Crafting Believable Villains: 52 Questions to Ask

If you read much writing advice, you probably know that villains are supposed to be believable, well-rounded , and not necessarily evil. (And if you haven’t read that writing advice, now you know.) But how do you go about creating such a believable-yet-villainous character? Plunking a black hat on your bad guy is oh-so-much easier!

When in doubt, I like to start by asking questions—so I figured I’d share :). Don’t feel the need to answer them all; instead, ask and see which evoke answers that surprise or inspire. Happy writing!
52 Questions to Ask Your Villain

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Who took care of you?
  3. When you were a child, who did you love?
  4. Who acted as mentor?
  5. Who did you trust?
  6. Who betrayed your trust?
  7. Who hurt you? How?
  8. Did you seek vengeance or are you still trying to please them?
  9. Is there anyone in your life who you currently trust?
  10. Is there anyone who you currently love?
  11. Is there anyone who you currently need? How do you feel about this need?
  12. Do you have any friends? A lover?
  13. Who do you desire to protect?
  14. Who is your greatest hero?
  15. Who is your nemesis?
  16. Do you have a pet? What kind?
  17. Do you have a hobby? What do you do in your spare time for enjoyment?
  18. What do you love?
  19. What do you hate more than anything?
  20. What do you fear more than anything?
  21. What makes you angry?
  22. What are you ashamed of doing?
  23. What are you ashamed of being?
  24. Is there something in your life that irritates you daily?
  25. Is there something that you can’t forget?
  26. What do you want more than anything?
  27. What are you willing to do to get it? Hurt someone? Lie? Steal? Kill?
  28. What would you die to protect?
  29. What would you murder to gain?
  30. From whom do you hide your actions?
  31. What do you hide from yourself?
  32. What dream makes you wake in a cold sweat?
  33. What dream brings you peace?
  34. How are you admirable?
  35. Do you believe what you’re doing is right?
  36. Do you believe the world owes you?
  37. Do you believe the world is out to get you?
  38. Do you want to pay someone back for hurting you?
  39. What do you deserve?
  40. What do you need?
  41. If you can’t get what you want, will you despair?
  42. If you can’t get what you want, will you attack?
  43. When angry, do you fly into a rage? Or do you simmer in silence until the time’s ripe for vengeance?
  44. What emotional need drives you? The need for love? Respect? Success? Domination? Safety? Belonging? Self-esteem?
  45. Do you respect yourself?
  46. If your home was destroyed and you could save only one thing, what would it be?
  47. What is a ritual you engage in daily?
  48. What goals do you pursue?
  49. How are you like your nemesis/the main character?
  50. How are you different?
  51. How do you admire him?
  52. What do you despise about him? Or do you care about him at all—perhaps he’s simply in your way?

Photo courtesy of dariuszka on Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. Kenda says

    Whoa, what an exhaustive list. I should be able to understand my character in depth after attempting to answer some of these. Thanks!

  2. Cheryl Reif says

    Hi Kenda! I'd advise against answering ALL those questions. It could make you crazy!

    Glad you enjoyed :). Let me know if you think of anything I missed!

  3. Charissa Weaks says

    I love you for this. I've struggled with knowing the "villain" in my WIP and as I read through these questions, he literally answered them all for me. You just helped me knock down another wall! Part of my problem is that I am letting the main character tell the story and for much of the book she isn't sure who to trust…she isn't actually sure who the bad guy is. Everyone wants something from her…but the villain becomes clear by what he's willing to do to get it. Thanks for this post. I needed it! :)

  4. K.B. Owen says

    I'm going to bookmark this for later brainstorming sessions. Thanks, Cheryl!

  5. Haley says

    Wow. It must have taken you a long time to write that list. These questions are a good way to get to know any character. Thanks for sharing. I will be using some of them in the future :)

  6. PW.Creighton says

    Great post Cheryl, the majority of those questions are ones that a psychologist would ask. Like my new post. It's all about getting in their head. If you develop a strong psychological persona then you're no longer creating a character, you're introducing us to an individual. A person.

  7. Julie Musil says

    Wow, this is brilliant! I love the idea of looking at the story from the antagonist's pov. Why is he such a jerk?

  8. Julie Musil says

    Me again. I just bookmarked this post. It was awesome.

  9. Cheryl Reif says

    Charissa: Yay! I love it when a writing friend hurdles a roadblock. Thanks for the feedback!

    K.B.: Awww, thank you :). I so appreciate it!

    Haley: The funny thing is, this list didn't take as long to compile as you might think because I'd already been asking myself all these questions, trying to figure out what the heck my villain wanted and what motivated him. Of course, if you count all the time I've spent wrestling with the villain in my WIP, the post took forever!

    P.W.: I find psychologists' tools fit well in the writers' toolbox.

    Julie: Thank you! I hope it helps you figure out how your villain views his world situation. Feeling "wronged" seems to justify a host of evils….

  10. Poppy says

    Thank you! I am 13 and writing a novel, and want to get to know my antagonist as best I can. this really helps. :)