How to write a compelling villain

An essential part of storytelling is finding a creative way to incorporate your villain.

And by ‘incorporating’ I don’t just mean slot them in somewhere because that’s just what you do, I mean making the villain a key character to your story.

What makes a villain compelling?

The villain is often the physical presence of conflict to the protagonist. (Not always, there are many ways you can incorporate conflict, but the villain is key to provoking conflict and upsetting the general order of your protagonist’s ordinary world.)

Spending time fleshing out your villain will further your story and help your protagonist become who you want them to be in the end. Here are some ways you can do this.

A terrifying element of truth and familiarity

Most villains aren’t simply crazy maniacs who love to hurt people for the sake of hurting them, they often represent an aspect of ourselves we’re afraid of. They will poke and prod the hero in a way that can potentially expose their flaws and display them for all the world to see.

However, in doing this, it’s ultimately a great part of revealing what your main character needs to address and grow from. We may never really see a change in our protagonist if there’s no reason for them to overcome the conflict created by the antagonist.

The antagonist can represent everything the protagonist lacks. Without them, we may never see what is wrong with our protagonist. It may even force them to choose to do what they never had the courage to do before they encountered opposition.

Sometimes it’s hard to admit the enemy may actually portray an element of truth, it’s what makes them so frightening.

The audience will empathise with a good villain…

(Mild spoiler for Avengers: Infinity War)

Thanos has a clear goal, which the audience understands, and that is to bring order to the universe. Ironically, when you think about it, he is competing for the same goal as The Avengers, yet their methods on how they go about it are vastly contrasting.

The audience knows what he wants, why he wants it and what he’s willing to do to get it. At one point in the story, Thanos is forced to decide whether he will make a gut wrenching sacrifice or not in order to collect one of the infinity stones.

This plot point moves us to empathise with him because we see he is a real person (despite being alien).

…or collectively love hating them.

“I will have order” Dolores Umbridge – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Sometimes a villain may be a social commentary on the ridiculous political views of the time and can poke fun at societal flaws and legalities.

Every now and then you may come across a story with a villain who pokes fun at society.

Usually the story will point out the lengths we may go in order to achieve a perfect utopia, often sacrificing values and convictions for the sake of political correctness, structure or status quo.

It’s not until we see a physical representation of this through the form of an antagonist in a fictional story that we realise how ridiculous some of our values might be.

Personally these are my favourite kinds of villains as they always challenge me to think about why I believe what I believe and ultimately make me grow as a real person. (Of course be careful with this, as it has the potential to become preachy).

Make sure your villain compliments the hero.

The Joker + Batman
Thanos + The Avengers
Voldemort + Harry Potter
Dolores Umbridge + Harry and friends

You can have a great villain but without the hero to match they’re pointless. Like I said earlier we may never see the need for change in our hero if the villain doesn’t bring out their flaws.

A villain may be more real than the protagonist.

“When a character lies, self sabotages and acts in contradiction to their own personal beliefs, they are far more interesting to write and feel far more true to life” – John York from Into the Woods.

The main character may hold a certain conviction but like most humans it’s impossible for them to stay true to that conviction no matter how perfect they appear. They’re going to mess up at some point.

The villain also holds a conviction but usually they’re better at keeping it. This story arc is usually intentional as it points out our hero’s area for improvement: ‘If the bad guy isn’t a hypocrite then why am I?’

This can be uncomfortable for us as the audience because it could reveal a truth about ourselves we’re not willing to admit – we’re incredibly flawed.

Sometimes a villain may simply be an ordinary person given immense power, which is even more chilling to think about because it forces us to ask ourselves, “What would I, as a flawed human being, do if I was also given immense power?

It brings the story to a personal level and thus keeping the stakes the villain reveals personal, rather than the stakes being so high it’s ridiculous and we no longer care who wins in the end.

Without a villain the story can be boring.

True character is revealed under pressure. An antagonist forces pressure onto our hero and we see who they really are.

The story needs conflict and needs to be uncomfortable to a degree in order for the main character to accomplish their goal and bring about the change they need …and for us to gain inspiration on what we may need to change in ourselves.

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  • Jay Evans

    Editor

    Jay Evans has spent the last 8 years working as a film editor, 4 of which have been with The Initiative Production Company. In his spare time he enjoys music, comedy, experimental cooking and getting lost in the woods.

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