Learn how to write villains that are so bad they’re good.
Villains, bad guys, black hats — whatever you call these characters, they’re an essential part of telling a good story. In fact, these days a well-written villain can become so popular that they might just end up getting their own solo movie or series spinoff, like Joker, Harley Quinn, Maleficent, and Cruella.
So, whether you are writing a sports movie where your hero has to compete against a nasty opponent, fight hard to win over their love interest from a less worthy suitor, or conquer a hoard of blood-thirsty celestial monsters, it’s your job to make sure your villains are not only good at being bad but also good at keeping audiences engaged.
How do we make sure our villains are complex, exciting, worthy opponents of our protagonists? Here are a few tips.
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Make Sure They Have a Clear Worldview
It doesn’t matter how distorted their worldview is, actually, the more twisted their way of thinking, the easier it gets to justify the bad deeds they may do over the course of the story. Nobody walks around thinking they are the villain of their own story.
Also, when you are figuring out what their worldview is, make sure it’s the direct opposite of whatever your protagonist believes in. That will make for great conflict and the audience will root for the villain’s demise.
Imagine the Story From Their Point of View
As writers, we spend so much time crafting the protagonist, our hero, and making sure we know who they are and what they want, but make sure you do the same for your villain.
Make sure you spend some time in your antagonist’s shoes and see if you can understand who they are and what makes them tick. I love asking myself the following question: what would this story be like if the antagonist was the one telling it? I often end up using discoveries I make this way in my own stories.
Villains are People Too
Unless your villain is an alien creature or some unseen monster or force, remember they are human beings with weaknesses, as well as good qualities. We all mean different things to different people. Even if your villain is the most despicable character you can think of, I’m sure at some point somebody loved them. The more life-like you make your villain, the more the audience will invest in them.
Bottom line: your protagonist should be flawed and your villain should have some positive qualities. The best villains often have some aspects of the hero. They can be a cautionary tale for the protagonist; the person they could become if they had made different life choices or be the other end of the spectrum — the direct opposite.
Opposing Goals Will Generate Great Conflict
Make sure your protagonist and antagonist have opposing goals as well as worldviews. More often than not, a good villain will not be afraid to get their hands dirty and do unspeakable things to achieve their goals. The way the hero and villain approach goals will reveal a lot about their personalities, and your villain should stop at nothing to achieve theirs. The hero is the one we often see making tough calls and sacrificing themselves to save others.
Embrace Your Own Flaws
Don’t be afraid to tap into some of the most shameful parts of your own personality when crafting a great villain. Most of us go to great lengths to avoid shame and to hide certain weaknesses and other aspects of our personality and your villain is no different.
So, tap into some of your own personal pain and use that to create a nuanced character. The more human you make your villain, the more we will love to hate them.
Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.