Sometimes villains know full well they’re being villainous, that they’re hurting people, that what they’re doing is wrong and so must be done in secret, and so live in fear of being caught. When they are caught, they might at least be remorseful for the mistakes they made that led them to being caught, admit that what they did was harmful to others, struggle with why they did what they did—often having no grander explanation for their terrible behavior than it felt good, or felt like something they had to do, that it somehow “scratched an itch” or satisfied some curiosity. Or they just wanted the money. And though some of that remorse may well be faked—sociopaths can get good at that—these villains do not think of themselves as heroes in any way.

Who are these people?

  • Every single serial killer you can name.
  • Internet trolls who signal boost for the craziest possible crap and make open threats of violence against anyone they come cross, just to bathe in the negative reactions.
  • Certain critics who want to prove they can close a play in the first week.
  • Everyone involved in the international drug trade.
  • Everyone involved in sex trafficking.

People do all sorts of insane shit all the while knowing full well there’s no greater good at the end of it. But that goes against a lot of fiction writing advice, doesn’t it. Don’t people like me—and me, too, literally, I’m sure—tell you to craft your villains as the heroes of their own stories?

For instance: “Stacey D’Erasmo on the Fun of Writing Cryptic Characters”:

If, however, you choose to take the risk of spending a lot of time with a character who roams unsettlingly among moral, ethical, or political ambiguities, there is one thing that is not blurry at all to me: everyone is the hero of their own life. Everyone walks around thinking, on some level, If you only knew. True, accountable confessions with a view to making amends are rare. Much more common are explanations, defenses, rationalizations, and self-mythologizing. Not far underneath many an apology is a much sulkier, more stubborn, sotto voce You don’t understand what really happened.

That can be true. I really think Adolf Hitler saw himself as the savior of Germany and sincerely put himself forward as such. If it’s true that every serial killer doesn’t think of himself as a hero, then every fascist dictator does think of himself as a hero: Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc.

But this blanket, one-sided character advice gets at the heart of why many stories suffer from what I call “villain confusion.” Authors struggle so valiantly to make the villain a sort of misguided hero that they end up with a villain that isn’t a villain at all, and we’re left wondering who to root for. You can see villain confusion play out in all its glory in the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Now, if that’s actually what you’re going for, I’m all in. There is no requirement that you have a perfectly good hero and a perfectly evil villain. But make me wonder who to root for and who, if anyone, to root against on purpose, not because you’re feeling under some pressure to redeem a bad guy.

Sometimes, a bad guy is just a bad guy.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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