Writing Complex Bad Guys Like in Game of Thrones

Are your villains one dimensional — how you can use The Dark Tetrad to make them more complex

Photo by Sander Sammy on Unsplash

Weak villains

In my work as a book coach, I find clients don’t always want to go deep enough into the psychology of their villains. Maybe they don’t see, or want to explore, the darker aspects of their own personality. As a result, their bad guys can seem rather one dimensional.

Unfortunately a cackling, moustache twirling villain comes across as funny rather than menacing.

In order to make them more convincing, I suggest they explore what is called The Dark Tetrad in psychology. This measures four areas of villainy — Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy and sadism. By making their villain extreme on some measures and less so on others, they can create a more convincing character.

I’ll go into each one in more detail below, but if we are looking for fictional character examples who exemplify these nasty traits, then there is one series that stands out in the number and complexity of its bad guys.

Game of Thrones

Both the book and television series have perhaps the largest cast of characters of any fictional work who could do with a good therapist. The harsh world, the high stakes, and the corrupt politics seem to bring out the worst in people.

Did George R. R. Martin and the script writers do a good job? Yes, according to the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida, who did a study on how fans rated the Game of Thrones characters on various aspects of psychology. They found the fans on three subreddits generally agreed on their psychological ratings of the characters, suggesting they are convincingly portrayed.

So what is The Dark Tetrad?


Named after Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian renaissance father of political science. In his The Prince, he laid out the necessary evils that must be done by those new to power.

Machiavellianism is using cunning and manipulation, and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to gain power.

Machiavellian characters could be

  • manipulative — they use clever manipulation to get their way,
  • self-serving — they make sure their plans benefit themselves before others,
  • devious — they keep track of information to use against others later.

Examples of highly Machiavellian characters from Game of Thrones are Petyr Baelish, Tyrion Lannister and Tywin Lannister.


Named after the Greek myth of Narkissos, who fell in love with his own reflection in a spring and was turned into the flower narcissus.

Narcissistic characters could be

  • arrogant — they consider themselves special,
  • attention-seeking — they love to be the centre of attention.

Examples of highly Narcissistic characters from Game of Thrones are Daenerys Targaryen, Tywin Lannister and Jon Snow.


Psychopathy comes from psycho meaning of the mind and the suffix pathy meaning disorder.

Psychopathic characters could be

  • unstable — others feel the character is out of control,
  • daredevil — the character enjoys dangerous situations,
  • vengeful — the character enjoys getting revenge.

Examples of highly psychopathic characters from Game of Thrones are Danaerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, and Sandor Clegane.


Named after the Marquis de Sade (Donatien A.F. de Sade) who wrote erotic fiction depicting sexual cruelty.

Sadism is getting pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering and humiliation on others.

Sadistic characters may

  • enjoy watching idiots fall on their face,
  • believe some people deserve to suffer,
  • know how to hurt others verbally, physically, or psychologically.

Examples of sadistic characters from Game of Thrones are Ramsay Snow, Cersei Lannister, and Petyr Baelish.

Mix and match villainy

In The Science of Writing Characters, Kira-Anne Pelican suggests memorable characters will be extreme in some aspects of personality. The Dark Tetrad offers four aspects of villainy that can be used to create characters with dark traits.

But you don’t want to make all your bad guys just plain evil.

In order to create more nuanced characters, choose some aspects of The Dark Triad to emphasise.

Maybe they are arrogant and vengeful but straightforward (not Machiavellian) in their methods.

Or perhaps they are devious and blackmail others anonymously, but hate being the centre of attention.

Or they might be manipulative and enjoy humiliating others verbally, but abhor physical violence.

Being aware of the different ways the darker side of human nature can show itself will let you create your own unforgettable villains.

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