Creating a convincing villain is, in my opinion, one of the hardest challenges as a writer. There are many factors to consider:
The best way to tackle flat, boring villains head-on is through thorough development.
Villains must be dubious and suspenseful. Otherwise, the audience won’t be immersed enough to wonder at the ultimate victor. Villains share the same rights as their adversaries. Shouldn’t they, then, get the same developmental considerations?
What’s the End-Game?
No one really chooses to label themselves “evil.” Discover your villain’s underlying motivations. Brainstorm their history. A person’s past reveals much about their present demeanor.
At the surface, it can seem like a lot of work. The research you dig up might never make the final cut. Hang on to your research, though. You never know when those pre/sequels and spinoffs might come knocking.
The Four Types
Okay here’s where we break it down. At their deepest, most basic level, villains fall into one of four categories.
Good Guys Turned Bad
Here we get galactic favorites like Darth Vader. In one of the most common cases of villainy, Vader started out as a sweet, innocent farm boy. His passion for the well-being of others initially promotes him to Jedi Master.
As we all know, stubbornness is a strong character flaw. Vader didn’t listen to his teachers and made a lot of mistakes because of it. Maybe Yoda was right in claiming Vader “too old” to train.
Bad Guys Turned Good
Stranger things have happened. Most of the baddies under this tier tend to “switch sides” as they see fit. Usually selfish to the core, these villains partner with the hero(es) when survival is at stake.
Sometimes, though, we get a rare case. Despite his selfish nature, a baddie might evolve in his cooperation with the hero. For this case, I’d like to nominate Peacekeeper Captain Bialar Crais.
Crais first appears on Farscape as the central villain, cold and apathetic. Crichton, our hero, instigates conflict with an accidental collision. The victim happened to be Crais’s brother. So through a purely emotional drive for revenge, Crais chases Crichton across the universe. Spoilers aside, Crais essentially becomes somewhat of an antihero.
On the other end of this spectrum is the villain with no redeeming arc. A main component for this is that his true loyalties remain dubious until the very end of the story. Audiences wonder whether or not the hero should trust him. This is compelling in itself, keeping us on the edge of our seats. But sometimes it’s just fun to have our villain play cat-and-mouse.
Difference of Opinion
The golden villain. Neither good nor bad, he simply sees the world through a different filter. My best example of this is Magneto from X-Men. Now I’m no expert in comics, so my example is based solely off the live-action films.
Magneto and Professor X have a common goal. They even used to be friends. What makes one a hero and one a villain, though, is their perspective on their situation. Both want a world of harmony and peace for mutants. Professor X believes that’s achievable through educating others on what it means to be mutant.
With a background in concentration camps, Magneto’s experience shapes his villainy. It solidifies his belief that non-mutants must be eliminated for peace among his kind. Ironic, given how he remedies this with genocide. In essence, Magneto becomes the type of man he despises through his intent to annihilate the “lesser” species.
Ah the best for last. Because guys, sometimes villains are just plain ol’ crazy bats! There’s no hope for the poor souls in this tier. Evil from conception, but unique in backstory and life choices.
Enter: Arvin Sloane. Terrorist. Dilettante. Widower. Grieving father. I’ve long admired Sloane for his ability to manipulate everyone and everything for his own sadistic, narcissistic self. Yet he’s a complex man, not without a [gravely misplaced] heart. His motivations derive from a pure, selfish quest to follow his obsession—which, technically, is power over the whole world. It’s complicated.
Sloane cares about one thing, and he’ll do whatever it takes to track it down. Even if he has to kill the people he claims to care about most.
An understanding of psychology is important when crafting this type of villain. Because motivation takes a backseat, the character delivers through pure self-delusion. He convinces himself that he acts for reasons A or B, but in the end he’s simply psychotic.
The Intelligence Factor
Allowing your villain to generate their own backstory can add spice, complexity, and intrigue to your story. It’ll certainly make them relatable. But to truly earn their formidable badge as the hero’s enemy, a villain should possess equal or exceeding levels of intelligence.
Why are so few villains gorgeous on the outside?