LESSON Creating a believable and effective villain or antagonist

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Anyone who has ever watched the old movies where the villain is standing over his victim with the long mustache twirling it gleefully in his long spindly fingers while he discloses his entire meaning of life, knows a bad villain when they see one. It's not hard to understand why screenwriters especially tend to love the villain monologue for plot disclosure and fill in since the villain gets less screen time, and therefore has to spout out his whole evil plot while a speeding train gets closer and closer to our beloved hero tied to the tracks.

However, no real person would ever behave in such a manner. They would not tell their plan, they would DO IT. The main problem most people have when creating a villain, whether it be for a book, the screen, or a role play is that they forget their villain is a person. They have feelings, motivations, pasts, and guess what? They even have good qualities as well as the bad. They may even be a great husband and father while being a merciless assassin by night. So, how can your villain be real, and dare I suggest likable in some fashion?

Remember first and foremost, that you are going to have to realize the world from their perspective, and take your audience along on that experience.


1) Give your villain a personality that is in some way likable. No person is all evil, or all good. Just as it is important to give your hero some less than savory qualities, it is equally important to allow your villain to love his dog, or his brother, or have some other admirable trait. Making them hated is not as difficult, so in the effort to give them a side that the audience can relate to, do not lose sight of the fact that you want this villain to be hated as well.

There is a fine balance between what the character is doing, and sympathizing with them and caring about them. You need to give the audience enough to create that balance within their mind. A man who murders prostitutes and cuts out their hearts to keep in boxes is distasteful, but if you balance that with a young boy growing up watching his mother sell herself to put food on the table for him, you can understand his motivation to free the women from the life they live.


2) Give them motivation that has a direct link to their past. Keep in mind that your villain does not want to be good. They do what they do because they WANT to do it. They are not going to magically become a hero and save the damsel in distress. Also I should note here, if your villain happens to do something good, you need to have a reason for it that will logically flow back to their underlying motivations. If not, your audience will become confused and lose interest.

It is important to know your villain with equal clarity and depth as your hero. Making a cloudy, mysteriously vague person that has no real flesh will not only frustrate the audience, it will make maintaining a steady character nearly impossible. Know what matters to them, what they fear, what they love, who they love and who they hate.


3) Give them an attainable goal. WORLD DOMINATION is the age old villainous motivation. No one has ever achieved it, and so it is impossible for an audience to imagine it as a rational goal. Be specific, and detailed. I can hear groaning before I speak, but have an outline. No one achieves a pinnacle without climbing a few stairs. have the goal, and then logically think through the steps that would be necessary to bring it to fruition.

For example, if your villain is trying to get revenge one someone who swindled their parents out of their farm to build a megamall, how would they destroy that type of empire? They might start by creating bad publicity, making the mall seem unsafe through a series of robberies or attacks, or they might begin a silent method of discovering the assets of the individual and one by one taking them over. Whatever the goal, there must be a reason for it and a way to get it done.


4) Give them inner conflict. Again no one is all good or all bad. Villains should experience some form of conflict, whether it is morally, physically, or emotionally. The benefit of inner conflict is that spirit of tension that is created in the audience's mind. What will he or she do? When will they do it? Will they do it? That sense of impending doom, or dread should be like a fine razor's edge, useful when angled properly but deadly when not.

Your villain is say a family man with beautiful children, who is contracted to kill and entire family. He stands over them and sees the sleeping faces of the children and feels suddenly emotionally torn even though he does as he is being paid to do, he would return home and cling to his own children. The emotional battle makes the villain relatable and gives the audience something to identify with and possibly even empathize with as well.

Villains are rarely the focus of an entire story, but they are often the driving force behind the growth of a hero. or even the creation of an unlikely one.​
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