Some may hate to admit it, but EVERYONE loves a great villain in a screenplay. Darth Vader, The Joker, Michael Myers, Thanos, Hannibal Lecter. But how can we get our OWN villains on the list? How can we craft compelling, crazy, sadistic characters that push moral boundaries and make us think about humanity in a different way? It's easier than you think and trust me, you don’t have to take trips to the dark side. Let's look at some ways we can create a compelling villain to lift our stories off the page.
1. Villains have their reasons
If we can’t understand your villain's motives or relate to them in any way, your story will fall flat on its face. A villain with motives we understand and relate to makes them all the scarier. Let's take a look at JAWS. The thought of a great white shark killing people is terribly uncomfortable, but let's face it… it's a damn shark. It's what they do. They're carnivores, and unfortunately… humans aren't made of plants. What made JAWS scary is the inherent understanding of the life threatening encounter with a shark. The beach is its home, and if it isn't feeling hospitable on your family beach day, it can attack at any moment to protect its home. And until the government puts a permanent ban on beaches, we’ll continue to invade its space, swimming in its back yard pool despite the fact that danger is constantly lurking beneath those deep blue waters. This fear is a shared experience amongst humans making the film's premise instantly relatable therefore that much more scary.
2. Pure evil is BORING
Everyone has redeeming qualities and your villains are no different. A great example of this is in TOP BOY. The show revolves around two gangs in London fighting for drug territory. Normally, there would be a rival gang that commits evil deeds that outweighs our protagonist’s gang. But what makes the story so effective is that we spend time with both gangs long enough to see that these are normal, impoverished people who are trying to provide for their families. We care about them so much that we wince every time they commit a gruesome act to get one up on each other. It makes either side hard to root for, but we continue to watch because we care for the characters and we want them all to get out of poverty and live comfortable lives. So, who's really the bad guy? That question makes the villain (and protagonist) that much more interesting.
3. Make them SMART
No one wants to see a blowout in your protagonist's favor. It’ll flatten the conflict and slow your story to a halt. A villian who can compete or flat out put your protagonist on their a$$ with no difficulty will make for a story worth reading. Think about the latest hit show INVINCIBLE. Mark, our protagonist has dubbed himself the title hero INVINCIBLE, but he gets his a$$ whooped EVERY EPISODE and his Dad (Omni-Man) is F*CKING INSANE.
Omni-Man comes from a planet full of Superman-level heroes whose goal is to weaken the entire universe so he can spread his race. During Ep.8 “We need to talk”, the government threw everything at Omni-Man. Monsters, missiles, even his own son, but it was no challenge to him. He killed thousands of people and beat Mark half to death in order to show how futile it is to fight back. But Mark, who is half human, cares for humanity and doesn't want to see his home eradicated. At the end of the finale, Omni-Man flies away in a fit of rage leaving Mark and the rest of humanity scrambling to figure out what they are going to do when Omni-Man returns. How will Earth survive? That's the question that compels us to wait for the next season so we can see how Mark and the government will deal with Omni-Man to prevent humanity's extinction. There is no Mark without Omni-Man.
4. Some may mean well
Enemies can be your protagonist's mother, husband, or best friend. They may think they know what's best for your protagonist. When writing an antagonist that's a loved one, lean into the fragility of the relationship and make your character figure out what to do when a loved one stands between them and their goal. A perfect example comes from the movie RUN. A young girl dreams of going to college but her “disability” keeps her from being able to leave her home therefore her MOTHER, who obsessively caters to her. But when she finds that her “mother” kidnapped her when she was a baby and has been giving her meds that halt her mobility to keep her all to herself, the girl must fight tooth and nail for her freedom and survival though there is an innate love for her mother.
Antagonists deserve development. They are 3-dimensional just like protagonists. Use these tips to flesh them out to make them a heaping mountain of conflict that your protagonist must overcome!
Want to write dynamic characters? Check out our Guide to Writing Three-Dimensional Characters!