Ever since I was a kid, I was the type who would wholeheartedly declare that any given story was only as good as its villain. I still find this to be true. But what constitutes a “strong” villain? Is it simply how powerful they are, and therefore how much conflict they can create for the protagonist? Or is it how “other” they are, as in how far removed from societal norms and expectations, their madness thus juxtaposing the principles of the protagonist? Or is there more merit in how relatable you can make your villain, how easy it is for both the audience and other characters to identify with, empathize with and understand the villain’s motivations?
The answer won’t narrow the options down for you, I’m afraid: any one of these scenarios can make for a compelling villain. In this entry, I’m going to discuss some basic concepts of what makes a villain compelling; in future entries, I will discuss my viewpoint on some more specific characteristics of an effective villain as they specifically pertain to writing. In other words, this is meant to just get the conversation going; it is by no means a comprehensive guide to crafting an effective villain. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to use movies as my examples, so if you haven’t seen the italicized films, maybe skip this blog, go rent those films, watch them, and come back. Because they’re all worth watching!)
Ivan Drago was a great villain because of his brute strength and ability; we knew very little else about the character than his ruthlessness and his physical power, but, thematically and as a foil for Rocky Balboa, he served his purpose, which was to be a new and dangerous threat for Rocky, one whose emotional motivations weren’t as important as his destructive nature. A note of caution: this type of villain is often going to be the most underwritten and underdeveloped.
Many Marvel films have suffered from portraying these types of villains, whose demonstrations of raw power often stood in as the only characterization they received. Their motives were often glossed over or hackneyed, and they had no discernible personalities. Luckily, the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to be correcting course on this flaw.
(Other villains like this would include T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the Predator, Hela from Thor: Ragnarok or even Voldemort—though he is given far more complexity beyond his power, his power does remain the biggest obstacle for Harry, one that requires several books and preliminary measures to even the playing field).
The version of the Joker that was presented in The Dark Knight is about as enigmatic and “other” as they come, and what made him compelling was both the comparisons and the contrasts that he created with the protagonist: both possessed their own principles (one being justice, the other being chaos), but one was striving to prove the inherent decency of man, while the other was striving to prove the inherent evil of man. In their own way, both won and proved their points: the Joker couldn’t get passengers on one boat to selfishly and preemptively murder the passengers on another boat, proving the possibility of decency, yet Batman couldn’t save Harvey Dent from becoming the vengeful villain, thus proving the possibility of corruption. The Joker is a compelling villain because, though we know next to nothing about his origins or his identity, what we do know is his philosophy and the bleak way he sees the world.
(Other villains like this would include Hannibal Lecter as he is presented both in The Silence of the Lambs and the Hannibal television series, Hand Landa from Inglorious Basterds, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men or Lorne Malvo in the first season of Fargo; in their own way, each character’s “otherness” or stark differences from the protagonist and from societal norms make them compelling and often frightening).
Old Joe in Looper might technically be the film’s main antagonist (in a film where every antagonist has some humanizing trait about them), and he is certainly the most relatable antagonist despite some of the awful sins he commits. Old Joe is literally the future self of our protagonist, each with drastically different perspectives. Old Joe has time and experience on his side, especially the experience that Young Joe has never felt himself: love. For this love, Old Joe is willing to do anything, even travel back in time to kill the child-version of the man responsible for his wife’s death. While it may seem like the premise would make it difficult to identify with Old Joe, the heartfelt storytelling makes the opposite true: the audience understands Old Joe’s moral center, we understand why he feels he has to do what he does, we understand that it is a devastating moral dilemma for him but that, in his eyes, the greater good will always be to save his wife. We can empathize with Old Joe even when we disagree with his actions, and even while we see that his aims are at odds with the protagonist’s. We may not root for Old Joe, but we do hope there is some way to create a compromise so that his goal is realized without him losing his soul in the process. Love humanizes Old Joe. It makes him relatable, which makes us empathize with him and his situation.
While these may not be the most memorable of villains (I would say the “other” category takes the cake on having the most memorable and timeless entries into villain lore), they may be the ones that strike a most lasting chord with our sense of humanity, and ring the most true with the notion that every villain is the hero of their own story. (Other villains like this would be Magneto from the X-Men series, Bill Cutting from Gangs of New York, Magua from Last of the Mohicans, and Roy Batty from Bladerunner: each of these characters had scenes which humanized them, and motivations that made them relatable and understandable).
The overarching themes that may help you as you are crafting your own antagonist or antagonists is that a compelling villain:
- has clear motivations (that are more complex than “rule the world” or “destroy the universe” just for the sake of doing so—this can be the end goal, but the villain should have an emotional attachment to this goal that portrays something about who they are or how they see the world; take Thanos for example)
- has distinct character traits and idiosyncrasies (if they’re twirling their mustache, you may want to rethink the originality of their portrayal)
- has humanizing qualities or an intentional lack thereof (if your villain is an “other” then you should spend your time showing in what ways they are removed from the concept of societal norms; if your villain is meant to be relatable, then perhaps drawing subtle parallels between them and your protagonist can help to establish their humanity)
- is challenging! A weak villain—one who doesn’t raise the stakes by creating conflict for the protagonist on a physical, emotional, psychological or moral level—will fail to establish tension, will prevent the reader from investing in the story, and will fail to keep the narrative interesting throughout the story’s arc. A strong villain makes us care more about the protagonist as we see him or her struggle against something that defies their principles, that threatens the things or people they care about, or that puts them in danger.
If conflict is the impasse that exists between two characters who are trying to achieve their goals, then both parties have to have compelling, defined goals (please note: defined does not equal clear, relatable and unambiguous; in some cases ambiguity fits your villain’s psyche, and that can be executed to great effect if done properly). And both parties have to demonstrate how far they are willing to go to achieve those goals.