I've been working on a quite large story for a while now, but going through my drafts I noticed one weakness: My villains are very underdeveloped / weakly characterized.

I'll try to generalize the question & example, to keep it relevant for other cases as well:

The main protagonists are not directly facing a villain, but are facing the results of the villain's actions (for example, war). So, they don't really face 'a villain' in the classic "hero vs evil overlord" sense, but instead face the situation and eventually the villain's troops or other minor odds.

This creates a large problem for the story: My protagonists face "faceless" soldiers but are never involved with the (charismatic? power hungry? misguided? manipulated?) leaders. Why would they want to? It would only cause more problems.

I tried to remedy this problem by giving the "other side" a voice, basically a protagonist that is involved in the bigger (background) conflict - but that just feels artificial (at least so far).

It's not that the protagonists are not heavily involved - the problem just is that with a certain command structure, it wouldn't make sense to involve a leader who should delegate, not run around and do it himself.

Example: (and my problems with it)

A large war between two faction breaks out.

Anna, for some reason, has the key (let's say, a magical artifact?) to make one side win over the other at the expense of her life. She doesn't want either side to win but can't leave the area either, so she tries to stay under the radar.

Both sides make it a priority to hunt Anna down - whoever finds her first and brings her back gains a huge advantage.

Now, I would say the leaders of the two factions do the only thing reasonable: they delegate the issue. Search parties, troops, etc. They maybe even give one high ranking member the responsibility to solve the problem.

And this is exactly my problem: there wouldn't be one person searching for Anna, there would be dozens, hundreds or more (depending on the resources available). She would never face the same 'hunter' twice if she keeps changing location, which would be the reasonable action.

The only way to have a reappearing presence would be to bring the leading person in the picture - but he would most likely just be sitting in some headquarters and organize his men. He would only come into play when Anna was captured, without any build up - and then his job would be done and he would be out of the picture again after delivering her.

What are good techniques to make an impersonal (background) conflicts more personal for the protagonists, or give the conflict a "face"?

Is it necessary / expected to force a person (that usually just sits behind a desk and wouldn't have a personal connection) directly into the scene, even if he would just delegate the issue and wait for results? (which isn't very exciting)

  • 5
    Read the Lord of the Rings
    – CHEESE
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 1:49
  • 2
    And watch The Usual Suspects. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 13:26
  • 1
    Just make the soldiers malicious mean and scary, with sneers that curdle dairy, and violence wise their hands are not the cleanest. Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 13:23
  • 1
    What makes you think your story needs a personal villain? What problems is it creating to not have one? Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 20:38
  • 1
    If the villain is a tyrant, as it seems to be, then every character in the plot, even the most secondary, has an opinion about him (her?). People are afraid of him, or love him, or tell ridiculous jokes about him. Different characters will have different images of the tyrant (he kills beggars, says the beggar, or the nun; he makes trains get on schedule, says the merchant who needs to send his commodities to distant cities). Technically, you can make him the central character of your piece without ever giving him a line to speak. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 1:07

6 Answers 6


Well let's look at this from the perspective of the Generals:

Whilst this object that could turn the tide of the war is obviously important, it might turn out to just be rumor, or might end up being so well hidden that neither side would ever find it. Therefore committing a significant number of soldiers to pursue the girl is a massive waste of resources. Particularly in a war that is so well balanced an extra squad in an important checkpoint could turn the tide of the battle.

No, the generals would send one, or at most two, small strike teams to hunt her down. Maybe even individual sleuths to follow her trail discretely and catch up to her. Sure, the troops would be on the lookout for women of her description, but they can't do an all out manhunt whilst there is a war to win.

So she would come to know her pursuers, or at least know they are on her trail and recognize them. Even if just rumors from towns (the local barkeep mentioning that there has been a tall man in a white hat asking around town about a girl who fits her description). This way, the antagonists become personal, because they are hunting her. She doesn't need to know their names, she just needs to know what to be on the lookout for.

As for the leaders, she might know their names as they may have won fame or renown from battles they have won. She might even catch a glimpse of them from afar. But as you say, they would not lead a hunt for her, they would be too busy fighting battles. But again, with them giving the order to find her, it would be personal to her that they have ordered her capture.

The best example I can think of is the movie Inglorious Bastards. Hans Landa hunts down and kills Shosanna's family, whilst she ends up escaping. She remembers exactly who he is years later, whilst he doesn't recognize her when she is sitting across the table from him. However, he is doing it under orders from Hitler, but it's still Hans that she hates.

It might not be personal to the hunters, they are just doing their jobs. But she would know exactly who they are. There is your antagonist. Maybe she meets one of the generals if she gets captured later on in the story, so even though no love would be lost, she would still only see them as the figurehead.

Edit: Entirely forgot to say that the white hat idea came from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, which is worth a watch if you haven't seen it as it features a similar antagonist scenario, with the main characters being hunted by a particular person/group.

  • 2
    I would suggest the "Terminator Franchise". Skynet is always the big bad, but the number of times Skynet is actually scene in the movies is surprisingly low (the third being any onscreen pressence at all... the fourth where it is actually given dialog with the Protaganist). The story is always focused on the agents of the humans and Skynet trying to use time travel to eliminate each other's chain of command before they can be a threat.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 15:57

So give your villain more to do. Raise the stakes.

If the General overseeing the various troops and hunters doesn't feel scary enough, give him more motivation. Give him someone REALLY scary to report to who is breathing down his neck and has no tolerance for failure, or even lateness, on pain of death. Or the Bigger Bad is holding the General's family hostage or something, so that the General's ruthlessness isn't even purely business but personal to save something entirely unrelated to Anna. Maybe if the General's side wins the war he can extract some tribute from the conquered land which is a cure for some fatal disease his child has, and that could be a way for Anna to win him to her side by having one of her allies procure the cure for him in exchange for the General backing off. And so on.


Perhaps to see more deeply into the villain's character, you could write about what he is doing when he is not just sitting beside his desk delegating...his decisions there impact Anna, but what leads to those decisions? Does he make one decision because of something that irritated him at breakfast? Is catching Anna on his mind at other times, like when he's at home with his wife? Does his failure to catch her remind him other other failures in the past? Can you imagine what it would be like to be him, a day in his life?


To the rank and file of an army, the "villainous" overlord of the enemy army/nation/empire is simply a caricature created by the propaganda arm of their OWN military intelligence.

Little of what the grunts know can be called the straight dope.

It is all propaganda.

The only slight exception happens when the opposing leader is just so tactically brilliant on the field that his fame spreads across the battle line (as in the case with Napoleon).

So given that, how would you write such a villain? You write it as it would be written by the propaganda arm of military intelligence. =)

for example, did you know that that napoleon was a tiny little man was a pure fabrication by british military propaganda?


Your character can experience (and may not experience often enough) the results of the opposition leader's actions; or hear second-hand tales of the atrocities committed by their direct orders. This can feed the fire of her disgust, or hatred, or resolve, just as much as personal interaction.

She encounters a handful of refugees escaping a massacre, in which the soldiers were shooting captured children, point blank range, just to do away with them. In some other case, they are ordered to set every building in a village on fire, to drive out anybody hiding, anywhere. They shoot and kill pregnant women with their hands up to surrender.

Pick your level of war crimes and sadism. Darth Vader killed a whole planet full of people as a test.

I agree it is not realistic for a general or King or President or Prime Minister or Emperor or whatever you have at the top of the chain of command to wander into the field and put themselves in mortal danger. Hitler never really did that; psychopaths that reach that level of power are generally both smart enough and self-interested enough to put their own safety above all else. So everything the rank and file knows about them is known second-hand, by the atrocities they ordered, and the terror they created to ensure compliance of both the populace and their own soldiers -- fail to follow your orders and you will be summarily shot in the head.

Again, Darth Vader illustrates; just failure to complete a mission was enough for Vader to use the force to choke a ship commander to death, in front of the man that has to replace him.

Your true villain may not ever show up; but the protagonist(s) can know who they face and if they are making any progress against the villain by the stories they hear. Perhaps in the end all they know is some generals murdered the King and ended the war.


A governor of any kind will be reflected in the actions of his/her government.

This for instance is what we know about Fernan III of Palis:

  • The people nickname him Fernan the Fool;
  • When he sends a harald to the market to make a proclamation, a chararacter wonders what the plausibility that Fernan has something important to say;
  • A character, in a bar discussion, calls him "imbecile" and expresses the wish that his daughter replaces him soon;
  • As the Fernan has just declared war on Ossin, this same character, who is obviously opposed to that war, wonders if a defeat in the war would not be welcome, as it probably would force Fernan to resign;
  • Another character objects that since the Ossians were clearly provoking Palis, Fernan had no choice but to declare war, lest the military would depose him;
  • A main character comments that Fernan got tired of his nickname of Fernan the Fool and declared war to get it changed to Fernan the Butcher;
  • Another important character, an intermediate leader in a criminal ring, says "we are at war, or rather, Fernan the Fool is at war" and immediately calls it a "crazy and lost war". She then explains to the victim of her racket scheme that she is coming early to get to the money before the tax collectors on behalf of the royal government can do their job;
  • At a military conference to organise the war, Fernan is absent, but there is a portrait of him as a young man on a wall, in military garb, wearing crown and sceptre;
  • The military leader at such meeting explains to her subordinates that the High Command has not defined the objectives of the war, and that she asked the king, who wasn't able to answer either;
  • The general then takes the logical conclusion: the High Command wants a defeat, in order to justify the toppling of the king. One of the colonels then asks if the king is aware of that. The general retorts that no, he isn't, and that she wouldn't warn him of it, because he wouldn't believe, and might even arrest her for such an information;
  • The king decided against a draft, preferring to promise freedom for prisoners who volunteer for the war; it is clear that he does so on the counsel of the commander of the Army;
  • The same thief previously cited reports to her superiors that there is general discontent against the king, against the war, and against several military commanders (not the one referred above), and that there is widespread belief that the amnesty proposed by the king will not be honoured, or that it was proposed because the king believes his soldiers will be massacred;
  • The ringleader of the racket then instructs the thief to spread hate against the king;
  • The general cited above remarks to one of the colonels that she needs to talk to the king, in order to explain her plans, and that it won't be an easy task;
  • She then asks the colonel if she thinks storming a certain fortress, Evelenia, will be possible in a short time. The colonel answers she thinks not, moreso because they won't have sappers with them. And the general retorts that she will try to change the king's mind on that subject, even though it may be more difficult than storming Evelenia.

Fernan never really appears, but I think I managed to establish that he is not really bright, but stubborn, weak, indecisive, and unable to deal with his counselours, and that his subjects despise more than hate him.

I suppose you can do something similar; people will comment on the merits and demerits of the ruler - or, if they are too afraid to talk against him, they will hint on that by their reactions to the military, police, other State agents, or even to other commoners that they might fear are spies or informers.

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