Sneak Preview: Bad Guys in Fiction

Here’s a handout/sneak preview of the presentation at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association July 2016 Conference that G. Elizabeth Kretchmer  and I will be giving on “How to Craft Anti-Heroes, Villains, and Scoundrels.” The outline covers lots of information on creating (and reading about) bad guys in fiction, followed by some good resources for reading more about this intriguing subject.

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

 Definition of bad guys: can be a single opponent or multiple opponents, animal, nonhuman, environmental, societal (such as an unjust criminal justice system, or a dystopian societal system as in Hunger Games).


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

b) The ANTI-HERO or DARK HERO – a mysterious, flawed protagonist who disturbs the reader with his or her weaknesses. He may be considered an outlaw or bad guy who can’t play by the rules, but he 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 – changes appearance and mood and can be difficult for the protagonist to understand. He/she brings doubt and suspense into a story and is often a catalyst for change.

e) The MONSTER  –  a being so terrifying that it challenges the victim’s sanity and sense of reality. Encounters with monsters including the dead, the undead, other creatures, are the emotional high points of the story.

 Understanding how your bad guy fits into your story


a) What general themes are there in the story you’re working on now or one you are beginning to write?

b) Decide on the type of story or genre. The bad guy should be appropriate for the genre.

If it’s going to be a children’s or young adult novel, for instance, different considerations would apply.

c) Do a general plotline early in the writing process, although this can change as you go forward and revise.

d) At some point while writing your first draft, do a character study of the protagonist: background, motives, goal in the story. Sketch the general character arc.

e) Choose your bad guy character to fit the plotline, and someone who is appropriate as a foil for your protagonist.

f) As you outline or write your story, develop a character sketch and character arc for your bad guy, thinking about goals, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, desires and background, and employ these elements in your novel.

Understanding your bad guy’s specific function

The bad guy might:

  • Reveal the flawed world of your story, e.g., an unfair criminal justice system
  • Create the basic conflict for your protagonist;
  • Expose how your protagonist reacts to challenges
  • Teach the protagonist a lesson.
  • Force the protagonist to grow or change

Understanding your readers

Why readers are drawn to unlikeable characters

We love to be scared

  • They’re fun to read about
  • We see a little bit of ourselves in them
  • We have our own shadow selves that long for recognition and/or redemption
  • We empathize with them because of their unfortunate backstories
  • Bad guys make our good guys look better or personally grow
  • The bad guys teach us about our world

Understanding your bad guyS CHARACTER in depth

 Character traits and behaviors

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

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

Abnormal psychology and criminal considerations

  • Shadow syndromes
  • Narcissists
  • Antisocial behavioral characteristics
  • Psychopaths

Moral codes, passions, and root causes

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

OTHER ELEMENTS for crafting your bad guy

Things to consider in bringing your bad guy to life in your story and making him multi-dimensional:

  • His family history.
  • Where does he live and work? What kind of vehicle does he drive?
  • Describe the equipment, furnishing and decorations of the bad guy’s home or workplace or lair.
  • How do others view him?
  • Describe him in great detail, including mannerisms, clothing style, voice, dominant personality traits, etc.
  • What would his dialogue be like?
  • If you have him as a point-of-view character, what are his thoughts and emotional reactions to different situations?
  • Who are your bad guy’s associates?
  • What are some kind things he does?
  • What are his special skills? What is his modus operandi?

The final conflict: More relevant in high-action stories, thrillers, sci fi.

  • Where is it? Should be on the bad guy’s turf.
  • Protagonist should be at a disadvantage throughout the story, but in the final conflict the protagonist has gained some new skills and can overcome the bad guy.
  • What weapons, skills or tools does each of them employ?
  • 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

Articles and Books

“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 (Vol.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)





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