Chance is a Florida-born, aspiring writer who is currently crafting a short blog series about Florida folk legends. He is also working on various short stories about people and myths. Chance recently graduated from Delphi High School.
One of the best lessons I learned is that conflict drives a story. In other words, I need an opposing force to my protagonist’s goals. After all, how interesting would Star Wars: A New Hope be without Darth Vader? Leia would never be kidnapped, Obi-Wan Kenobi wouldn’t be in hiding, and Luke would not have to step up as a hero.
But who makes conflict in a story?
A villain, or antagonist, fights against the goals of the protagonist. Their primary function in a novel or movie is to bar the path to the protagonist’s goal. They also must force the protagonist to evolve and change. In Iron Man, billionaire weapon-maker Tony Stark is kidnapped by a terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings, who also happen to be loyal customers of his. A bomb of his own making sends shrapnel through his body, forcing him through an operation that plants a magnet in his chest, and leaving him a permanent reminder of the consequences of his actions. Tortured and held captive far from home, Tony is thrown into a crossroads. Should he continue to make weapons, now face-to-face with his consumers; or find a way to defy his captors and rectify his mistakes?
Whilst the Ten Rings aren’t the focus of the film, only appearing in a few scenes early on, they use that short time well. In just those few scenes they force Tony to rethink everything he has done, force him to see first-hand the truth of his mistakes, and singlehandedly catapult him down the path of a hero’s journey.
Any villain can block a hero’s path. A good villain helps the hero evolve in doing so.
Spoiler alert for the following stories: Arabian Nights, Cinderella, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, Terminator 2, Harry Potter, Poltergeist, the Lightning Thief, and Peter Pan.
A good villain needs to pose a real threat
Why it matters
When writing a villain, make them threatening. Make them capable of stopping the hero from reaching their goal. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to try to kill the hero outright–there are plenty of other ways to prevent them from reaching their goal.
An orphaned girl grows up under the care of her evil stepmother, who puts the girl to work whilst sparing her own daughters from any such work. When the Prince of the region hosts a ball, it becomes Cinderella’s dream to attend. The stepmother agrees that she may go, but only after completing a large number of daunting tasks in the hopes of deterring her. When that doesn’t work, however, the stepsisters destroy her dress to prevent her from attending the event.
By destroying the dress and leaving her behind, the stepmother and her daughters stopped Cinderella right in her tracks. They created an obstacle that she herself was incapable of overcoming, without endangering her life in the slightest.
I’ve found that the more creative the obstacle, the more creative the protagonists must get, which can make for some very memorable moments.
Establishing a Threat
(Spoilers for Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
Introducing a villain or a threat can be one of the most memorable moments in the story. A high school kid encounters a bully in the hallway, a detective sees the crime scene for the first time, or the villain attacks and overcomes a worthy adversary.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day might be my favorite example of this. In the original, Arnold Schwarzenegger was terrifying because he was relentless and nearly unkillable. He has a mission and no mercy for anyone who might stand in his way. We see him kill–long before he discovers his true target. Some of the best scenes in the movie are when we see this thing getting close to our protagonist, gun ready to shoot her the moment she opens the door. By the end of the film, it becomes clear that he can’t die by normal means either. Bullets do little, explosives haven’t worked. It takes heavy machinery to even dent him.
Then we have Terminator 2: Judgment Day:
Where the previous machine failed, another has been sent in its place; two more, seemingly. We get to meet a young John Connor and get a bit of an idea of how his life has turned out with his mother incarcerated whilst watching the machines arm themselves and grow closer. Finally, John is pursued through a hallway by one machine, heading for safety beyond another door; until Arnold Schwarzenegger steps through, shotgun ready.
Firing shot after shot, we see a battle between two Terminators–and it doesn’t go well at all. The shells do nothing to stop this new machine, who wastes little time tossing the older model wall to wall, beating it until it’s no longer a threat.
The first machine was nearly unstoppable. And this newcomer just wiped the floor with him. This scene demonstrates the scale and the power of this new threat, taking a force we already understood to be powerful and decimating it whilst also demonstrating what makes this new machine so powerful.
How a Hero and Villain Escalate Tension
I rarely hear about escalation when discussing the aspects of a good villain. This is not without reason, as escalation or rising action actually refers to a certain series of plot points in the Three Act or Seven Act structures. These points are driven by the clashes between a protagonist or protagonists and an antagonistic force–a villain.
As the story gets closer to resolution the stakes rise higher. Time is running out, sometimes for the hero and the villain, but always for the reader as well. Rising action starts early in the story, usually spanning the opening beats up until the climax. When the story starts there is a hero who meets a villain–or a force that is trying to stop them from reaching their goal. It’s made clear how and why the villain can stop the hero–though not always why they want to.
From here on the hero and the villain engage in a race to the finish. Each to their respective goal, restricted only by their means and whatever beliefs or loyalties may hold them back. As the hero draws closer to their side, the villain’s efforts to sabotage them and advance their own agenda grow stronger.
The Dark Knight Rises is an excellent example.
Starting with a relatively unheard of criminal mastermind robbing Gotham City’s crime syndicate blind, the protagonist (Batman) is intent only on stopping this syndicate himself. In conjunction with the Gotham Police Department, Batman moves to seize the remaining money, only for it to come up missing. People start dying.
An impersonator of Batman is killed as a threat, legal professionals are killed or threatened, and one message seems clear: take off the cowl or the killing continues.
If the life of a single citizen isn’t enough, what about the life of the mayor? What about a hospital? As the villain’s goals change and his methods reach new extremes so too must the hero change and adapt to meet the new threat. A good villain isn’t static. They give the hero a reason to become better.
A good villain needs motivation
Few good villains have ever woken up and hatched an evil plan before the second cup of coffee. I can’t imagine waking up one day and deciding to go through the efforts it would take to run a global empire or conjure back an eldritch force. Can you?
Characterizing your villain
(Spoilers for Arabian Nights)
Motive is a big part of any of my characters. How did they get into this situation? Why are they going down this path? How have their decisions and goals led them up to here? This can be important for a protagonist–but why should a villain be any less human?
In Arabian Nights, Shahrayar is the mighty ruler of India advised by his loyal advisor Jafar, (the namesake of the Disney villain.) His life is dedicated to his wife to whom he gives everything. Fine foods, riches, and servants to meet her every need. Life is good for the royal couple. But one day, Shahrayar discovers a horrible secret: his wife has betrayed the sanctity of their marriage for the cook.
Shaken by this development, he immediately orders her execution. Then in the dark days that follow, he decides that all women will betray him. Every day for the next three years, he weds a new bride and at dawn the following day he has her strangled. This cycle continues until every unmarried woman in the kingdom has either been killed or has fled. Except for two. Jafar’s two daughters have remained with him, despite the danger that is posed. His eldest daughter, Shahrazad marries Shahrayar against her father’s wishes with a plan. No more women will fall victim to Shahrayar’s grief.
Not if it takes her one thousand days and one thousand and one nights at his side.
Sympathizing for a villain
Throughout the introduction of the story, it is clear that Shahrayar’s wife is the center of his universe. Prior to her betrayal, he makes every effort to ensure her happiness at his side. When his wife betrayed him, I even felt sorry for him at first. It’s just a bad situation. Then he has her imprisoned and ultimately executed. This is oddly a theme with at least one or two other rulers.
By starting the story with Shahrayar, we get an introduction to the stakes and the problems that Sharazad is trying to solve. We’re rooting for someone to put an end to these killings, yes. In my mind though, especially once it becomes clear what Shahrazad’s plan was, I wanted to see her succeed. In effect, she’s trying to put an end to Shahrayar’s grief, living day by day telling stories in the evenings.
The protagonist of Arabian Nights is trying to help the Antagonist against his own demons; at risk of her life. Her cause is simply good and her morals aren’t corrupted for a “greater good”. Even though the story is in many ways more about Shahrayar, especially as he is the one who needs to learn to change, his pairing with Sharazad makes for a splendid narrative that has kept me repeatedly returning to this classic book.
A good villain belongs to the story
How a Villain Affects the World
(Spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones)
One of the most difficult, but rewarding, aspects of writing to me is world-building. One of the best examples I’ve seen is George R.R. Martin’s: A Song of Ice and Fire. This series is notorious for its hate-worthy villains, complex characters, and the brutal fates that await them.
Amongst the most revered of these villains is Tywin Lannister; a former knight turned influential nobleman whose only motive is the continued success of his family name. While his rise to power resides in the past, his decisions then continue to affect the story as it progresses in the present. While I won’t spoil everything, it’s worth noting that Tywin rules a significant portion of the political landscape due to the money he lends to the crown and the marriage of his daughter Cerci to King Robert.
In addition to being feared and respected across the world, it’s Tywin’s armies that march across the warscape whilst Tywin serves the king on the political landscape. Whilst he may not be the greatest villain on the field, Tywin is the biggest contender and best-conditioned man to rule Westeros–if anything were to happen to King Robert that is.
How the World Affects Your Villain
(Spoilers for Peter Pan, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Harry Potter, and Batman)
Leaving the world of Westeros behind, let’s talk a bit about appearances. Think about a classic villain, a character you could see and recognize almost immediately–Voldemort, Davy Jones, Joker, or whomever you manage to conjure up.
What makes them so recognizable?
A common theme between the appearances of my examples is that their choices and experiences have all affected their appearances now. Voldemort ripped his soul to pieces to achieve immortality, but the magic permanently disfigured him. Davy Jones broke a promise to the sea goddess Calypso, and as a result, was transformed into an entity that was more monster than man. Joker, in some versions of his origin, was knocked into a vat of chemicals by Batman, bleaching his skin and driving him insane.
Villains like these usually have us wondering how and why these characters came to be how they are. In fact, the circumstances that made them who they are now can even be part of the story–as discussed above. Think of Captain James Hook, the One-Handed Stingray.
In Peter Pan, Captain Hook is searching the magical Neverland for Peter, a boy who once had the audacity to duel him, and actually succeeded in removing his hand. Peter then fed it to a crocodile, who enjoyed the taste so much that he pursued the pirate across Neverland hoping to get the rest of him. Having replaced his hand with a razor-sharp hook, the Captain now hunts Peter hoping to get his revenge.
(Spoilers for Poltergeist)
Villains can take a lot of different forms. Just as a villain can be played to be very human or sympathetic, it is also possible to go to the other extreme; a very animalistic villain. Creatures and killers of horror stories often fit the latter, leaving far more questions about their origin than answers. They usually have a very basic or specific motive; like the Xenomorph of Alien, which is simply an animal trying to survive. Unfortunately, its survival means extinction for us.
This isn’t to say they can’t have a backstory; in fact, they probably should have a backstory to explain where they fit into the world. Because frankly, nothing just happens–something incites it. A character trespasses into a witch’s wood, a gateway is opened for a wandering being that preys on universes, or a series of horrific murders have turned a grand manor into a haunted place. It’s a matter of cause and effect. Someone, somewhere did something wrong–now they, or even someone else is paying the price for it.
The classic film Poltergeist is a good example.
When a family moves into a new house, odd supernatural happenings start plaguing the family; coming to calamity when the young daughter of the family disappears. Things only get stranger and more dangerous as time goes on. The family begins to hear the disembodied voice of their daughter in the house. It’s not until much later that they find out that the home was constructed on a Native American burial ground because the corporation that built it didn’t want to spend the money to excavate it and move it.
So, whether the protagonist has trespassed, incited a ritual, picked up an unexpected cargo, or accidentally turned the power off in a park full of dinosaurs–I’m sure they’ll live to regret it.
A good story has characters you care for brought through hardship and pain, but coming out stronger for it. One way or another, something will be standing between your protagonist and their goal–and you may as well make sure it is a force the reader will never forget. After all, stories are about monsters and men. Make a creature of mythology or nightmare, make a champion of your hero’s flaws personified, or find something even better–it’s up to you.
So whether your protagonist is falling through time, on the run from the cops, or trying to win the heart of another; make sure that they’ve got a truly good villain to oppose them on their journey.