Every story needs a great villain because without him, the hero can’t shine. He’s the force of antagonism that keeps the action moving and the reader engaged. He pokes and prods at the protagonist, forcing her to stretch, grow and change.
Stories, after all, are about change.
For change to happen, there needs to be conflict and the villain provides that. For our hero to be heroic, she has to be challenged. Someone (or something) needs to be actively working against her, throwing obstacles in her path and making her work for her objects of desire. What’s more, it’s by watching the hero face incredible odds that the reader develops empathy.
“The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized character and story must become.” (Robert McKee, Story)
As writers, we spend a lot of time developing our hero but relatively little time on the villain. As a result, we’re often unclear about who the villain is and what he wants. When that happens, the story suffers. It meanders and loses steam, and the reader loses interest. We can even forget what our story is about or why we’re telling it in the first place.
“The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story. In working out the struggle between these two characters, the larger issues and themes of the story unfold.” (John Truby, The Anatomy of Story)
There isn’t, to my knowledge, one comprehensive resource on how to create an amazing villain. However, there are books on the writing craft that reference villains in the context of other tools (plot and character development for example), and there are some incredible blog posts scattered around the internet. So until I, or someone else, gets around to writing that guide, here are three key points to remember when creating your villain:
- The villain is the hero of his own story, therefore he needs a speech.
- The villain owns the middle build.
- The villain can be external, social, internal or all of the above.
The villain is the hero of his own story, therefore he needs a speech.
The villain doesn’t think he’s a villain. In fact, he’s the hero of his own story which means that when the world is looked at from his perspective, his actions are understandable. As much as the audience might hate him, on some level they’ve got to concede that the guy makes sense. As the hero of his own story “the antagonist needs to be given a great villain speech, a moment when he or she gets to try to convince us that greed is good or that we can’t handle the truth”. (Steven Pressfield, Give Your Hero a Hero Speech)
A Few Good Men: You Can’t Handle the Truth
“I can’t judge them. I have to write them as if they’re making their case to God why they would be allowed into Heaven….There are a lot of people who get inspriation from [Colonel Jessup’s] speech because when they hear [it] they think, ‘you know what? He’s absolutely right. He has a point.’ I’ve gotta believe in that argument when I’m writing it. If [I] don’t, [I] really run the risk of having someone twirling their moustache”. (Aaron Sorkin, Masterclass)
The villain’s speech must be eloquent, logical and above all, without remorse. (Steven Pressfield, Give Your Villain a Great Villain Speech)
The villain owns the middle build.
While the antagonist is introduced in the beginning hook, that part of a story is usually dominated by the hero; who she is, what she wants and so on. Since we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and developing the protagonist the first act usually unfolds smoothly. Then we hit the middle build and the story goes south; we’re lost and can waste thousands of words trying to find the thread of the story again. Luckily, we’ve got the villain to help us out.
“Writers become so enamoured with their protagonist that they lose the fact that the protagonist is not the driving force that really keeps people reading….The thing that really keeps people glued to [the story] is the villain. It’s the force of evil.” (Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid Podcast Episode 40)
The villain forces the hero to act. In The Hunger Games, the force of antagonism (the Capitol and its representatives) is introduced in the beginning hook during the reaping. Throughout the entire middle build, the game master and other tributes pose one challenge after another. In doing so, they move the story forward and cause Katniss to take action. If it wasn’t for Snow and his cronies, there’d be no story.
The villain can be external, social, internal or all of the above.
External: These are the villians that exist on a superficial level and pose a threat to the external world. The Bond villains, comic book villains, aliens and monsters would fall into this category. These are physical beings in the material world. There may not be any reason given as to why the antagonist is behaving a certain way, and it may or may not have anything to do with the protagonist. For example, in Jaws the shark is simply looking for its next meal. It doesn’t have a personal vendetta against the people of Amity Island.
Jaws: You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat
Societal: Societal villains tend to be belief structures stemming from culture, race or class issues (to name a few). Stories that feature this brand of antagonism may, or may not, present it in physical form; that is, there may not be ‘a bad guy’. Instead, the evil can reside within a number of characters, including the protagonist. Examples include The Way We Were, Get Out and Pride and Prejudice. Darcy and Elizabeth are kept apart because of society’s belief in the class system, and about people who live in each class. Elizabeth’s prejudice and Darcy’s pride are manifestations of this belief, but it also exists in every other character in the novel.
Pride and Prejudice: Darcy’s First Proposal
Internal: As the name suggests, with these stories the force of antagonism exists within the protagonist. It’s the hero’s own fear, anxiety, obsession or doubt (etc) that is keeping him from reaching his objects of desire. In Silver Linings Playbook, the internal villain is Pat’s obsession with reuniting with Nikki. Writers face this villain every day in the form or Resistance; we’ve convinced ourselves that writing is tortorous, we’re afraid of failing or of succeeding, or … the list goes on.
“The archetype known as the Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected apsects of something. Often it’s the home of the suppressed monsters of our inner world. Shadows can be all things we don’t like about ourselves, all the dark secrets we can’t admit, even to ourselves. The qualities we have renounced and tried to root out still lurk within operating in the Shadow world of the unconscious.” (Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey)
Steven Pressfield argues that Every Villain is a Metaphor for Resistance. If you read the article you’ll see that what he’s talking about is the human condition and J.K. Rowling tackled this same issue brilliantly in the Harry Potter series. She explains the human condition in a way that young audiences can easily understand. It just so happens to also be an easy way for writers to understand the internal villain.
Harry is dealing with a level of anger and teenage angst that is off the charts and he doesn’t know why. The reason, he finds out later, is that he’s a horcrux. Voldemort has hidden a bit of his villanous soul within the hero. So, in the series, the villain is literally internal. However, no protagonist – and no person – is wholly pure. There is a little darkness inside each of us.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Light and Dark
All Of The Above
If you really want to create a villain that will knock people’s socks off, make him a combination of all of the above; external, societal and internal. That’s what Bram Stoker did when he created Dracula. To be clear, the character from the novel is not the character from the films. Bela Lugosi’s portrayal certainly contributed to the longevity of the Prince of Darkness, but it’s a heavily sanitized version of the disturbing creature Stoker dreamed up.
As a vampire, Dracula is a classic supernatural monster. On the external level, he attacks his victims at random and like the great white shark in Jaws, seems to be cruising for his next meal. Lugosi’s character, indeed most movie versions of Dracula, keep the villain on this external level only and it works incredibly well.
However, when we look at Dracula as a societal and internal villain, he gets truly interesting. Dracula, like many vampire novels that followed, is a book about sex and sexuality. Any intimate relationship that is not between one man and one woman is presented as evil. (Given that the novel was written during the Victorian Era, the entire topic is handled through metaphor and subtext.) Dracula’s desires don’t recognize the accepted norms of the day. He goes after whomever he wants, whenever he wants them, be it a man, a woman, or a man and woman together. Dracula then, who personifies everything outside society’s narrow definition of acceptable behavior, is evil.
When Jonathan Harker enters his world, he his horrified to discover that he enjoys his experience with three women at once. If you’ve read the novel all the way to the end, you’ll have noticed that he explores his sexuality a second time in a menage with Dracula and his wife, Mina. This is pretty racy stuff and is well outside acceptable practices for the day. Harker began as a man engaged to a respectable woman as society dictated, but his stay in Transylvania and the revelation of his deepest desires, causes him to have a nervous breakdown. Dracula represents everything Harker comes to loathe about himself; he is the physical manifestation of Harker’s inner demon and shadow self.
Since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) is the closest film adaptation to the novel (close being a relative term), I wanted to include a clip or two to illustrate my points above, but they’re nowhere near G-Rated. So instead, I’ll leave you with this excellent study of villains (The Joker in The Dark Knight) prepared by Lessons from the Screenplay.
Creating the Ultimate Antagonist
How do you create the villain(s) in your book(s)? I’d love for you to let me know in the comments below.