One of the main driving forces of any story is conflict; and you can’t have great conflict without great villains. While it’s true that every kind of character needs to have their own struggle, your major source of ongoing friction is going to be the dynamic between your hero and your villain. So knowing how to write them is key to your story.
Unfortunately, many writers fall into the trap of writing villains that fall flat. They exist only in order to push back against the hero, their motivations are cliched and their beats predictable.
So how do you write a great villain? What makes them memorable and powerful? While you’re developing your characters, here are seven things you can keep in mind that will elevate your villain to the next level. Not every villain has to tick every box; you should be creative and brave in your writing, always. However, nailing a few of these will give your writing the extra push it needs.
People are complex; they come with all kinds of flaws and quirks and relationships. Villains are no different. This doesn’t mean we need to bombard the script with their every pet peeve, but knowing what their personality is like is crucial. That way, when a relevant moment gives us the opportunity to bring a pop of color to their actions or dialogue, we’re ready.
We all have passions and desires; they influence how we react to the environment and other people. A great love of classical music might cause one to tilt their head when hearing their favorite tune in the elevator, or feel empathy towards the girl playing violin in the subway. Even an archetypal unknowable villain needs to have a personality, however little it’s revealed.
Oftentimes, those few humanizing moments serve as a stark contrast to the times they behave in distinctly inhuman ways.
Here’s Hans Gruber from Die Hard, dripping with personality in just a handful of lines.
Sometimes, in the practical sense—a villain stands for more than just their own personal gain. They stand for anarchy, vengeance, nihilism, or simply a different set of ethical lines than the ones your hero draws.
Other times, a villain stands as a metaphorical representative of our own fears and paranoias. They represent the “other”. Often, the fears they symbolize change with the world’s climate when they’re created; whether it’s foreign invasions, nuclear fallout, global warming, or political radicalization.
Finally, in the literal sense, a great villain can be more than just one person: an entity, a group, a power, an army, a disease, a menace that’s not identifiable as a single personality. Whatever the case, a villain who means more than just the immediate threat of his presence always packs a greater punch.
A great example is American multi-billion dollar conglomerative Vought International from The Boys. Not only do they represent personality traits like greed and ambition; they also stand for right-wing politics, capitalism, and money-worship. All these traits interact and complement each other.
It’s easy to fall into certain patterns when writing villains; one of the most frequent being to draw a straight line between an event from their past and their actions in the present. Someone murdered their loved one, therefore they seek revenge. Someone injured them, therefore they want to get even. They were unloved as a child, therefore they enjoy killing.
While that straight line can be a good starting point, life is never that simple. Things get in the way, multiple motivations interact with one another and complement or counteract each other, and people change. When writing a villain, try to consider that he’s always going to want more than one thing for more than one reason—and often be conflicted on which goal to pursue in any given scenario.
Everyone loves Hand Landa from Inglorious Basterds for his mixture of choices based on political ideology, personal aspirations, and impulsive passions. Sprinkle a little hypocrisy and charm in the mix, and you’ve got a well-rounded character.
We’re used to thinking of them in simple terms: Good Guy and Bad guy; but in reality, it can be much more complex than that. The best villains are the heroes of their own story, and there’s no reason why you can’t show your audience that story, too.
It’s possible that, at first, their goals and motivation are at odds with your hero. But goals and motivation change over time, don’t they? We discover more backstory, we see them behave in extreme situations, and that’s where a villain can easily change into being something more. Think of your villain’s story from their own perspective. If you plan this way in advance, then, no matter where the story takes you, you don’t run the risk of writing a flat villain who is simply, boringly, ‘bad’.
A great and timeless example comes from Spirited Away – although, arguably, most Miyazaki movies operate on this basis. Repeatedly throughout the film, those characters who terrify us and seem to stand at odds with our heroine’s goals turn out to be individuals with their own goals, doing their own thing. Often, they end up helping our hero in some way. We learn their history, and the whole perspective changes.
There are many ways in which a villain can stand out from the crowd, and a truly great one will often do so in more than one. While it’s true that being ‘special’ is an overused trope when it comes to heroes, villains often fade in the other direction.
Memorable villains stand out not only by their actions and principles, but by the fact that they have unique goals and a unique ability to reach those goals. They can either be hyper-intelligent, hyper-resourceful, hyper-focused, or simply set themselves apart by way of not adhering to the same rules everyone else respects.
Many of our favourite villains have easily-recognizable features—think about The Joker’s looks, or Hannibal’s mask. They have highly peculiar tastes and particular speech patterns. All these unique elements combine to make them unforgettable.
Check out this clip of Hannibal from The Silence of The Lambs and ask yourself this: could it, from the first three words, have been anyone else talking?
So you’ve developed your villain as a character, now what? Well, the next step is to look at how they integrate into your plot. One major, but easy thing you can do to ensure that your villain has impact is to let them win.
Whether it’s major, mind-blowing victories or little achievements sprinkled all along the way, your villain simply won’t be much of a threat if his plans never succeed. Some writers go as far as to say that they should almost always come out victorious, but that depends on your plot structure and hero.
Luckily, Arc Studio Pro lets you quickly drag&drop beats and change your outline, so you can experiment with giving your villain victorious moments and placing them at just the right times to frustrate your hero.
Check out this excellent Thanos scene from Avengers Infinity War that blew fans away; a win that nobody saw coming.
Possibly the hardest item on the list, a great villain needs to be able to make us jump out of our seats. Predictability is the bane of excitement, as well as counterproductive to giving your hero dynamic challenges to overcome.
One great way to make sure you’re packing surprises in your script is to ask a study group what they expect would happen next; and go against those expectations. Once you know what moves you’re telegraphing, it’s easy to change your perspective and go against them.
Surprises can come in many forms, from unexpected coups to moments of kindness and humanity. They don’t always have to be complex and well-thought-out plans. Sometimes, the simplest knee-jerk reactions are what will have your audience gasping.
In the end, there’s no perfect recipe to a perfect villain. The most important thing to keep in mind is that if you find your character exciting and interesting, your audience is far more likely to, as well. Finally, keep in mind that a great villain is inextricably linked to the hero, the setting, and every other character in the story; so make sure all your characters rise up to their challenge. Check out this article on writing secondary characters if you need a little help!