Mental Disorders That Sabotage Us

John J. Ratey, M. D. (Bantam; Reprint edition 1998)

The Anatomy of Story

John Truby (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

The Literary Enneagram: Characters from the Inside Out

Judith Searle (Metamorphous Press 2001)

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Christopher Vogler (Michael Wiese Productions; 3rd edition 2007)

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits

Dr. Linda Edelstein (Writer’s Digest Books; 2nd edition 2006)