Going Deep: Five Tips for Getting Into the Mind of Your Villain


Suspense has always been one of my favorite genres. There’s not much I like more than spending a quiet evening sipping tea and reading a good suspense novel. If there’s a thunderstorm outside and rain pattering on the roof, a little scene-setting ambience only makes the story more enjoyable! I love books with dark twists, compelling plots, and interesting premises. I like strong protagonists who search for the truth while they fight their inner demons.

When it comes to villains, I want realism. Give me a bad guy or gal who’ll haunt my dreams and make me look at my neighbor with suspicion. Give me a suspect who is terrifying in his or her realism, a written character who could be the person I walk past every day. I want proper motivation, realistic backstory. I want to believe that the twisted thoughts and horrifying actions of the villain could be realized in a living, breathing human being. Anything less and the story falls flat.

So, how does a writer bring to life someone who is her antithesis? How does she create a realistic villain when she prefers safety to danger and flower-filled fields to shark-infested waters? How does she get into the mind of someone who murders without remorse, steals without conscience, or commits heinous crimes without compunction when she can’t even find it in her heart to kill the spider that’s spun a web in the corner of her living room?

  1. She reads. A lot. As in, everything. News stories. True-life crime stories. Biographies. She reads about real people with real problems, about good people who struggle, and about not-so-good people who do things they regret. She reads about people who can only be described as evil and ones who are motivated by fear or greed or anger to do horrible things. Within those real-life stories, it’s very easy to see patterns of human behavior, motivation, and action. Those become the basis of compelling characters, both good and bad.
  2. She listens. On the train, the subway, the plane. While she’s in the grocery store or walking in the park. It’s amazing what people will discuss in public. Affairs. Hatred. Money problems. Kid problems. Marriage problems. When crafting a suspense story, these ordinary problems can often be the catalyst to extraordinary action by a villain who otherwise lives a normal, law-abiding life.
  3. She observes. She notices the nuanced way that people interact. The curve or curl of a lip, the flash of anger in the eye, the wince or flinch. The quick step back. She sees the hug, the secret kiss, the slide of a hand on exposed flesh. She notes the clenched fist and the heavy sigh. Body language is a tool in the writer’s arsenal. By watching those around her, she can collect subtle variants in human interaction that can be used to create terrifyingly realistic habits for the story’s malefactor.
  4. She engages. This is a tough one for an introvert. Writing real-to-life characters requires understanding people, and people can’t be understood by observation alone. Even the most diehard hermit-writer must go out into the world and interact with the people she meets there. A writer who wants to add depth and realism to her villain enters every social situation with an open mind and innate curiosity. She is constantly asking questions because she always wants answers. What do people value? What motivates them? What makes them happy, sad, or angry? What are their favorite things and their least favorite? Their deepest fears and their highest hopes? Even the darkest, sickest, most monstrous villain began life as a tiny, innocent human being. Somewhere within the penned character, all the minute details of life and humanity must exist.
  5. She imagines. How else can a mostly normal, emotionally healthy writer get into the mind of dark, twisted, or evil characters? She sets herself squarely in the place of the villain she’s creating and goes deep into taboo mental spaces. She takes everything she has learned through reading, listening, observing, and engaging, and she applies it to a character who is driven by greed, hate, malice, or delusion. She doesn’t let social normatives or her own moral compass guide the actions of her villain. She allows the character to lead the way. She lets her thoughts run wild and, in the process, brings the reader on a heart-pounding, terror-filled ride into the deepest, darkest, ugliest spaces in the villain’s mind.


Shirlee McCoy Biography

Shirlee McCoy began writing her first novel when she was a teenager. A busy mother of five, Shirlee is a homeschooling mom by day and an inspirational author by night. She and her husband and children live in the Pacific Northwest and share their house with a dog, two cats, and a bird. You can visit her website at www.shirleemccoy.com.