The biggest challenge to a creative who wants to create compelling villains is making them… compelling. There’s a fine line between loving to hate a villain/hating that you love a villain vs. just hating the villain. That’s a bit confusing. Let me explain better.
There are villains like Dolores Umbridge, Doctor Who’s Master, and Jared Leto’s Joker. Umbridge is a terrible human being, and everyone hates her, and you love to hate her. The Master is a terrible person, but for some reason I love him (or her when she’s Missy) but I shouldn’t, but I do, so…yeah. And then there’s Jared Leto’s Joker. I just hate him, as a character, as a villain, as an entity, why was he written?
So, how to write a compelling villain? Let’s take a look at one story that has a few villains who hit it out of the park, Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Iroh: The Villain Turned Mentor
Ok, so most people wouldn’t include Iroh in the list of villains from this show. Fair, because he’s more a villain in the flashbacks. He’s already turned his back on the villain side and become a mentor.
Iroh had been set on his goal in capturing Ba Sing Se in the name of the Fire Nation. He was in line to be the next Fire Lord. He was called “The Dragon of the West” because he killed the last surviving dragon in the world (*spoiler* he didn’t really).
His son was killed in the war. This had him turning his back on the siege of Ba Sing Se and the war entirely. Obviously, other things happened, but we don’t know what that is, until Zuko is banished.
At this point, he steps into the role of mentor. Zuko needs someone to look up to, train him, give him advice, and be a father-figure.
Because he sure ain’t getting that from Ozai.
Ozai: The Defeated Evil
Ozai is just evil. Sure, he has some justification of his actions. His motives are just…not very nice. There are very few redeemable qualities in Ozai that don’t take a bit of rationalization. And by that I mean, A LOT of rationalization.
He’s so well written, it’s crazy. He’s a terrible human being, but I love that I hate him so much. He’s evil for the sake of being evil.
His face as he begins to use the comet’s power to destroy everything in his path shows you just what kind of person he is. He thinks he’s the only person in the world to matter. The only way to stop him would be for someone to defeat him, like what happened in the show.
Had he succeeded in taking over the world, I think it would have only been a matter of time before his own people would have become the enemy… just like another person in the show.
Azula: The Fallen Master Manipulator
When Azula was first introduced, she was terrifying. She was a master chess player, always five steps ahead of everyone. She was perfect, the perfect protege, the perfect daughter, the perfect princess.
Even in her recruitment of Ty Lee, she had no qualms with endangering someone she claimed to call a friend. She has no problem abusing and manipulating anyone she needs to get what she wants. If you need another example, when she’s in Ba Sing Se, the Dai Le, originally led by Long Fang refuse to fight her, because just her reputation and manipulation has brought doubt to whether she or Long Feng would come out on top should it come to a fight. Even Long Feng admitted that she beat him at the game of manipulation and using people as chess pieces.
By the end of the show, she’s gotten so used to manipulating people, she can’t even believe anyone would be honest. First, Zuko’s betrayal (I know it’s justified). Then Ty Lee and Mai turn on her. Then Ozai leaves her behind.
She starts seeing betrayal everywhere. She casts out anyone who does anything that isn’t exactly what she wants, without telling them what that is. In the end, she’s become so unhinged, she falls for traps she wouldn’t have at the beginning of the show. The cool and collected master manipulator decays into a ball of unstable psychotic fury.
Zuko: The Redeemed Antagonist
Zuko. He started out as an antagonist. He’s chased after Aang, Sokka, and Katara. He lives in a world where honor is everything. He’s the eldest. He has been raised with the need to make sure he’s the best and deserves the title of crown prince.
Once he’s on the run from the Fire Nation, he has moments of character growth. Mostly, this happens in Ba Sing Se under the watchful eye of our villain-turned-mentor, Uncle Iroh. Then Azula returns to him with an offer he should, but can’t, refuse. She dangles the one thing he wants right in front of his nose. Of course, he bites.
But once he gets what he wants, he realizes it’s not everything he thought it would be. While he has the honor, the title, the respect, there’s something missing. That something that he glimpsed with Uncle Iroh.
Redemption. He wanted to restore his honor, but once he’s done that, he sees he really needs to redeem himself and his honor. So, one the Day of Black Sun, he leaves. He sets out once again in search of the Avatar. The story comes full circle.
The next time he returns to the palace, it’s as the redeemed hero he wanted so desperately to be at the beginning. He’s the crown prince, and Fire Lord, the Fire Nation needs.
So when learning how to make movies, know your villain and find what qualities make your viewer watch them rise and fall.