So You Want To/Write a Villain
Without the Lex Luthors of the world, the Supermen have pointless quests. Without the Jokers of the world, the Batmen have no real threat. Without a good villain, the story just falls flat. So step by step, we'll learn how to create a good villain.
One thing that bugs people about villains are the kind that are completely without coherent motivation, goals, or personality. The reason they're spreading destruction and misery is because...you know, they're evil! This is why a backstory should probably be in place, although it doesn't always have to be. Their backstory doesn't have to be revealed at the very start of their appearance, but it can also impact the story to know why they are doing this.
"To be evil" is a pretty pathetic goal, unless it's a kid's cartoon, or the villain is an Eldritch Abomination in a Cosmic Horror Story. He needs to have some sort of motivation. "Taking over the world" and "Getting rich" are also fairly one-dimensional motivations. Some of the best villains are Anti-Villains; The Hero can't let them do what they're doing, but he can understand why they're doing it. Some good examples of these are from the tropes Well-Intentioned Extremist, Knight Templar, My Country, Right or Wrong, and A Hero to His Hometown.
The truly great villain is one who talks sense.—Ben Croshaw, Zero Punctuation
Continuing with some of the points mentioned in the above paragraph, if you have a villain going against society's norms, then it should better be for a good reason. Making them an individual or his/her group that has been wronged in some way (e.g. Jerkass Woobie) is a good way of showing that they are people who have some good intention even if their methods are wrong and are not just being antagonistic because they are arseholes. Occasionally, the villain might not even be villainous to begin with, just on the wrong side.
While no one is wholly good or evil, there are a small fringe of people who just want to see the world burn. This is what this section is about. When making a character who is not suppose to receive sympathy, the best way is to present them as having an ideology that can make rationalizing excessive self-centrism acceptable (e.g. Nihilism and/or Misanthropy are good examples). Depending on which end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, how society is operates or is portrayed (e.g. Is it Corrupt? Hostile?) will also play some part in how they regard their sociopathic tendencies as being reasonable. Be weary about associating an unsympathetic villain with whatever thing you don't like however, because it isn't justified to claim that anyone who associates with said thing is automatically evil.
Let's face it; sometimes, a villain could only be less subtle if he was constantly banging cymbals on people's heads. This is why a little subtlety goes a long way. Never upright say "He's a villain because of his obvious appearance and the fact that he kicks puppies off of the street every day!"
Straw Man Has a Point Is In Play[edit | hide]
Sometimes, the director wants you to know that this strawman is evil, but makes the arguments that the villain points out actually reasonable. If the villain thinks that the giant monster will destroy the city, there will actually be a reason for his belief. If he thinks that the convicted criminals that hold UAV drones in their weapon cache and shoot RPGs at people randomly are a problem, that can actually work. Follow this rule: if the audience understands the desire, the villain has a point, and thus, is not that much of a villain when people think about it.
At the same time, a villain with a valid point can be a great way to make a sympathetic villain likable or to make the story's morality a bit less black-and-white. Problems occur when your supposedly unsympathetic strawman villain makes claims that are supposed to be wrong, but actually resonate with the audience.
- We're not here to make the protagonist a villain, we're here to make a good villain a good villain, which won't work if the hero decides to horribly torture and disfigure innocent people for interrogation, while all the villain has done is kidnap someone. Let's face it, would you root for that hero at that moment? Unless your intended goal is to make a Grey and Gray Morality system, villains are villains, not the people we are rooting for.
Let's say you have made a movie where the hero is a psychotic, but boring and undeveloped fellow who has to defeat a hammy, fun, cool, and overall more characterized villain. If the audience wants more of the villain, you're doing it wrong. The villain isn't the subject of character, the protagonists are.