Monday, January 16, 2012

A General Guide To Creating A Good Villain

Okay, so we have the main character and his buddies, and we have the relationships that tie them together. That's good, but the fact remains: we still need a bad guy. Otherwise, you've got nothing.

Someone may ask, 'Well, what's wrong with a story about good people?' The answer is that while we hate having opposition and evil in our own lives, we love reading about it in books. Reading stories about people that have perfect lives isn't entertaining, so if you're looking to draw in an audience, you need a bad guy.

Vader has been one of the most iconic villains in recent history.

1. Welcome to the Dark Side

Okay, you definitely don't hear about it a lot, but villains go back as far as heroes. Ever since Lucifer pulled the first failed coup d'etat, there's been a dark side to fight against the light. 

The narrative of good vs. evil continues with Cain and Abel, with God giving Cain the mother of all groundings after he killed Abel. The entire back and forth of good vs. evil continues throughout the entire Bible, though it's worth pointing out that the biggest problems come from within the Israelite nation itself.

Other religious texts will invariably turn up the same formula: good, in one form or another, fighting against evil. Good vs. evil is so prevalent that it seems ingrained into the human psyche, forming the foundation of all our stories. For as far back as humanity can remember, evil has been part of the equation, to balance out good.

2. What Makes a Villain? Sugar, Spice, A Bad Childhood. . .

In villainous circles, the saying goes, "Villains are made, not born." This is most certainly true if we operate on the principle that everyone is born with the light of Christ (if you're not religious, substitute basic human morality for the 'light of Christ').

Nowhere is this more evident than in Megamind. From his humble beginnings, Megamind's villainy was clearly a case of nurture over nature. Raised in a prison and outshone by his rival, Megamind turned to the only thing he could apparently do well, which was wreak chaos.

Image Detail
Both Metro Man and Megamind were the sole survivors of their respective species. However, Metro Man landed in a privileged home, while Megamind landed in a prison. The stage was set for their roles in life.

(By now you've probably noticed how much I've referenced this movie. In addition to being a favorite of mine, it demonstrates a wide plethora of story elements, which makes it a great reference source.)

3. "Oh, You're A Villain, Alright. . . Just Not A Super Villain"

Essentially, there is a villain for every hero. In some cases (Batman, the poor guy) there are legions of villains for a hero. As such, we've got a pretty big catalog of villains to draw from. Some are brilliantly evil and charismatic, and have their own fan followings. Others are pathetic, and we can't help but think the writer was running out of ideas. Between those two opposites is the rest of the spectrum, which is pretty broad. So you understand, it takes a lot to stick out in the world of villainy.

Image Detail
Graaarg! Anybody got the munchies for fear?

Let's begin with the traits of a bad villain. 

What we have above is Parallax, a giant space entity that feeds off fear. Granted, Parallax from the Green Lantern has been given the glossed CGI massive bad guy treatment, but when it comes to it, he's not the best villain. Why? Simple. It took me five minutes to remember he even existed.

The mark of a good villain is their memorability. If you don't remember a villain, it's obviously because that villain didn't make that much of an impression of you. When it comes down to it, the hero is only as good as the villain he's fighting. The recent Green Lantern movie was okay, but it was an extended metaphor for overcoming your fears (plus a small side lesson on the dangers of hubris), and not much more than that.

Normally I wouldn't wax longer than a few paragraphs on one subject, but villains are very important to a story, so I feel obliged add one more example: Iron Monger out of Iron Man (no, it isn't a coincidence that a lot of pathetic bad guys spring from comic-books-turned-movies).

My beef with the first Iron Man movie bad guy is purely a matter of creativity. Who better to fight a hero in a super-powered suit. . . than a bigger man, in the bigger super-powered suit ripped off of the hero's original design?


The second Iron Man movie had a chance to rectify this mistake of repetitious plot element, and to some degree, it did. The movie introduced a couple of non-suit characters, though the screenwriters couldn't help throwing in a small army of super-powered suits, this time purely mechanical, led by a guy in a. . . jacked up, super-powerful suit. Sound familiar? Yeah, thought so. . . at any rate, you can mark up a bad movie to the fact that it's setting up for another bad movie - this one involving more superheroes and superficially sensible plot lines.

Image Detail

Next up? Christopher Nolan's Joker.

This particular incarnation of the Joker is classified as a true super villain. The beauty of the character is that he has no superpowers. Aside from carrying a truly excessive number of knives, he has no other defining characteristic aside from his ability to create arbitrary chaos and random destruction. And that, young writers, is evil in its purest form. No superpowers, no diabolical machines, just the human potential, switched into 'evil' mode.

Of course, Heath Ledger's Joker is also a super villain for a number of other reasons. If you go back and watch The Dark Knight again, you'll notice that the Joker, with practically nothing but his intellect, can take on Bruce Wayne, who has:

1. The financial backing of his parent's inheritance.
2. The support of Gotham's government and police force (at least for the first half of the movie).
3. A huge array of technology, advanced weaponry, and maxed-out gear.

This is a reversal of the classic one-against-many. Usually one-against-many is used in the pretext of a hero's struggle, but here it's been reworked - subtly so - so that it's now the Joker's struggle. Which takes us to the next defining trait of the Joker.

The Joker is a rare example of the bad guy that makes it on his own without the pre-existing aid of money or connections. Using his intelligence and cunning, he builds up his resource base so he can finance a crew and buy the tools of his trade (mostly explosives, matches, and lighters). He sets out with single-minded purpose, but doesn't forget to attend to the details. His solutions are brilliant in their simplicity, coldly efficient in execution. He's capable of thinking in complex ways, but he always brings things back to one clear-cut point.

Finally, and most significantly, the Joker is a philosopher. His motivation in The Dark Knight is something more unique, something purer than the aims of most other villains. In The Dark Knight, the Joker sets out to do one thing - to prove a point. He's not searching for power. He's not out for revenge. He's not looking for world domination, he's not trying to control something or someone, he's not doing it for love or infamy or recognition or to stroke his pride or show off what he's capable of. 

His sole purpose is to make a statement about the state of humanity. And that by itself is one of the most original motivations in the history of villainy. 

4. The Faces Of Evil


As you can see above, evil isn't always chaotic, super-powered, or diabolical. A fair amount of the time, it's subtle and humorous.

Evil comes in many forms. Most of the examples I've used in this post deal with super villains of some sort, but there are many instances where the villains are normal-looking people that would pass us on the street. One particular example is a new show called Once (as in Once Upon a Time, as a reference to).

Once does a beautiful and graceful job of translating ancient fairytales into modern interpretations. The arcane art of magic becomes the practice of law, the higher villains become selfish or manipulative misers in the upper echelons of society, and the good guys become hard-working and honest people in the middle or lower class, who have their aspirations and hopes to something more. 

The point is that no matter your story, whether it be high fantasy fiction or self-reflective teenage literature, it is always possible to have a villain.

So In Conclusion! Villains are necessary to a story, be they mundane or unearthly, unintentionally humorous or nefariously evil. A hero is only as good as the villain he's fighting, so don't forget to give your villain a little bit of love and attention to make sure they're fleshed out nice and proper.

Continuing the Inkfingers tradition of bashing Twilight, I leave you with this post's commentary on Twilight.

Image Detail


  1. You're so bad! Of course your next post will have to be Redemption....

  2. Nice and informative Emil! Love the pictures you include ;)

  3. Awesome treatment of the sometimes forgotten subject of villain development. Wholeheartedly agree with your analysis of the Joker. This is actually my starting point when thinking up new stories. I don’t begin with the protagonist, I first concept the antagonist. This is because, like you said, if you write your bad guy wrong it can ruin the plot but also, and mainly, because having a deep and precisely purposed antagonist drive me to match that level of depth and precision with my antagonists. Not to mention so many writers today imo take a mold antagonist instead of really coming up with something original for them.

    Also, having the reader interested in what both sides are doing is only beneficial. If you had a bland antagonist, then practically half the book would be bland. Both characters are equally important.