Great villains make great stories. They may be more loved than the hero. But what cocktail of devious traits and nefarious schemes makes the perfect monster?
More Information Than the Hero
What does the villain know? More than the hero. Great nemeses like Moriarty, Darth Vader, and Hannibal Lector are always a step ahead – or seem like they are. The best way to craft a devious plot is to be well-informed. Give your villains access to information the hero doesn’t have. That may be a better understanding of human greed (knowing who will betray the hero), advance knowledge of the hero’s plans (it’s a trap!), or simply knowledge of their own strategy the hero hasn’t parsed out from hints.
Readers don’t need to feel bad for the villain, but they do need to understand them. The xenomorph in Alien is about as far from human as you can get, but no one really questions why it’s killing people. Why? The story sets up the creature’s lifecycle. It’s killing because that’s what it needs to do to survive. The xenomorph also finds itself isolated from its nest-mates, and we all know cornered animals are aggressive. We understand lifecycles. We understand the alien.
Your villain doesn’t need a tear-jerking history to win the audience’s understanding. They just need clear reasons.
Conflict with the Hero’s Goals
This sounds obvious, but it’s the heart of every hero vs. villain plot. Have you ever seen a film or read a book where you just can’t help wondering how easily the hero and villain could’ve cooperated? Sometimes it feels like the there’s no tension, just frustration. That’s because the villain’s goals are not really interfering with the hero’s. Sometimes, they may ultimately match.
If you are misleading the audience to believe the big, bad boss is the villain when it’s really someone else, then that’s fine. If not, then your villain has a problem. This is an excellent recipe for frenemies and anti-heroes, though. Loki’s transformation throughout his appearances in the MCU is a great example of how much goals matter in making a character the villain or just a roguish sidekick.
As Into the Woods taught us, no one is ever really alone. You don’t need Disney-like henchmen to surround your villain, but bad guys don’t just magically appear out of thin air educated, trained, and ready to wreak havoc. Do they have parents alive? Do they have siblings? Maybe they have school friends or coworkers.
Evil rulers need morally compromised councilors and well-meaning nobles. They face conflicts, enjoy loyalty, and are affected by those in their immediate circle. The hero may fall into that group. Sometimes a villain is a villain just because they disagree with the hero, and not because they are intrinsically evil. Showcasing the support structure that makes a villain’s power makes the drama even more painful.
Their Own Plot
A villain is a character in their own right. It’s never a good idea to create a character whose only function is to foil the hero. That’s a recipe for 2D characters who move, act, and speak like cardboard cutouts. The best way to ensure your villain is a proper character is to outline their own side of the story. You probably won’t write many (or any) scenes from their point of view, but you need to know what they’re doing when they’re off screen, because that informs how they interact with the protagonist. Give them a story and things to do and they’ll grow that essential third dimension.
Who are your favorite villains? What have you learned about crafting your own from their performance? Make sure to share your thoughts below!