Photo via: www.slashfilm.com
What’s the easiest way to ruin an otherwise great story? A boring, flat villain! In most stories that feature a villain, the villain is as integral to the story as the hero, taking the spot as the second most important lead character of your writing. If you want your story to be multidimensional and riddled with tension, you need to spend as much time crafting your villain as you do your hero. Especially since, nothing will make your hero more heroic than a worthy rival. (WARNING: There are some spoilers that relate to classic villain and hero pairs, readers beware.)
What is a Villain?
It would be too easy to say that a villain is the “bad guy/girl” of the story. The real role of the villain is to challenge or prevent your hero from progressing by playing the role of an antagonist in your story. Typically a villain’s motivations and actions are in direct opposition with your hero. In most situations, the villain does not even view themselves as the villain. From the villain’s perspective, your hero is the antagonist who is preventing them from accomplishing their goal. The villain views themselves as the protagonist in their version of the story, who is doing what’s right according to themself and their twisted moral code. A good example of this is seen through the Marvel villain Thanos. Thanos is featured in four Marvel movies, but is mainly showcased in Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: End Game. If you haven’t seen these movies or heard anything about them, Thanos wiped out half of all the world's populations by using a powerful weapon. Thanos committed this evil act because he truly believed that he was doing the right thing. He justified this act by believing that there are not enough resources for everyone to exist happily, and that the remaining populations would flourish because of his actions.
Tap into your Dark Side
The best way to get into the mindset to create a memorable villain is to tap into your dark side. I am not suggesting you go out and do villainous activities, but rather some creative thinking. Think of a scenario where you really wanted to explode with rage. It could be anything from simply being cut off while driving, or someone taking credit for the work you did. Most likely, you took a deep breath and moved on from your anger because you're a mature adult who can control themselves. But I want you to linger in your initial reaction. What did you think and feel? Infuriated? Hurt? Perhaps even villainous? Don’t stay in this mindset for too long that you're grumpy and upset the rest of the day, just long enough to figure out what makes a good villain tick.
Take Inspiration From Real People
Taking inspiration from real life is a great way to get your foot in the door of villainy. This could be from someone you know, someone in history, or a famous criminal. Base your character profiles off of your chosen person. Things to focus on include; there motivations, their state of mind before, after, and during crime, their negative and positive qualities, and their physical appearance. Once you’ve completed this, be sure to change around some things in order to avoid being sued by any parties connected to this person.
It’s no fun to read a story where a villain and a hero are supposed to be at ends with each other, only to have zero faith in the villains abilities. On the other end of the spectrum, your villain shouldn’t be overly powerful that they can only be defeated due to a stroke of luck. The villain and the hero should be pretty evenly matched in wits, and power. This would allude to a great fight, or more than one great fight. An example of evenly matched opponents can be seen through Batman and the Joker. Both of these characters have ample resources available to them, and are wicked smart in their areas of expertise and in general. They are so evenly matched that their fights remain interesting enough for audiences to continue watching through a plethora of adaptations. Say you do want your villain to be all-powerful, practically indestructible. In that case, perhaps he or she has an underlying weakness. Take Dracula for example, an immortal vampire who does not perish in the sun. Seems pretty undefeatable to me. However, his one weakness is that he can die if stabbed in the heart with a wooden stick. The hero uses that information to their advantage, to defeat the otherwise undefeatable.
Backstory for your Villain
In most circumstances, your villain did not wake up one day and decide to be evil. That’s too easy. Something probably happened in their past to mold them into what they are. Think what their motivation is for committing evil acts, and how they formed their current ideology in the first place. This will help you form a three-dimensional villain. Maybe your villain experienced abuse in their early life, or maybe one specific event caused them to continue their life on a wicked path. Your audience should be able to identify with your villain. Not in the sense that your audience is evil but, your audience should be left thinking “If that happened to me, maybe I would have turned out similarly”. Think Sandor “The Hound” Clegane from Game of Thrones. Lovers of Game of Thrones watched The Hound perform gruesome acts on the regular. While he did eventually have a character arc, in the earlier seasons he was brutal for the fun of it. We later learned that as a young child his own older brother pushed his face into a burning fire for asking to play with his toy. This information made the audience sympathize with The Hound, and remember that he is a product of his unfortunate environment. Another element that could be implemented in your villain’s backstory is a connection to the hero. Connected heroes and villains may share a lot of similar traits, but when being utilized appear very different. An example of this can be seen through Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter. This duo is tied through both their minds and souls since Lord Voldemort tried to kill Harry Potter as a baby but, the spell rebounded, leaving them dependent on each other for the entirety of the book series. Due to this, they share a lot of qualities. They are determined, brave, and risk takers. However, these qualities are shown differently since, one has chosen the path of good, and one has chosen the path of destruction.
You Love to Hate a Good Villain
Villains are characters that appeal to audiences because they’re unpredictable, and the important source of tension.They completely defy societal expectations in order to fulfill their agenda. From a young age, we are taught how to behave and act in a way that’s acceptable to common culture so, when you watch someone through all of that out the window, it’s almost liberating and very compelling. It’s the shock value a villain brings to the table that makes us unable to look away. The twisted, wicked nature of a villain also makes the audience root even harder for their downfall. Think Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones. Joffrey is one of the most malicious, cutthroat villains to appear on television. He got under audiences’s skin so easily because of the way he taunts his victims so well. This is what made his death so satisfying to watch since we’ve been rooting for karma to pay him a visit since he first appeared on screen. To create a villain that makes audiences’s skin crawl, think of the worst thing a villain can do to your hero then take it up to the next notch. These scenes can be chilling, but ultimately result in a great pay off.
Consider an Evil Crew
What’s more fun than one villain? A whole team of them! Utilizing a team of villains is a great opportunity to show the audience different facets of your leading villain. How do they interact with people who support them versus outsiders? Does the villain have a weakness for a certain person? The audience can better visualize the scale of the villain’s influence by seeing their unwavering supporters. Implementing an evil crew is also a great opportunity to showcase different types of evil, and perhaps even some comedy to your story. You could have henchmen who are the text book definition of evil, and henchmen who are there in the hopes of making friends. For me, the trope of bumbling evil sidekick is always a win. An example of an evil crew is seen through The Lion King. Scar has two competent sidekicks, and one less than competent sidekick. The two competent hyenas offer ideas, and advice to Scar. While, the third hyena provides comic relief for the audience. Scar is constantly seen talking down to the hyenas which tells the audience he has little respect for creatures he deems beneath him, and he is teetering with a God complex.
Examples of Great Villains to Inspire You
Amy Dunne ("Gone Girl")
Harry Powell ("The Night of the Hunter")
Mrs. Danvers (“Rebecca”)
Uriah Heep (“David Copperfield”)
Cathy Ames (“East of Eden”)
Dr. Frankenstein (“Frankenstein”)
David Melrose (“Never Mind”)
Rufus Weylin (“Kindred”)
Nurse Ratched (“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”)
Patrick Bateman (“American Psycho”)
Annie Wilkes (“Misery”)
Judge Holden (“Blood Meridian”)
Mr. Hyde (“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”)
Zenia (“The Robber Bride”)