Posted On August 15, 2016 by Print This Post

Writing Relatable Antiheroes and Villains by Kayelle Allen

Help me welcome back Kayelle Allen – today Kayelle is giving us the low down on those no-good villains. Or are they no good? Read ahead and find out more!

kayelle-allen-logo-signatureIn any story, the most beloved parts are the characters. Whether TV, movie, oral history, bedtime story, or paperback book, fans like the interaction of characters with each other. It doesn’t matter if the relationships are between lovers, enemies, or bantering cohorts. It’s the common identifiers–things readers relate to–that endear them.

A hero, of course, must be relatable. This is defined as having items in common, interconnections, or possessing relevance. You can say readers more readily identify with the hero. However, when you’re writing a villain or an antihero, relatability is just as important. While a hero is usually the protagonist, and often someone of exceptional nobility or courage, a villain is the opposite, and often the evildoer in a story. An antihero is a protagonist who lacks the qualities that would define a hero. If a hero is lawful good, an antihero or villain is lawful neutral or lawful evil. A lawful evil character sees a well-ordered system as being easier to exploit and shows a combination of desirable and undesirable traits (Definition: Wordweb). The lawful evil villain might play by the rules just as the hero does, but then enforce them without mercy.

To develop a well rounded villain or antihero, there are three aspects to consider.

Make them true to themselves

With any character, being true to who they are is vital. Get to know your character before you begin writing the book. Hold interviews. Fill out character information sheets. Write their back story. If the heroine is feisty don’t write her as shy and retiring. Let them be who they are. Develop their negative qualities, even if you don’t like it. When the character you’re developing is a bad guy, don’t try to soften him.

Let your villain be cruel. Let him or her be ruthless, or selfish, or narcissistic. Let the villain be bad. Let the antihero fumble, accidentally break the law, and then shrug it off. Antiheroes cause grief without meaning to, but don’t get broken up over it, even if they might regret having done so. It’s life, they say, and go on their way. It’s important to let the antihero and/or villain be true to character, without holding back.

Imagine the opening scene of Star Wars. Princess Leia has been taken captive and brought before Darth Vader. She insists she does not have the plans to the Death Star. If Vader had been written as a weaker villain, the scene would have ended with him saying, “Oh, all right. You can go.” And that would have been both the beginning and the end of Star Wars. Instead, he arrested her, destroyed her home planet, and launched an intergalactic war. Star Wars is still relevant nearly forty years later, because the writer made the villain as memorable and iconic as the hero and heroine. Some say, more so.

Make them relatable

Bringer of Chaos, the Origin of Pietas

Bringer of Chaos, the Origin of Pietas

How do writers make characters–especially villains–relatable? By imbuing them with human qualities, whether they are human or not. Readers can relate to heroes, heroines, villains and antiheroes (including aliens, androids, vampires, were-creatures, and talking dogs) if the characters possess recognizable human qualities.

How do you show humanity? Write scenes that reveal:

  • what they think of themselves.
  • what they do right.
  • what they do wrong.
  • what they hide.
  • what they hate.
  • what they love.

In my recent book, the military scifi Bringer of Chaos: the Origin of Pietas, the protagonist had been the villain in my previous stories. I wanted to explore what had turned Pietas into such a dark, forbidding creature that even those who knew him best feared him. He was known by various names, including Soul Ripper, Destroyer of Worlds, Impaler, Slayer of Innocents, and the Hound of Hell. Could I tell his story, and while showing why he was a ruthless killer, also make readers respect him? Yes. I did it by making him relatable, if not likeable. Reviewers and readers, especially those who had encountered him in previous books, found him fascinating.

In this brief scene from the opening of Bringer of Chaos, Pietas shows every aspect of the items in the checklist above. Read through it, and then we’ll look at how. (FYI: an Ultra is a genetically enhanced warrior.)

Aboard the Uurahkal, a holovid screen in the council chamber replayed news from the Siege of San Xavier. In one report, a half dozen Ultra warriors crept over concrete battlements. In a voiceover, a human reporter called the subsequent slaughter of a hundred human soldiers an atrocity.

“Atrocity?” The Chancellor smacked his hand on the podium. Beneath the blow, the wood compressed. “Why do none of these channels show the truth?” He rubbed at the ache forming behind his eyes. “Humans killed over two hundred unarmed Ultras first. We defended ourselves. But we come back from the dead, so our suffering doesn’t matter!”

The announcer mentioned the upcoming peace talks on Enderium Six. “In a statement, the Terran Crescent Prime Minister expressed hope that Chancellor Pietas ap Lorectic could be reasoned with at the talks this week.”

At her mispronunciation of his name, he gritted his teeth.

“Human families,” she continued, “have been evacuated from the station to protect them from possible violence.”

“I’ll show you violence.” Pietas cut off the video. “And my name is pronounced Pee-ah-toss, thank you. Not Pie-ah-toss. Pee-ah-toss. It’s six letters. How hard is that to get right?” He stormed away from the podium.

He cast off the heavy silk brocade of his robe of state. Silver threads flashed among teal and white as the supple garment billowed to the floor. He tore off the unadorned silver circlet denoting his rank, and tossed it onto a table. It clattered across the wood and knocked over a small ceramic statue of a six-headed dragon.

Pietas righted it. “These peace talks will end in disaster. Why can’t anyone else see it?” He massaged his temples. “This headache is proof. An Ultra doesn’t suffer pain, unless it’s due to humans.”

The opening paragraph sets the scene. The second shows Pietas (the Chancellor) reacting. His physicality is obvious — when he strikes the podium, the wood compresses. He demands to know why no one is telling the truth. Throughout the book, the truth is vital to him. Pietas refuses to lie, no matter what it costs. He is unafraid of consequences. When you have already lived over nineteen hundred years and been reborn hundreds of times, you do not fear death. His demand for truth shows what he does right. At the same time, the fact that he shows no remorse at the deaths of a hundred humans shows what he does wrong.

In the next two-three paragraphs, the announcer mispronounces the name Pietas, and he reacts with irritation. This not only showed what the character thought of himself (and his vanity over it) but it also let me show readers how to say the unusual name. His hatred of humans is apparent, as well as his love for his people. That love drives every step Pietas takes from page one to the end of the book.

The last two paragraphs reveal something he hides–pain. When he knocks over the small dragon statue, he rights it. Dragons feature prominently in this book, even though one never appears. They will in future books, and one is even hidden on the cover. The fact that this dragon has six heads, and that the peace talks are held on Enderium Six are important. The character Six is not introduced until much later in the book (ironically, in chapter six), so I mentioned the number in different places. When he finally shows up, we’ve heard his name several times, and the number has its own significance.

There are several details about the inner character of Pietas in the lines about his uniform. He wears heavy silk brocade robes of state, threaded with silver in the colors of the council (teal and white). Those colors are mentioned in several other places, because they represent important aspects of his character. Again, he suffers pain, but refuses to acknowledge it might be caused by his own anger. He hides his pain from everyone, including himself, by refusing to acknowledge its source.

When tragedy throws the unbreakable Pietas into peril and a human rescues him, everything he believes about the enemy is thrown into question.

Make other characters reflect them

When you show how the antihero and/or villain treats and interacts with another characters, it reveals more details than describing the person can ever show. How other characters view your antihero determines how readers view him or her. Does your villain hate his father but adore his mother? Is he out to get his enemies at any cost but accepts blame to protect his sister? What good qualities does the antihero or villain possess? What is admirable? Reveal those in minor scenes by having him or her interact with other characters. You learn about the person by how they treat others.

Here, Pietas is speaking to what he considers an officious, gold-draped human. Having already insulted the man once, he now refuses to follow him. He says: “Humans do not command Ultras. You may ask if we desire to accompany you. If I decide that we shall, my people will follow me. Until we are shown the respect we deserve, we will go nowhere. In addition, you will address me as ‘my lord’ when you speak to me.”

By contrast, in a later part of the book, Pietas and the human who’d rescued him, Six, share a moment of mutual trust unlike anything Pietas has ever experienced. To express his affection, he “hand-kisses” Six, placing the back of his fingers against Six’s cheek. The gesture is intimate, and used only among family or those with whom there is a tight, close bond. Pietas teaches Six what it means, and how to do it. After a fleeting touch, Six asks if he did it right. Pietas reacts: The gentle touch evoked far more affection than he expected. Pietas swallowed against the tightness in his throat, and offered a smile. “It was perfect.” These two men are never lovers, but there is a love between them deeper than any sexual relationship Pietas has ever encountered.

Showing how Pietas reacts to the first human set him up as a villain. Showing his reaction to Six gives him heroic qualities, and shows that he has changed. Is he now a hero? I’ll leave that to you to read and decide.

To create relatable antiheroes and villains, write characters that are true to themselves. Let them have their bad qualities. Let them be a worthy of the hero. Make them relatable by giving them good qualities, and show their goodness (and badness) by how they treat others.

Creating a villain is more than setting up a stereotype bad guy for the hero to fight. It’s creating an opponent that reflects the strength of the hero.


Do you have a favorite villain?

Join us on Wednesday for Janice Hardy!


Bio: Kayelle Allen is a best selling American author. Her unstoppable heroes and heroines include contemporary every day folk, role-playing immortal gamers, futuristic covert agents, and warriors who purr. She writes in multiple genres and non-fiction. She is founder of the author-mentoring group Marketing for Romance Writers, manages the successful Romance Lives Forever blog, and is a member of RomVets, female veterans who write romance. Kayelle is married, has three grown children, and five grandchildren.

Bringer of Chaos: the Origin of Pietas

Two enemy warriors: one human, one immortal. Different in belief, alike in spirit, marooned together on an alien world. When love shatters the unbreakable, it is chaos.
Read the first chapter
Available on KindleUnlimited
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5 Responses to “Writing Relatable Antiheroes and Villains by Kayelle Allen”

  1. Thanks for having me today. I’m happy to share my insights on writing. 🙂

    Posted by Kayelle Allen | August 15, 2016, 8:52 am
  2. Evening Kayelle!

    Oh I’ve read so many villains….but it wasn’t until I started writing that I realized the villains had their own storyline, their own goals. Just like a regular character.

    I read a villain once, wish I could remember who authored him, a pyromaniac. Holy bejeebers, he scared me witless. But after I’d learned villains had goals etc. like real characters I went back and analyzed him. He had his own goal, his own character arc, etc. He didn’t have an HEA, but hey, villains can’t win ’em all. =)

    Great post, thanks Kayelle!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | August 15, 2016, 6:51 pm
  3. This was a great read. Thanks so much for sharing. I enjoyed your examples.

    Posted by Mercy | August 15, 2016, 8:29 pm


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