How to Write a Great Villain!

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Last month, I gave a few tips on how to write a compelling protagonist.  This month, I’d like to focus on your Antagonist, or villain.  Having a great “bad guy” (or gal) is part of what makes a great story, whether Grendel in Beowulf, or Darth Vader!

It has to be said that your antagonist must first stand in opposition to your protagonist.  It’s this yin/yang relationship that is the main conflict within your story.  Stories thrive on conflict.  Without conflict, there really is no story.  So your antagonist must be the one character who firmly stands in the way of your protagonist.

But what really makes a memorable antagonist?  First, they have to be much more powerful than the protagonist.  If your “bad guy” is too easy to overcome, then there really isn’t any conflict.  And that makes for a boring story.  Most writers already know this, but it’s always good to review the basics as a check-up on your characters.  Sometimes we get so wrapped up on writing plot that we forget to “power up” our villains.

Video games do this really well.  If you’ve played the old “Super Mario Brothers” Nintendo game, then you’re familiar with level bosses and the big baddie at the end, Bowser.  Every confrontation and win over the level bosses gets harder and harder till the final conflict.  A good story does this too, not necessarily with level bosses, but with greater and greater obstacles that put your protagonist on a collision course with the villain.

The funny thing about villains, in their own minds, they are the hero of their own story.  If you approach writing your baddies with this attitude, it helps you to give them multiple layers and dimensions to their character, making them more interesting.

If you’re writing a traditional tale, then most likely you want your villain to be the personification (or “monsterfication”) of evil.  With a pure-good protagonist, the antagonist that best stands opposite is a purely evil one.  Dorothy vs. the Wicked Witch of the West is probably the best example.  If I was writing this article in 1977 I would also offer Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader as an example, but as we all know now, that relationship is “complicated”.

Complex villains are much more interesting to us.  They show us a character that is more like ourselves and we can even see how we could fall down that path.  With Darth Vader, we have probably the most famous villain in cinema history.  From a basic “bad guy” in the original movie, George Lucas then used the next two sequels of the original trilogy to reveal that not only was he Luke’s father, but it hinted at his original fall from grace that was then explored in the prequels.  Vader went from being one dimensional to a flawed character that still had good in him, and the first three movies (chronologically) showed his eventual redemption.

But even when Vader was just a pure baddie, George Lucas made him very compelling.  His masked visage and black life support suit, with his trademark breathing was both intimidating and very cool.  So when writing a villain, giving them a physicality that clearly positions them as the antagonist is a great technique.  This works really good (and is probably a requirement) in horror stories.  Whether the Tim Curry or Bill Skarsgard version of Pennywise, both clowns are the fuel of nightmares. (Especially for those of us who were terrified of clowns as kids!)

Alternatively, you may be writing a story that isn’t pure fantasy.  In that case, there are other techniques you can use.  Giving your villain super intelligence, immense resources or political power is another way to make them a daunting obstacle for your protagonist.  Blofeld in the James Bond franchise is such a bad guy (which was parodied brilliantly in the “Austin Powers” movies).  

Using my own CYBER FIGHTER as an example, we have Lau Xiaoming, Hong Kong Triad crime boss and scientist/engineer who has infiltrated the Chinese government to manifest his plan for world domination that he calls “Project Starfish”.  (You gotta read my book to learn all about it!) 

When I was writing this villain, I knew that I needed to make him the ultimate challenge for Brian Baldwin.  So not only did I write him with an unbelievable fighting arsenal, but I gave him the super intelligence to put him five moves ahead of the good guys.  Like facing a chess master, Xiaoming was going to be the ultimate baddie.

But this story has a comedic kick to it, and I wanted to have some fun with him and not make him a stereotype or cliche.  So I infused him with my own love of old-school Hip Hop, revealing his secret desire to be a rap star in the vein of Eminem.  He conducts his evil activities with gleeful seasoning of rap quotes, dance moves, and even a nod to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”  He’s a sociopath that truly gets a kick out of his own antics.  It makes for a fun baddie that’s more like Dr. Evil than Dr. Lecter.  Again, it’s all in my book CYBER FIGHTER.

So, it is okay to write a villain that your audience will like.  Not every baddie has to be a complete sociopath with no redeeming qualities.  Real life is complicated.  I once went to a SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors’ union in the USA) event where the actor Richard Dreyfuss was the guest.  He had just recently portrayed Bernie Madoff in a critically acclaimed TV production, and was asked how he was able to portray such a reviled person.  Richard stated (and I’m paraphrasing) that “we all have the potential for both tremendous good and horrible evil within ourselves”. As an actor, we frequently have to tap into those parts of our personalities to play a character honestly.  As a writer, it’s much more interesting to a reader to have a complex character, even if they are the “bad guy”.

I hope these thoughts have given you some ideas on how to craft your antagonists.  A great antagonist will surely be a memorable one!