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Ask the Expert: How to Create a Great Villain

Question: How do you create a villain who will elevate your story?

Without something or someone to fight against, your hero is just a nice guy going about his day. One of the keys to creating compelling and interesting protagonists – is creating compelling and interesting antagonists.

And to create great bad guys, I believe you have to do a number of specific things. First, your antagonist needs to be almost as complex as your hero. All those great character exercises you do to really get to know your main character before you start writing- you should be doing those for your villain too!

Make your list of 5 important character traits, your list of how those traits are exemplified in your plot, how they are going to change or what their story arc is, and most importantly – what their backstory and motivations are for doing what they are doing. Write down 5 moments in your villain’s life that have brought them to the point they are at in beginning of the script – the reasons they are so hell bent on…whatever they are hell bent on.

If your antagonist does not have an important and relatable motivation for their actions and emotions, they will not be as believable. There should be something so innate - so driving - that no matter how much they are defeated or rejected, your villain should still think they are in the right.

If you think “being crazy” is reason enough to be crazy, then you are not going to have a very compelling antagonist. It’s WHY they are crazy and what they are crazy for that makes them fully fleshed-out characters and worthy opponents for your hero. I mean, what would Clarice Starling be without her Hannibal?

Let’s examine some of the best villains in film history (as voted on AFI) – Hannibal Lecter; Norman Bates; The Wicked Witch; Darth Vader; Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction; Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes in Misery; Gordon Gekko in Wall Street; and Jack in TheShining, etc.

Or as they could be categorized - Manipulative sadistic cannibal; Severe mommy issues with cross-dressing tendencies; Ego-Maniac seeking revenge for the death of her sister; Severe abandonment and identity issues and possible borderline personality disorder; Obsessive love addict and stalker with sociopathic tendencies towards small animals; Paranoid obsessive bipolar sadomasochistic stalker; Greed-obsessed supreme narcissist with fears of being ordinary; Paranoid alcoholic with writers block turned cabin fever psychopath.

Are your antagonists that complex? Have you figured out ingenious and strategic ways to bring out their issues in your story?

Even some of the biggest and best slasher/horror film baddies have extensive and engaging back stories that almost make you feel empathy for them;

Freddy Krueger was tortured as a child and then became a child-killer himself who was burned to death by the parents of his victims; Jason Vorhees was the victim of a drowning and all-around momma’s boy who sought out immorality in teenagers and revenge for his mother’s murder; Michael Meyers was a true sociopath and possible sexual deviant with incestuous and sororicide (killing your sister) tendencies; Candyman was the son of a slave who falls in love with a white woman and is lynched, gets his hand chopped off, and is tortured and gruesomely murdered with bees. Even the latest Paranormal Activity film gave a more in-depth back story about where the murderous spirit came from and how it became connected to its family of victims.

These are backstories, motivations, psychological profiles and connections for these antagonists who could have otherwise just been random crazy guys who like to kill.

I highly suggest that as you write – or rewrite – your script, you do a pass while looking through the eyes of your antagonist. While ROOTING for your bad guy. This is a great exercise for a number of reasons - itwill allow you to not only flesh out your antagonist as a character and help track what they are doing in the story to give your hero obstacles, but it will also let you see how what your heroes are doing affects THEM. By looking at your story and structure from the antag’s POV, you will see how the story is progressing from their side. It’s a great way to get a different perspective on your action.

Instead of being the hero on the journey, be your villain waiting for your hero to come. As your hero is losing, don’t forget that your bad guys are winning. You’ll be able to track how your hero’s actions at the turning points, midpoint, and their “all is lost” moment is reflected in the actions and emotions of your villains and what these moments make your bad guy do.

Your midpoint, for example, should affect your antagonist’s plans in some way. It should tell them – ‘Holy crap, maybe this guy means business and we need to make sure we’re ready. Let’s step it up, pull out the BIG guns for the next time he or she gets close.’

And while your antagonist may not have the same type of character ARC as your hero, where they do a 180 reversal and are pro-active in the change, they DO change. By the end of MOST stories, they’ve either been defeated and accept it, they have seen the error of their ways, or they are killed. Like getting out of a bad relationship, they do need some type of closure or a good reason as to why there cannot be any.

If your story has no human antagonist – like if you’re writing a disaster movie or creature feature where the antagonistic force is a meteor, tidal wave, alien or a three-headed octopus - then you can do two things. First, try to give as many human characteristics to your non-human antagonistic force as you can. And second, you could create a secondary antagonist that IS human to give your heroes a more tangible obstacle and someone to take their anger out on. Films like Twister, 2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, etc., all employ secondary human antagonists.

No matter what genre you write, what story you create, what journey your main characters embark on, there is always an obstacle - a force, a villain, a bad guy - trying to stop them. And often times, films become iconic because of these antagonist characters more so than for the heroes. So, if you can create truly compelling, visual, and engaging villains, it will make your story and heroes shine even more.