The Writer’s Craft – Killing it with the Perfect Villain, Part 5—The Villain Has to Win Occasionally

(Pensacola, Florida; Sept. 23, 2022,) – The villain has to win, at least occasionally.

Creating the perfect villain requires writers to develop them as multifaceted characters with clear motivations, characters who stand in thematic (if not overt) opposition to the hero, but it also requires something else.

The villain has to win (at least occasionally) if you want them to be a true, and truly memorable threat, to your protagonist.

The basic structure of a story consists of the introduction, rising action, complication, climax, and denouement.  This structure informs good, solid one-off stories, as well as larger, multi-volume (or multi-episode or multi-movie) sagas.  The classic story has the hero win, of course.  However, for the villain to be memorable, for the villain to pose a significant threat to the hero, the villain has to win occasionally, and win significant victories.

This is simply a matter of literary credibility mirroring real life.  None of us would take a man seriously who comes up to us every day for 20 years making threats but doing nothing.  The fear such a man elicits quickly erodes into mere annoyance because he lacks credibility.  He’s done nothing to make us think he’s anything other than a boorish windbag.

Literary villains require the same credibility if they’re to function as real threats, much less be memorable once the story is finished.  The villain has to win significant victories and exact a real cost of the hero, or else the villain is but a forgettable villain-of-the-week you could exchange with any one of a thousand villains-of-the-week.

Loki, from the 2012 Marvel Studios film The Avengers embodies how even a simple, single act of victory can elevate the villain to new heights.

Loki kills Agent Coulson as The Avengers crashes towards the final showdown between our heroes and Loki’s invading army. (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Portrayed by Tom Hiddleston, Loki was established in Thor as Thor’s younger, adopted brother.  Upon learning of his true parentage, Loki rebels against Odin and Asgard, driving the events of Thor and resulting in Loki’s seeming death.  The Avengers reveals the trickster god didn’t die, but allied himself with the Mad Titan, Thanos, in Thanos’ quest for the Infinity Stones.  These powerful artifacts would allow Thanos to remake reality, and Loki joins his cause to rule Earth (partly because doing so would enrage Thor, who considers Earth a second home).

Although the Avengers triumph and save the day, Loki exacts several terrible prices from them during his attack.  Each of these triumphs brings him one step closer to his final goal (invading and ruling Earth) while forcing our heroes to recover, adapt, and finally grow into a team to thwart Loki.  Loki becomes such a great threat it takes the combined might of the Avengers to halt his plans.

So, just how in the name of John Q. Arbuckle did Loki become such a memorable villain and gain such dark credibility?

There is one scene, one singular moment I want to highlight in which Loki becomes memorable.  This is where he kills the beloved, fan-favorite character of Agent Phil Coulson.  Coulson seeming has Loki cornered when it’s revealed Coulson cornered a projection of Loki, allowing the real Loki to fatally stab Coulson in the back.

This singular act elevates Loki to the heights of true memorability.  The death of Coulson brings the threat of Loki’s plans home in a brutally personal fashion.  Coulson was introduced in the first Iron Man movie in 2008, becoming a popular character with a distinct personality.  Coulson was genuine, patriotic, a bit sentimental, and utterly unmoved by the histrionic displays of towering egoists such as Tony Stark.  His phlegmatic persona complemented the main characters with such aplomb and success the fan base cheered whenever he showed up on the screen.

And then Loki mercilessly stabs him through the back.  Loki doesn’t even kill him from the front.  Coulson has no chance to defend himself; he’s just brutally, coldly murdered.

Coulson’s murder is the final act of Loki’s ascent as a villain.  Although each victory over the greater forces arrayed against him made Loki an increasingly ‘strategic’ enemy, his murder of Coulson is a personal act, and going personal is a sure way to get your audience’s attention.  By killing Coulson personally, and in such a cold-blooded fashion, Loki pulls the audience into the conflict.  We liked this character.  He was an ‘everyman’ who stood up to serve his country, interacting with these great heroes as easily as if he had superpowers himself.  In a way, Coulson was the audience surrogate, giving us a way to relate to this fantastic world ourselves.

Loki rips that away from us.  The audience feels his loss as strongly as our heroes do.  The audience, already geared up to watch the fight to save Earth, suddenly finds themselves feeling like they’re part of the fight, not merely spectators.  Loki’s manipulation of the Avengers and his near-destruction of their flying aircraft carrier demonstrated his tenacity and grandiose ambitions.

However, it is the tragic murder of Coulson that rips the audience’s heart out because Loki went personal.  He’s not just going to kill numbers of nameless, faceless soldiers or civilians.  No; he coldly takes out a character the audience has spent four years learning to love.

A great villain wins significant victories, even if only occasionally.  These victories have to cost the heroes and audience something real, or else the villains’ threat is as hollow as a politician’s promise.  Writing your villain as a true threat enhances your audience’s visceral experience of the character, elevating them being a garden-variety strawman to a frighteningly memorable character possessing enough skill, savvy, and cruelty that we never forget them.

Check out my video on this topic where I discuss how Darth Vader is one of the classic examples of a villain with great credibility based on the fact he triumphed repeatedly over our heroes:

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