The Writer’s Craft – Killing it with the Perfect Villain, Part 1

(Pensacola, Florida; August 18, 2022,) – The literary axiom that a hero is only as good as his or her villains is true for a very solid reason.

The fact is that your hero is only as good as the villains he or she confronts.

The Batman is only but a cosplaying vigilante without the likes of the Joker to threaten Gotham.  Superman would be a hero if he only averted natural disasters, but having Lex Luthor use technology to provide a physical challenge while also challenging his mental prowess elevates Superman into the firmament of myth.  Where would Sherlock Holmes be without Moriarty—or even Irene Adler, the only person in the original stories who ever bested the great detective?

Great villains are a mainstay in literature because our heroes need adversaries to fight.  Disaster movies, however incredible and moving they are, don’t launch multi-million dollar franchises because, well, the disaster is a one-off event.  Disaster stories are compelling because we see the like in our world every day, but natural disasters don’t plot dastardly actions…or come back for revenge.

Villains like Lex Luthor, the Joker, and the classic Moriarty elevate our heroes because they force our heroes to rise to the occasion.  When your hero faces off against a capricious, unpredictably lethal trickster like the Joker, your hero must continually develop, or else the Joker will win, and usually win big.  This conflict drives the continued growth and development of the heroes and the continual development of the villains.

Another reason villains are important is that, well, let’s be honest, we all love to hate a great villain.  We might even root for them to an extent.  The villain is not constrained by the same morality we are.  The villain gets to do all the things we only dream of doing when that idiot cuts us off on the interstate highway, nearly causing us to get flattened by a semi.  There’s something cathartic in seeing the villain pull out a gun and blast the bugger’s head off in literature.  They are, symbolically, doing something we might wish we could do ourselves, but never actually would.

Crafting your villain is as much a thrill and responsibility as crafting your hero is.  Employing a weak, undeveloped villain can render the entire point of your story moot, boring, and utterly forgettable.  Marvel Studios wrestled with this for years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Out of all the movies that built up to Avengers: Endgame, only two villains are widely remembered: Loki and Thanos.  Fortunately, the MCU stories were strong enough and the stakes high enough that weakly developed villains didn’t crash the franchise, but you know there’s a problem when your lack of strong, memorable villains becomes a generic term.  Today, the ‘MCU Villain Problem’ is a verbal shorthand for any series that has weak, underwhelming villains.

Villains don’t come in one size, shape, or motivation any more than heroes do.  Some villains are flamboyant, insane, and zany, like the Joker.  Other villains are precise, methodical, and highly cultured, like Professor James Moriarty.  Some are driven by tragic backstories that twisted them into a villain, like Thanos.  Some are megalomaniacs convinced of their own greatness with religious fervor, like Lex Luthor.

Crafting a memorable villain requires five factors in my humble opinion.  These factors must all be considered in the context of your heroes, otherwise, the villain could fall flat and be forgotten.  These are qualities I’ve noticed run as recurring elements in all good villains, from Darth Vader to Dennis Nedry (Jurassic Park):

1) The villain is a character, and so must behave like a real person (even if that behavior includes mental illness).

2) The villain might be sympathetic, tragic, or malevolent, but they must be driven by clear motivations.

3) The villain has to be your hero’s opposite number.  There are many ways to accomplish this.  The villain could be the literal opposite number, or thematically an opposite number.  However, the villain and the hero have to mesh together like opposite gears in a machine for the story to work.

4) The villain has to win occasionally if you wish the villain to be a recurring—and believable—threat.  If your villain is a recurring character who never inflicts any real pain or cost on the hero, then you’ve simply created another Condiment King (Batman: The Animated Series).

5) The villain must be cool.  A boring villain is as much a story-killer as a boring hero is.  This doesn’t mean the villain has to be as flamboyant as the Joker, nor does it mean the villain must even be likable.  What it does mean is that the villain must be entertaining.

We’ll be taking a look at each of these five considerations over the next few weeks here on The Writer’s Craft.  Each of the columns in this particular series will focus on one of those aspects.  We’ll examine villains that succeeded by employing each of these factors, and villains that failed because one or more of these factors were absent, or badly developed.

Crafting a villain can be easier than crafting a hero since the villain isn’t constrained by the same moral precepts as the hero.  The villain can easily accomplish their goals because they don’t care who they hurt, whereas the hero can only fight the villain with one proverbial hand tied behind his or her back in order to protect those around the scene.  This dichotomy will allow you to explore vast tracts of otherwise untouchable human nature while also enthralling your readers.  Crafting a strong villain might mean you create the next Darth Vader who strides from the pages of your novel into our collective imaginations!

-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/AmR7BxAjPdE

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