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April 26, 2013
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A good friend of mine asked me recently to review a screenplay he's working on. It's an excellent piece, an action-packed sci-fi/fantasy with a very compelling protagonist. Overall I'm a tad jealous of his ability to create a completely new world and have the script read in such a way that I can actually see the potential film in my head.

There was just one problem, though. His villain (or villains, rather) fell a bit flat.

My writing mentor once told me the following: Your hero is only as good as your villain. Now, she didn't mean that your villain has to be good in the sense of being redeemable or even sympathetic (though sympathetic villains are my personal favorite). She was, instead, referring to the idea that no matter how fantastically 3-dimensional your hero is, if your villain is just a 2-dimensional bad guy, it's your hero who suffers.

Let me use the examples of two films from the Marvel Universe to further expound on this point. (I'm going to go in the reverse order of their release dates.) First, there's Captain America. Chris Evans did a fantastic job of portraying a real life Steve Rogers. His backstory was moving: a young man who desperately wants to do the honorable thing and serve his country, but is too sickly to do so. But does he give up? No. And even when he's granted abilities beyond his wildest imagination, he remains humble. Normally such do-gooders tend to put an audience off, but the combination of good writing, directing, and acting created magic with this character.

Unfortunately, I found myself somewhat apathetic about Captain America not because his rendering into live-action was badly done, but because his villain's was. Johann Schmidt or "Red Skull" played by Hugo Weaving was a character that felt more like your stock bad guy rather than a real, flesh-out character. I blame the writers for this, as this wasn't Hugo Weaving's first pass at portraying the antagonist. (He did a spectacular job in the Matrix films.) Because Red Skull came off as merely a bad guy for the hero to defeat, I was rather ambivalent about the whole story arc of the film. It wasn't that I didn't want Red Skull defeated, it was that I really just didn't care.

And because I didn't care all that much about the villain getting defeated, then Steve Roger's character arc became less meaningful.

There were, of course, other stellar moments in the film, and being the geek I am, I still thought it pretty entertaining. But I have also not seen the film more than once.

Now, contrast that to Thor. After seeing the film, for a long time I alternated on whether to give it four or five stars (per the Netflix rating system). The sole reason for my waffling was actually the character arc for Thor himself. (I'm a cynical anti-romantic at heart, despite what I write in fanfic, and was a bit put off by how whirlwind his romance was with Jane Foster. I actually felt the romance wasn't really necessary at all--but on consecutive viewings, I've reconsidered my feelings on that point.) Thor is a great protagonist, and Chris Hemsworth is a spectacular actor, but he lacks the same kind of moving backstory that Steve Rogers has. In fact, Thor's change from arrogant, spoiled immortal prince to a humble man willing to die for inferior Midgardians in a matter of three days seems a bit unbelievable at face value.

Simply put, comparing only the heroes from the two films, Steve Rogers is actually a bit more compelling. In fact, if you look at The Avengers, Captain America still has the more meaningful character development than Thor, from his adjustment to modern society to his sense of betrayal by SHIELD for attempting to use the tessaract to create weapons just as Hydra had during his time. On the other hand, aside from his interactions with his wayward brother, Thor does come off as a rather arrogant "this is an internal matter, so back off" demi-god.

And yet, Thor is my favorite superhero of the two. Because with Thor comes Loki, arguably one of the best sympathetic villains of all time. In a single film, we watch him transition from trickster to a power hungry nemesis willing to kill the man raised as his brother. You experience his betrayal at discovering he isn't who he thinks he is (and not only is he adopted, but he's one of the very monsters who the Asgardians fight against) and you can believe that he could, driven mad by that betrayal, become that "crazy as a bag of cats" psychotic murderer he is by The Avengers.

The character of Thor is magnified because Loki is such a rounded out villain. I mentioned Thor's miraculous turn around in just three days as being a bit unbelievable on paper. But it's absolutely believable because Loki had a similar turn around (only in the opposite manner) in the same period of time--and Loki's change was authentic. In fact, I'd say the pivotal moment for Thor's change came when Loki visited him while he was being held by SHIELD. It was Loki's lies, told under the guise of false sympathy, which broke Thor completely, that made the blond Norse god finally humble enough to understand what Odin had been trying to teach him. Sure, Jane Foster was there to help pick up the pieces, but it was Loki who ultimately changed Thor--a change that continues to solidify by Thor's various interactions with Loki throughout the rest of the film.

That's what a good villain or antagonist does. They don't solely exist as some foe for our heroes to vanquish. A villain is meant to challenge the hero, to push that protagonist beyond his limits and discover who he truly is.

You might think I'm unfairly comparing Loki and Red Skull as they are clearly different types of villains. Loki is a sympathetic; he doesn't start off bad (just a bit naughty by nature), but circumstances propel him to make choices which ultimately land him in the real bad guy category. Red Skull is very much a sociopath who we ought to love to hate. Looking at the two very different antagonists, of course Loki wins the better villain award.

But let's bring up other sociopathic/psychotic foes and see how Red Skull stands up next to them. Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs, anyone? (Even the new television series version of him is fantastically disquieting.) How about the Joker from The Dark Knight? Or perhaps Moriarty from Sherlock? Sylar from the first couple of seasons of Heroes (before the writers got wonky and turned him into a hero, then a sympathetic villain--messing up the awesome evil he was)? There are plenty of straight-up evil villains to compare Red Skull to, and it's sadly like comparing Michaelangelo's David to a stick figure drawing.

Villain problems come in literature as well, even in stories that aren't the typical good versus bad scenarios. Sometimes your main character only faces a harrowing situation rather than going head to head with evil personified. The same rules apply, however, if you want your readers to truly root for your protagonist. What your character goes up against must be believable, must be challenging (extra points if it challenges your character's core beliefs about him or herself and/or the world around them), and must not be easily conquered, or else your hero, too, will become flat.

I know there are people who have a hard time getting into the head space of a bad guy, and admittedly, it's a very, very dark place to go. But if you are burning with a desire to write an engaging good versus evil tale, going to that dark place is not just a suggestion, but a requirement. Even if you write solely from the POV of your protagonist, as the writer, you still need to know your villain inside and out. Is he a sociopath, utterly cognizant of the evil he wishes to unleash on the world--or at least your hero? Is she the kind of villain who believes what she does is ultimately in the best interest of others (or herself), no matter the carnage she leaves in her wake? Is he a villain by circumstance--by a series of events which led him to becoming the bad guy? Is your villain a combination of all?

When you know your villain or antagonist, then you better know your hero.
Compelling stories, especially good vs. evil tales, require an excellent villain. I attempt to explain why it matters.

This is not a step-by-step guide on how to create and write fleshed-out villains, but rather a discussion on how your villain can make or break your story.

Other writing tutorials by moi:

How to Alienate Your Readers in 12 Easy StepsWARNING: There be snark ahead.
Disclaimer: These steps assume that you have an intriguing premise for your story. If your premise is boring, overdone or just plain pointless, then you needn't bother with the following advice. You've already successfully alienated readers. Congratulations!
1. Grammar? Spelling? Ha! Who needs it?
     Okay, so it's fanfiction. I mean, fanfiction for crying out loud. Why should grammar matter, right? because, srsly, its like noone expects this tobe the next great american novel or anything like that, i mean i'm just, writing a story about characters from a movie or tv show or whatever and my plot is super good so ppl will totally love it and not care if i mispel a word or something and who cares about comas or semicolons or stuff like that;and i no the readers will leave me lots and lots of awesome reviews cuz my story is badass take that bitches!!1!
2. The full page paragraph total
Bad Boys (Girls) in Love with Good Girls (Boys)How to Write Non-Dark Romance With Your Favorite Sympathetic Baddie and Hero(ine)
(AKA How to Redeem—kinda, sorta—the Villain Without Losing Their Fun Side)
I have a weakness and it’s “Sympathetic Villain x Hero(ine)” ships. Gets me every single time. Heck, they don’t even have to meet face to face, and nine times out of ten, I’m shipping them. There’s probably something deeply wrong with me, but my therapist seems to think I’m doing okay, so we’ll go with that.
As an avid connoisseur of controversial pairings like that, I’ve read a lot of fanfic over the years—a lot. And I’ve noticed certain trends in stories featuring the baddie falling for the good one. I speak mainly of the frustrating trope where the villain repents of all wrong-doing, makes restitution, and becomes a paragon of virtue—to varying degrees.
I get it. You’re looking at the bad guy and you wonde
  Basics: Paragraph Breaks in DialogueA new paragraph is required for each character's dialogue (and by extension, if there is internal exposition without a verbal response). And sometimes, even dialogue from the same character needs to be separated by a paragraph break.
Example (of all):
"I can see how you might consider that an impediment to our relationship." His tone was absurdly calm. Didn’t he understand that he had just signed his own death warrant?
"You’re mad!" she hissed.
"No," he returned with a humorless laugh. "That would be much simpler."
She shook her head, unable to come up with a response to equal this brand of insanity.
"I did kill him." The chair creaked as he leaned forward, his expression falling flat. "I killed a traitor."
"What?" She could not begin to fathom what story he would weave with this circuitous logic.
Tom sighed again. “I had hoped to have this conversation in a less…awkward setting.” He lifted his hands, rattling the shackles on his wrists. “Candlelit
  Basics: Your Narrative VoiceWhen I took my first serious steps on this wild and challenging journey called Writing, I was one hundred percent confident as to what kind of author I was going to be (if not entirely certain yet that I had the chops to do it). I was a sci-fi writer with visions of epic space battles and imaginative alien species. Action/Adventure, here I come! (Romance? Meh. Pass.) All told in the narration of third person limited, deep character point of view—past tense, thank you very much.
Ah, what wondrous, naïve times those were.
I believed that I had to find my One True Style and One True Genre before I became a real author because that’s what all the published writers I loved seemed to have: a niche. And I tried my very best to find mine. Oh, I was so diligent in sticking with my original plan!
And then I had a fit of whimsy and wrote a parody. Just a nothing little thing. I thought the urge to deviate from my carved-out section in the world of ficti
  Basics: Paragraph StructureI love North & South. It’s one of my all-time favorite classic novels (and yes, Richard Armitage in the BBC adaptation is yummy). I love that it’s not only a romance, but an eye-opening social commentary of the industrial age in England. Mad props to Elizabeth Gaskell for producing a mini-epic which has stood the test of time.
What I don’t love about North & South, however, is the odd mega-long paragraph every couple of chapters. My little eyeballs has a hard time keeping up with the narration without the much needed breaks.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, has been attributed with the quote: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” He’s not wrong. Writers need more than a grasp of grammar, characterization, and plotting. There silent details to consider as well which, if overlooked, could trip up your readers. And if your readers stumble too many times, they will back away from the story for good. Eve
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:iconfizzsoda:
FizzSoda Featured By Owner Jun 12, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
When reading a story I find it much more exciting to root for the Antagonist. I love stories that give the villain a compelling reason for their crimes.The stories that make the villain a man or woman you can truly sympathize with if you were to try to step into their shoes.
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:iconstartraveller776:
startraveller776 Featured By Owner Jun 12, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I absolutely agree.
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:iconorgetzu:
Orgetzu Featured By Owner Feb 19, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
After reading this, I realized just how very true it was. If only I had found it sooner. So far, I haven't written much of my own stories, and they don't really involve very villainous characters as of yet, but maybe that's for the best. And I agree completely. Villains can't be just flat and just... villainy. They need to actually BE something. It's like building your hero up for something great, so they have this cool spaceship, and went and got all these cool powers and gadgets, only to end up with their villain as some guy who just runs around insulting people. Flat villains are just like that. They run around trying to rule the world or kill people or something, but... why? Even just wanting to make the protagonist unhappy is a good enough reason to be a villain. But you might as well just have your hero destroy a gun or a knife or something if your bad guy isn't going to actually be something. Well, that's just my opinion, anyway. As per the usual response, thanks for taking the time to write it, it was really informative, thought provoking, and all that good stuff. =)
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:iconstartraveller776:
startraveller776 Featured By Owner Feb 20, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you so much! (And thank you for the favorite on this and my other tutorial.)

I think the easiest way to write a good villain is to remember that they are people first and foremost--with likes, dislikes, favorite things, etc. Even the type of villains we love to hate are like that.
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:iconorgetzu:
Orgetzu Featured By Owner Feb 20, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
You're very welcome. I stumbled across them by accident, but I'm glad I did. They were nice and informative, and not too short, and not too long. And they stuck to the point. =)
I agree completely. If a villain is bad for the sake of being bad, it kinda ruins it. That's the problem I have with so many stories I read. It's all fine with the build up and everything, but then suddenly...! Insert stupid failure cheesy bad guy here. And just like that, the story is a flop. The other major problem I have with bad guys. Their motivation. With some, it's fine, and others, not so much. For example, the typical bad guy wants to get rich or rule the world. But to what end? They don't know what to do once they rule the world. Whereas some are a bit more developed, and generally, want to "save the world by destroying the world," or something along those lines. Maybe you could even make a good guide for villainous goals that can actually make them seem like somebody. A lot of people tend to fail at the category (in my experience with storylines, at least). =)
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:iconthespitfirespirit:
TheSpitfireSpirit Featured By Owner Dec 12, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
To be honest, I love villains so much more than heroes, because I can relate to them. I have so much more in common with the misguided or self-centered psychopaths than the goody-two-shoes heroes. I tend to find heroes to be too good. Too perfect. It's sickening.
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:iconstartraveller776:
startraveller776 Featured By Owner Dec 23, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I love villains because they are fascinating. Especially when you look at them with the idea that they are people, first and foremost, not just some force of evil that needs to be vanquished. They have likes and dislikes. Food aversions. Favorite books. Things that make them laugh. Things that make them cry. (Or some close proximity.) And my favorite kind of baddie is the one who ended up on this path due to unforeseen circumstances--who started off a kid like everyone else, with hopes and dreams, and somehow something went horribly wrong in their lives.

I think, too, that writers (either screenplay, novel, or comic) suffer from making the hero too perfect--just as they make the villain too 2-dimensional. The best heroes have faults. The best heroes make mistakes. I think RDJ's Tony Stark/Iron Man is probably a great example of a fleshed-out real human being who just happened to fall into the role of hero. I think the latest incarnation of Superman was a huge leap toward making Clark Kent real. I love antiheroes the best, personally. People who do the right things for the wrong reasons--or the wrong things for the right reasons. (Loki played the antihero in Thor: The Dark World.)

Anyway, I could go on ad nauseum. Thanks for the fantastic discussion!
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:iconthespitfirespirit:
TheSpitfireSpirit Featured By Owner Dec 23, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I agree with all of your points completely!
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:iconthaleiafantasy:
ThaleiaFantasy Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2013  Student Filmographer
Excellent. :J
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:iconstartraveller776:
startraveller776 Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you! And thank you for the :+fav:. :iconiloveitplz:
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