The importance of being evil: How to create the perfect villain

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

If you want to make your hero shine, put some polish on the villain. Make your champion's nemesis – whether it's a physical obstacle or talking germs – really, really nasty. Here are 6 (not 666) ways to create the perfect baddie.

1) You need a bad guy

You really do. Dr Nekhorvich from Mission: Impossible II puts it very nicely:

Every search for a hero must begin with something which every hero requires – a villain.

Which makes sense, when you think that the most basic kind of story involves a hero who triumphs in a battle over something – or against someone.

That someone – your villain – drives the plot. They create problems that need solutions. They give your hero something to do. Otherwise it'd be another cosy night in with Netflix and snacks.

In advertising, your villain might be devilish stomach acid or stubborn stains. By using your product, your customer becomes the hero.

The advertising gurus at Domestos really harnessed the power of 'ugh' when they created these fabulously foul characters.

2) Invest in the scumbag

One-dimensional villains don't cut it. The more convincing and complex your blaggard, the more captivating your hero.

So it's worth giving your baddie a backstory. Develop it in your mind, even if your narrative barely touches on it. It will affect how you write or animate the character, and give him or her substance.

Ursula the Sea Witch is a talkative type, but even she manages to explain her motives in just a few short lines. King Trident has wronged her. Real bad. She wants revenge.

In my day, we had fantastical feasts, when I lived in the palace. And now – look at me – wasted away to practically nothing. Banished and exiled and practically starving, while he and his flimsy fish-folk celebrate. Well, I'll give 'em something to celebrate soon enough.

Welcome to your plot, ladies and gentleman.

3) Choose from the colourful palette of wrong'uns

Research (conducted in strict lab conditions involving popcorn and library cards) suggests that there are 3 main ways in which a villain relates to your hero:

A) Same but different

Some of the most disturbing antagonists mirror the hero almost exactly. As the story plays out, you discover that they both have extraordinary gifts. They just use them for different ends.

Javier Bardem is straight-up terrifying as Raoul Silva in Skyfall. He's been touted as the best Bond villain of all time.

But he's unnerving precisely because he starts out just like Bond: a top agent, M's favourite, a hero. He is Bond's 'shadow self' and – therefore – his perfect nemesis.

B) Polar opposites

But other stories offer you good clean fun by contrasting personalities or worldviews. Classic examples include:

  • Bill Sykes (grim, abusive, heartless) vs Oliver Twist (warbling, naive)
  • Lex Luthor (brainy, corporate, slick) vs Superman (brawny, noble, all-American posterboy)
  • Captain Hook (old, wily, injured) vs Peter Pan (young, wide-eyed, acrobatic)

C) Anarchy and chaos

Then there are your out-and-out disgusting manifestations of evil. They are irrational, unpredictable and operate outside any recognisable moral framework. Think Sauron, Nurse Ratched, Miss Trunchball.

Mother Nature can be similarly destructive and inhumane so, in some narratives, your antagonist might be a vast mountain, a hostile planet or an extreme natural phenomenon (think The Perfect Storm, The Day After Tomorrow and Waterworld).

Batman's arch-enemy, The Joker, is exactly the type of murderous psychopath we love to hate. He's a character with power, even off the screen. When Heath Ledger died tragically after portraying him in The Dark Knight, the media were quick to speculate that playing The Joker had something to do with it.

4) Tell us what they want

Maybe it goes without saying that villains generally have a dastardly plan. Your antagonist must have an aim, however abstract or ambitious: destroy the world, kill Aslan, be prom queen.

You can state it up-front (Scar in The Lion King), dissemble as a decent person before plunging in the knife (Hamlet's evil Uncle Claudius) or gradually roll out their wicked plan (Mr Wickham in Pride and Prejudice).

Everyone loves working out the twist, the plan, the aim, the agenda, so take this opportunity to ratchet up the drama.

5) Walk the (very fine) line between love and hate

Most villains aren't all evil – or, at least, they weren't always evil. Your villain probably loved his mum, his dog or his first love once. He's not stone-cold evil. She was kind of cute before she turned to the dark side. And so on.

There's a real art to creating someone bad enough that your audience is happy to see them destroyed in the fire of poetic justice, but good enough to be human and realistic – if that's what your story requires.

Across her 7 Harry Potter books, JK Rowling deftly reveals Tom Riddle's transformation from hardened, rejected boy to Lord Voldemort, the 'most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years'. We might pity the abandoned child, but we willingly accept that he must die.

6) Sometimes it ends in tears

Finally, we mustn't forget those wonderfully subversive narratives where your villain is your protagonist. They fall from grace, inevitably and disastrously, and the plot is all about their undoing – full of retribution and catharsis.

There is no denying that this is exhilarating, voyeuristic and exhausting. The exemplary villain kicks ass again – and keeps us on the edge of our seats, lapping up their mischief and devilry.

This autumn, UK audiences can look forward seeing to Marion Cotillard on screen as Lady Macbeth. Here's a preview of her downfall:

I realise that Macbeth is the protagonist in Macbeth but – boy – is his wife interesting.

Of course, there's room for complicated bad guys with mixed motivations, but the principle remains: A convincing anti-hero is just the ticket for a gripping story arc.

5 points if you can name the villain in the picture at the top of this post...


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