I sincerely believe that a villain can make or break a story. There’s nothing that ruins an otherwise good story quite like an underdeveloped villain.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that not every script needs a traditional “villain.” Sometimes the protagonist and antagonist is the same character, fucking up their own life and then finding ways to overcome their challenges. Sometimes two characters serve as antagonist to each other without either one being “good” or “bad” rom coms being a great example of this.
But for the purpose of this article, we are talking about villains. We are talking about those characters who are undoubtedly there for no reason other than to cause problems. We are talking about those villains where it’s impossible to argue they are the protagonist. Not anti-heroes, not foils-in-a-buddy-movie, but true villains.
In a lot of ways, it’s harder to write a good villain than it is to write a good protagonist. How do you write a character that the audience hates while also giving that character a logical motive that the audience understands? I find it helpful to revisit the The Four Steps and answer those same questions from the villain’s perspective:
– What does my villain want?
– Why does my villain want this thing?
– What is my villain’s plan to get this thing?
– What will happen if that plan fails?
All of this can help prevent your villain from becoming this arbitrary force that causes problems with no real explanation as to why. However, if you want to turn a good villain into a great villain, you might want to consider one of the following strategies.
Strategy 1: An extreme example of a relatable instinct
A lot of the best villains are a manifestation of immoral impulses that all humans have. We’re all greedy. And nosy. And proud. And lustful. And envious. And power hungry. And selfish. Maybe to different extents for different people, but it’s there. The Id, as Sigmund Freud would say (see how I linked it back to one of the other Fields Writers Should Study?)
A lot of villains are based around one or two of these universal motives, but then they act on those motives when other people wouldn’t. They push past the social and ethical rules that constrain everyone else and prioritize that hedonistic instinct above everything. This allows your audience to live out their sinful urges vicariously through such villains.
Regina George falls into this category. A lot of people enjoy gossiping. A lot of people derive pleasure from superficial bullshit like clothes and makeup. A lot of people have a desire for sex with people they find attractive. A lot of people are judgmental. And perhaps the biggest one of all, a lot of people have a desire to be seen as “popular.” Regina George is just a person who puts this kind of nonsense above all else, with no regard for the people she personally victimizes along the way. She’s easy to hate, but we still have a constant understanding of why she’s behaving the way she is, because it’s behavior most of us have been guilty of ourselves.
Strategy 2: A noble goal with extreme methods
Strategy number 2 is a better option if you want a villain who’s a little more sympathetic than Regina George. Give your villain some grand noble mission, as noble as the protagonist’s mission. Then just make them Machiavellian as hell.
Killmonger wants justice for black people. He wants all black people everywhere to be able to enjoy the benefits Wakandans have. That’s awesome. It’s actually a more noble and clearly defined goal than what T’Challa gets. What is T’Challa trying to do anyway prior to Killmonger’s arrival? Just… maintain the status quo? Kind of a snooze fest.
The only thing that makes Killmonger the villain and T’Challa the hero is Killmonger’s affinity for violence. He has a “by any means necessary” approach while T’Challa wants to keep things peaceful.
This is an awesome strategy if you want a result like Black Panther, where it’s possible for different audience members to have different opinions about just how villainous Killmonger was.
Strategy 3: A parallel of real life villainy
Now depending on your story, your “parallel” of real life villainy may in fact just be real life villainy. A story set in WWII where Adolph Hitler is your actual, literal villain is a 100% legitimate choice to make.
However another route is to come up with some analogy for a real life thing you’re trying to condemn. In the Harry Potter books/movies, the primary thing that sets Lord Voldmort and his followers apart from Dumbledore and his followers is their obsession with blood purity. The bad guys judge people based on the family they were born into while the good guys judge people based on their choices.
Hmm. I wonder what Rowling might be trying to tell us there?
Racism fucking sucks. It sucks in real life, and the equivalent of it in the Harry Potter world is bloodism. Bloodism manifests itself in all sorts of different ways: mean comments, wanting to restrict rights to pureblood wizards, and straight up murder of Muggles, Muggleborn wizards, and those who support them. All of this hits home because it bears such a strong resemblance to a real issue that’s plagued humanity for all of recorded history.
With Strategy Number 3, you start by thinking of a real-life evil you wish to condemn and then you write your villain around that. Whether it’s a mere analogy in a sci-fi or fantasy or a more literal case such as actual Nazis depends on what kinds of stories you’re interested in writing.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to claim this list is comprehensive. There are other wonderful villains that don’t clearly fall into one of these three buckets, but hopefully this can help you get started. Happy writing everyone!