Darth Vader. Lord Voldemort. Hannibal Lecter. We enjoy watching or reading about an exciting villain. How do we create a villain who intrigues our audience, keeps people reading or watching, and provides a stimulating challenge for the hero without upstaging? Here are some tips:
- Make the villain strongest where the hero is weakest. Scar exploits Simba’s guilt over the death of his father. Lex Luthor whips out the kryptonite when Superman shows up. This forces the hero to grow because he or she needs to shore up vulnerabilities in order to beat the villain.
- Give the villain similarities to the hero. Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort’s wands have the same phoenix feather at their core. This shows how they’re both brilliant wizards, but Voldemort turned to evil. We see the villain as a reflection of the hero’s own demons and temptations. The hero must fight them as much as the villain, and the battle becomes one within the hero.
- Humanize the villain. Show the villain with human foibles and flaws. Tony Soprano has personal and family problems. Darth Vader is actually Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father. We can understand a human villain more, and we harbor the hope that the villain could somehow be redeemed. This gives the hero the option of saving the villain, not just defeating him or her. At least, the villain needs enough vulnerability for the hero to beat.
- Motivate the villain. Why does the villain want to defeat the hero? Are they fighting for the same goal, like Blutto and Popeye fight for the hand of Olive Oyl? Was the villain’s evil spawned from some childhood trauma? We want to be able to comprehend a person’s villainy and the reasons for it. We don’t like characters who are evil for the sake of being evil. (We may never understand the source of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal madness, but that hasn’t stopped biographers and historians from churning out tens of thousands of pages trying to figure it out.)
- Show the villain reacting to their misdeeds. This makes a villain fascinating. When villains relish their villainy like Snidely Whiplash or The Joker, we’ll have as much fun watching as they do committing foul deeds. When a villain commits violence dispassionately, we produce a chilling villain like Hannibal Lecter. When a villain is emotionally unstable like Norman Bates, we produce an unpredictable foe who can strike at any time.
- Make the hero as interesting as the villain. How many times have we seen a villain who is so fascinating that he overshadows the dull-as-dish-water hero. This is appropriate for an anti-hero story like Bonnie and Clyde. But if you want the reader to root for the bad guy to lose, we need a hero who outshines him or her. Show the hero battling problems of his or her own, like Harry Potter wanting to escape the abuse of his Muggle aunt and uncle. Have the hero embody the values we would want for ourselves, like Superman’s patriotism, honesty, and humility. Make the heroes like ourselves, such as the shy Peter Parker trying to cope with the extraordinary power of Spider-Man.
The best conflicts are those between equals where the outcome is in doubt. Give your story a strong and engaging villain and equally strong and sympathetic hero, and let them do battle.