So as I was reading Laymen’s Terms earlier this week and going ga-ga over all the great villainy in the script, I realized that I hadn’t yet breached the subject of villains in any extensive way on the site. And there’s a reason for that. I hadn’t developed an extensive enough take on the matter! Which is strange, because I’m a huge proponent of having great villains in your screenplay. Audiences often like to root against the villain just as much as they like to root for the hero. So if you’re only including a hero in your script, you’re depriving the audience of half the fun! I don’t care if you’re writing a romantic comedy, an indie drama, or a period piece. 99% of the time, there better be a villain involved!
So who are some of the great villains in cinema history? Well of course there’s Darth Vader, Buffalo Bill, Longshanks (Braveheart), Hans Gruber, Michael Myers, The Joker, Hannibal, Apollo, the T-1000. There’s also Agent Smith (Matrix), Annie Wilkes (Misery), Drago, Mr. Potter (It’s A Wonderful Life), Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci – Goodfellas), Hans Landa (Inglorious Basterds), Anton Chigurh (No Country…), Max Cady (Cape Fear), Alex Forest (Fatal Attraction), John Doe (Seven), Alonzo Harris (Training Day) plus many many more.
Strangely enough, I’ve found that what works as villainy in one movie may not work in another. Sometimes you need your villain to be calculated, other times you need him to be terrifying. It all depends on the situaiton, the genre, and the type of story you’re telling. So before we go into what makes a good villain, let’s first identify the different kinds of villains.
The Nasty Villain – I’d say this is the most common villain of all. If you want a villain that gets the audience all riled up with hatred, this villain is your pick. They seem to be driven by an unseen evil force that will stop at nothing to destroy our hero. Annie Wilkes, Mr. Potter, Anton Chigurh, even the blond haired baddie in The Karate Kid. These are bad bad guys. However, these villains can backfire on if you if they’re too thin, and a lot of amateurs make this mistake. They make the villains nasty just because they’re the bad guy in the story. To combat this, make sure to add a solid motivation behind their actions. Anton wants his money. Annie is obsessed with Paul Sheldon’s books. Mr. Potter wants every last piece of this town. Even super-thin Karate Kid Blondie hates Daniel because he’s stolen his girl. Your villain can be a really bad person. Just make sure they have a little motivation behind their badness.
The Complicated Villain – “Complicated” is usually code for a villain with some backstory. I remember this gained popularity after the 80s Batman movies. Tim Burton started showing the complicated histories behind why these baddies became bad. All of a sudden, our villains obtained depth. They had a past. We could almost sympathize with them in a way. This created a more complicated reaction to the character for the audience – shades of gray instead of straight black and white. Max Cady from Cape Fear, for example, endured years of rape and degradation inside a prison because the man he’s now stalking put him there. I’m not going to say I like Max Cady because of this, but I definitely understand him better. The danger in writing this type of villain is that they become too sympathetic. If we start sympathizing with the villain too much because of their troubled past, we don’t want to see them go down. So be careful!
The Sorta Likable Villain – These villains are bad, but there’s also something alluring, interesting, or cool about them that makes us sort of like them. Apollo Creed, Darth Vader, and Hannibal Lecter are all “Sorta Likable” villains. I find that a lot of the time, sorta likable villains exist in a film where there’s a villain worse than them. This allows us to root against someone while still kinda rooting for the cooler villain. With Darth Vader in Star Wars, the real villain is Grand Moff Tarkin. With Darth Vader in Empire and Jedi, the real villain is the Emperor. In Lambs, Hannibal isn’t the top villain. That title goes to Buffallo Bill.
The Comedic Villain – Seen only in comedies, these villains can be tough to get right. They must be funny, but not so funny that they aren’t threatening. I read a lot of comedy scripts where the villain is funny, but also such a goofball or so stupid that I don’t see them as a serious threat. Therefore, you have to find that perfect balance. Matt Dillon’s character in There’s Something About Mary is a great comedic villain. Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore is a great comedic villain. As much as I love Dumb and Dumber, those two villains were so bumbling that I was never scared of them, and that may have hurt the movie just a tad. One of the most surefire traits to add to a comedic villain to ensure we’ll want to see them go down is arrogance. Arrogance gets an audience riled up every time. And it just seems to mix perfectly with comedy bad guys.
The Hidden Villain – Sometimes stories dictate, due to your bad guy being a mystery, that you not reveal your villain until the third act. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to need an antagonistic force to challenge your hero in the meantime. While an antogonist can be a villain, in these cases, they’re usually not. Take The Fugitive for example. (spoiler alert!) Dr. Charles Nichols is the surprise villain in the third act. But Tommy Lee Jones’ character is the antagonist for the first two acts. It’s important that the hero always have an antagonist force pushing against him in the screenplay or else there’s no conflict. Which is why a hidden villain can be a dangerous move. However, if you substitute another antagonistic force in the meantime, you should be okay.
No Villain – I strongly discourage writing a script without a villain. But if you’re going to do it, you better have a great antagonist pushing up against your character for the entire movie. In most cases, if there is no villain in the script, the antagonist is nature. Take Castaway for example. That movie is villain-free. But it has a strong antagonist – the island. The Grey is another example. The antagonist is the weather and the wolves. Those are the forces relentlessly pushing against our characters. So sure, the no-villain approach can be done, but you better have some kick ass antagonistic nature if you’re going to pull it off.
Okay, we’ve identified the kind of villains in a script. Now it’s time to determine what actually makes a good villain? Once again, not all of these things will work all of the time and certain combinations may work in some situations while not in others. You have to assess what kind of story you’re telling and add the appropriate villainous traits.
Pompous – Like I mentioned above, a pompous character is a hated character. There’s just something about people who are full of themselves that riles us up. We NEED to see them go down. Look at Apollo Creed in Rocky. That man LOVED himself. So we were dying to see Rocky beat him.
Stronger than our hero – This is a big one. If a villain is weaker than our hero, we’ll have no doubt as to who will win in the end. That’s bad. What makes movies fun is when we think our hero has no shot because the villain is too strong. Hans Gruber in Die Hard is the perfect example. The man just oozes confidence and intelligence. You really think he has his shit together, and that makes us seriously doubt if John McClane is going to win in the end.
Intelligent – This doesn’t ALWAYS have to be the case, particularly in comedies, but I love villains who can go toe-to-toe with our hero intellectually. It creates the same effect as strength. You always fear that they just might outthink our hero. Prince Humperdink from The Princess Bride (who’s MAJORLY ARROGANT by the way) is actually a really smart guy. He looks over the battleground after the Man In Black and Inigo Montoya’s sword fight and knows exactly how it went down and which direction the Man in Black went. Smart villains are worthier villains.
Deceitful – Everybody hates deceitful people, people who go back on their promises. Therefore this is a great trait to give your villain. One of the scenes in Star Wars where our hatred for Grand Moth Tarken goes through the roof is when he asks Princess Leia where the Rebel Base is, promising he’ll spare her planet if she does. She ends up telling him, and he goes ahead and blows the planet up anyway! Or in Up. Charles Muntz pretends to be all nice and friendly to our heroes. Until his true colors come out later. We hate deceitful people!
Emotionless – Sociopaths are REALLY SCARY. Cold and collected, villains who feel no remorse for killing are as terrifying as it gets. They just have that blank emotionless look on their faces? Ugh, creeee-py! Look no further than the flagship villain for this category, Anton Chigurgh in No Country For Old Men. This dude is terrifying because he doesn’t have a single feeling bone in his body. John Doe from Seven is another one.
Motivated – Most villains only work if they have a strong motivation behind their actions. Take the T-1000 in Terminator 2 for example. He’s been programmed to come here and eradicate John Connor in order to make sure the machines win the war in the future. It’s a simple motivation, but it’s also dead solid. We understand why he’s obsessed with killing John Connor at all costs. You can certainly try writing an unmotivated villain, like The Joker in The Dark Knight, but be careful. Villains who do bad shit just to do bad shit often confuse and frustrate the reader. Also, it’s likely your villain won’t have 80 years of built-up audience awareness behind him to get an audience to go with it, such as the case is with The Joker.
Villain is strongest where hero is weakest – This is often tied into a hero’s fatal flaw, and therefore can be quite powerful if applied correctly. The idea is that whatever your hero’s flaw is – whatever his biggest weakness is – make the villain extremely powerful in that area. Take Luke Skywalker for example. His flaw is that he doesn’t believe in himself. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is the epitome of belief. He’s the most confident motherf*cker in the galaxy (buoyed by his expertise in The Force). Because Vader is so strong in the area that our hero struggles with the most, it creates a sense of doubt in whether Luke will be able to defeat him, and those situation tend to be the most compelling to watch.
Backstory – This is a choice. You don’t have to do it. But backstory adds depth to your villain, and readers/producers/agents tend to favor depth. They want some info on why your bad guy turned into a bad guy. Well, here’s my take on that. I think what they really want is to know is something about your villain before the story began. It doesn’t have to be WHY they became a bad person (i.e. daddy used to beat me when I was a kid), it can simply be fucked up pieces of that character’s past. For example, the backstory we get on Hannibal is that he tore people’s faces off and used to be a therapist who preyed on his victims. It doesn’t really tell us why he’s the way he is, but it adds depth to his character since we know more about him. I will also say this about backstory. Be careful about making your villain’s situation too sympathetic. At a certain point, if we’re sympathizing with them too much, we don’t want to see them go down. And we have to want to see the villain go down.
And there you have it! My take on how to create a great villain. However, like a lot of these articles, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface. I know you guys have some thoughts of your own on how to create great villains, so throw’em at me. If there’s anything really good, I’ll add it to the article! :)