To listen to the audio version of this article, download Episode 13 of the Story Punch podcast. This article is a heavily expanded version of an older Story Punch article.
A hero is only as interesting as their primary villain. Why is that? I think it is because a good villain is the litmus test for any aspiring hero. If you stop to think about it, heroes are a reactionary force. It’s in their nature. They see evil and they step in to stop it. But it is always the villain that drives the plot forward. The villain comes up with their plan and the hero struggles to prevent it from happening. The villains acts, the hero reacts.
In many stories, the villain is the protagonist moving things forward while the hero is an antagonist trying to slow things down. But this creates a problem.
If you don’t have a compelling villain, you probably won’t have a compelling story. If you mess up this part, if there is no real threat, if all you have is an ineffective toothless villain, nothing the hero does will matter anyway.
This is perhaps the biggest problem we see in comic book movies today. The villains are blandly evil, predictably stupid, and never feel like a real threat. They are simply another hurdle to climb when they should be an impenetrable wall. They should be not just evil, but cruel. Not just menacing, but calculating. The villain should not simply oppose the hero, they should oppose everything the hero stands for by offering an alternative perspective on the world.
THEIR PLAN SHOULD ACTUALLY MAKE SENSE FROM A WARPED PERSPECTIVE
A good villain is thorough, logical, precise. They know when to strike and where it will hurt the most. They not only have a goal, but they know the best way to accomplish it. But not only that, they somehow represent different shades of evil. Not just one generic kind of evil, but a multifaceted complicated evil. If you’re too evil, you’re just a monster. But the best kind of villains are the ones that actually have a deeper moral purpose behind what they are doing.
They think what they are doing is reasonable, necessary, and justifiable. Their actions are logical, even if it is a rather twisted logic. But at some point, you should have to stop and think, wait what if the villain is right? What if this is the only way? Part of the hero’s journey should include a point where they actually wonder if the villain is right. Maybe their plan isn’t all bad and could even result in some good. Even though ultimately we might reject their methods, the villain should still make a really good point about the world and the way it works.
Let’s pick apart one example, General Zod from Man of Steel. Some parts of Zod’s character work pretty well, but other parts don’t at all. Zod has a mission to protect Krypton. It is his guiding force and under normal circumstances, we would agree. That’s a good mission. Protect your race. Save your people. But instead of keeping Zod in between good and evil, he immediatley falls into the villain camp right away. Unfortunately, I don’t think Zod quite passes the great villain test. How can I possibly sympathize with a villain who cherishes his people dearly, offers an olive branch to Kal-El, and at the same time is happy to wipe out another planet of people in the process of rebuilding his own? As one of the few survivors of a planet that was wiped out, how could he not see that he is duplicating the same pain and suffering he has himself experienced?
He does everything “for his people” but he will kill all the humans in the process? It feels inconsistent. It’s a strange mix of compassion and psychotic ruthlessness that doesn’t quite work. When Zod’s terraforming plan is defeated, instead surrendering or figuring out some other way to deal with it, Zod goes on a rampage targeting innocent civilians. He’s like the bully at school who beats up smaller kids just because he can’t get what he wants. It is warrior DNA? Is it is a psychotic break? I couldn’t tell you.
But let’s imagine a scenario where Zod was on the same team as Jor-El back on Krypton. They work together as colleagues and friends to try to save Krypton, but ultimately fail. Instead of Zod leading a military coup he watches his people be wiped out because he didn’t try hard enough. He showed too much restraint before. So the next time he has the chance he is doubly motivated. To do what he and Jor-El couldn’t the first time but this time by any means necessary. When I close my eyes I see a Zod who is a tragic figure, a man who has lost everything, and is trying to make up for his past failures.
His plan needs to make sense. It can’t be just convenient to destroy Earth in the process. There has to be a logical reason. The Kryptonians made a big deal over the fact that they did not possess a sense of morality and it gave them an evolutionary advantage. But that is dumb. Morality and caring for others is an advantage, one specifically shared by all mammals who raise their young. We are better off together.
I want to see a General Zod who sees the problems on earth and decides that they are the same things that led to the destruction on Krypton. Instead of having Zod bring genocide, he should bring a global dictatorship. An universal vision for peace and harmony. He doesn’t want to destroy everybody. He wants to rule them because he doesn’t think they are able to.
Humans would never agree with terraforming the planet for Krypton and wiping out us in the process. But they might go for world peace. A vaccine that can cure cancer. Renewable clean energy. They might even sell their planet to Zod for unlimited data and faster wifi. Who knows?
Of course a global dictatorship would not be easy or ethical. Superman would have plenty of reason to prevent Zod from forcing the whole world until his control. There is still a way to get lots of drama and turn Zod into a true villain. But destroying the human race right off the bat? It’s just not logical or sympathetic. It turns Zod into an angry genocidal psychopath.
That’s not a great villain. That’s a shortcut.
One of the best villains in recent memory is Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Now here is a villain whose plan makes perfect sense. In fact, Caesar, the leader of the apes, is actually far too trusting of the humans and if it were up to him alone, his people might have been wiped out in a surprise attack.
Koba does not trust the humans. He firmly believes that Caesar is endangering the whole colony by working with the humans. But the thing is, Koba is right. The humans are pretty dangerous and untrustworthy. They have a stockpile of machine guns, tanks, rocket launcers, and they are ready to strike.
Yet Koba is still the villain. Why? Because of his methods. He tries to assassinate Caesar. He starts a war on the humans. He locks up any apes that disagree with him. And he executes anyone who stand in his way.
Even though war was a possibility, it was never inevitable. Koba took matters into his own hands and compromised the most sacred values of the apes. Apes do not kill other apes. That is what separates them from the rest of the animals. Those moral principles. And Koba violated them.
Was he right about the humans? Yes. Was he right about how he went about dealing with them? No. He became jealous of Caesar, he turned against him, and betrayed everything that the apes stand for. But he had really good logical reasons that in a twisted way makes really good sense. In some alternative universe where things were just a little bit different, Koba could have been right. His reasons were sound, but his methods were way off. He went too far.
A VILLAIN SHOULD BE MYSTERIOUS BUT NOT A MYSTERY
A villain should never be a total mystery, but we also don’t need to know everything about them. Darth Maul is a total mystery, but it’s too much mystery. He has that double-bladed lightsaber, facial tatoos, and a black trenchcoat, but who is he? We don’t know. But what does he want? To rule the universe? To scare little kids
The thing is, a mystery cannot also be a character. To be a fully rounded character, we need to know their motivations, aspirations, desires, needs, flaws, and a sense of their personality. They have to have quirks. But a shadowy figured mired in shadows moving silently in the shadows behind more shadows? That’s not a character, that’s a mystery.
On the flipside, we don’t want to know too much. Nobody wants a prequel trilogy explaining how the villain became a villain.
Think about Koba. We know from the first Planet of the Apes movie that he was a lab animal who underwent some pretty gruesome experiments. But in the second movie, do they go ahead and explain his life history and how he was born a cute little chimp baby and how the humans beat that innocent out of him? Nope, the only information we get is when he points to his scars and says, “Human work.” He has seen a lot of cruelty from the humans but we don’t need to know what it is When it comes to villains, their backstory is best left to the imagination
On the blog Overthinking It, Ben Adams has a great article called The Banality of Evil Origin Stories. In it he talks about why most villain origin stories simply don’t work:
In the end, most of these stories are simply unconvincing. For an implacable and unabashedly evil evil villain, it almost impossible to create a origin story that both a) makes the audience empathize with the future villain and b) portrays a convincing transformation. In Episode III, Anakin jumps pretty much straight from “arrogant but still good Jedi” to “murdering children in cold blood.
And he’s totally right. In Episode III, Anakin goes from being a pretentious brat who is mad about not being on the Jedi Council to helping wipe out the Jedi in exchange for the power to bring people back to life. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t even get that power. Trying to make a great villain like Darth Vader sympathetic doesn’t work because you can’t explain that kind of evil in a satisfying way. Evil is elusive, unpredictable, hard to define.
Villains are evil but we don’t need to know exactly how they got that way. You can hint at it, suggest some possible factors that helped cause it, but you can never explain it.
One of the greatest villains of the modern superhero age is from the tv show Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is a man trying to save Hell’s Kitchen by first tearing it down to the ground first. He doesn’t even think he is a villain. He thinks he is doing what is right. That he is the hero saving the city and that the only way to rebuild it is to start over. There is one episode that give us insight into Fisk’s past and it centers around a defining moment from his childhood. When Fisk was a boy, his rage got out of control and he brutally attacked someone close to him. It’s a shocking scene and it goes a long way to let us know how Fisk ended up how he is, but don’t mistake this short glimpse into his childhood for what it is not. It is not his full backstory. It one crucial turning point in his life. But it does not try to explain everything. The truth is we have no idea how Wilson Fisk went from a kid who committed a terrible crime to the head of a powerful criminal organization. We don’t know how he learned to throw a punch or how he can stand toe-to-toe with Daredevil. How did he get to the top and what did he do to get there? It’s a mystery. And we the audience don’t need to know all his secrets. He is menacing, his name is not to be spoken, and he might snap at any moment, and that is enough. If Daredevil were to explain exactly how he became the man he is, it would take away his claws. It would overly humanize him. Fisk is a terrible foe to reckon with and we will never know exactly how it happened.
But perhaps the best villain of the last decade is universally acknowledged to be Heath Ledger’s Joker. and there is a similar mystery surrounding the villain of The Dark Knight. While the 1989 Batman movie went out of its way to show the Joker murdering Batman’s parents and falling into a vat of chemicals that transformed him into maniacal clown, the modern Joker has conflicting backstories all revolving around his scars. They are gruesome accounts, making the line, “Why So Serious?” both memorable and morbid at the same time. But the point of them is that they keep Joker’s real history in the dark. Was Joker tortured as a child? Was he married once? Are these real or are they just the ravings of a lunatic? We’ll never know. We just know that the Joker cannot be reasoned with. He can’t be bought off. He cannot be tamed or rehabilitated. Whatever he once was, that is now gone. As Ben Adams points out, his backstory is contradictory because it is not necessary. It would actually hurt the character’s intrigue and appeal if we knew where he came from.
Villains should be fully fleshed out in their motivations and identities, but we don’t want to know all the details of how they came to be. Some things should remain forever a secret.
VILLAINS SHOULD EXIST WITHIN A LARGER MORAL UNIVERSE
Villains are evil, but evil can also be relative. The best villains are not unstoppable forces of destruction. That is too much like a force of nature. No one blames the hurricane for being a hurricane. Villains are evil but they exist within a much larger moral universe. And a good villain doesn’t have to be the most evil thing around. Because on some level, we actually do want to root for our villains to succeed sometimes. Villains are not just plot points and obstacles for the heroes to overcome. They are characters. They have their own motivations. And at least some of the time, we want to see them succeed.
The best way I can explain is this is through the concept of the anti-hero. Which is a pretty close analogy for what we are looking for in our villains.
Anti-heroes are interesting. Take for example the Wild West. Out there on the frontier there are no good guys. There are just shades of grey. You have bad guys and you have helpless victims. And then along comes the anti-hero. Think of Clint Eastwood in a green poncho. You wouldn’t want to hang out with these guys. But when your town is being overrun by bandits and oil barons, he is the best you’re going to get. Sometimes working with somebody bad is better than falling into the hands of somebody evil.
The same principle can apply to villains. Just like anti-heroes, a good villain is not necessarily a good person. But you can create sympathy for them if you can show the villain to the best worst option in a terrible situation. The villain is still bad, but at least they might be more cunning and more principled that the other scum around them.
A great recent example of this is Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, from the television show Gotham. Cobblepot is a ruthless sadistic guy. He is horrible. He is brutal serial killer. He doesn’t mind killing just to get a pair of clean clothes. But we never fully turn against Cobblepot because he is at the bottom of the totem pole. All the other criminals in Gotham treat Cobblepot like dirt. He gets pushed around, underestimated, and routinely humiliated. He is still a bloodthirsty murderer, but somehow, I don’t know why, we still feel for him because of how badly he gets treated.
When a villain gets treated unfairly, when a villain is up against even worse criminals, when they have a determination and resolve in the face of adversity, it helps the audience stick with them and want to believe in them, even if they still have some major reservations about it. Anti-heroes make the best out of bad circumstances and so the audience is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is the same thing when it comes to villains. Remind us that this villain exists in a world with even worse people, unscrupulous traitors with no morals at all. Maybe the villain will only kill if it helps further their plan and they will let the hero go if they think it might help them out later. Maybe the hero and villain can work together to prevent an even bigger threat that goes against the villain’s interests. It might not be much a difference, but humanizing the villain just a little bit cann go a long way. The villain is still bad, but the criminal underworld out around them might be even worse.
To the extent that it is narratively possible, contextualize the villain. Make their evil plan just a bit more reasonable and less bloodthirsty than the other options out there. Give us a scenario when the smart thing is to work with the villain temporarily to prevent an even greater disaster.
Wow, I think I just turned evil for a second. Snap out of it.
VILLAIN SHOULD PROVIDE A REAL THREAT
Something about a villain should strike fear into people. There are far too many villains out there that don’t have this primal essence to them. They are just stock bad buys with no spine to them. But a real villain is in control. They command the room with their presence. I guess you would say they provide good management of their employees. Just as a good CEO inspires confidence, a good villain inspires fear. Fear that you will be punished. That everyone you love will be taken away from you. That you cannot escape their grasp if you betray them.
There’s a great moment in the movie The Dark Knight Rises involving Bane, a brutal mercenary who has taken over Gotham City. Although he is highly intelligent like many of Batman’s villains, Bane possesses a sheer physicality to him that makes him quite a formidable foe. Bane moves fast and hits hard. He’s got a creepy mask. He is a scary guy. But my favorite Bane moment showcases one of his more villainous qualities: he is just plain intimidating. In the film John Daggett, a corrupt businessman who hired Bane is chewing him out for not delivering him control of Wayne Enterprises as promised. Daggett tells Bane, I’m in charge, to which Bane simply puts his hand on his shoulder with his palm open and says, Do you feel in charge? It’s such a simple move. He just puts his hand on his shoulder. And as he continues talking. But as he keeps talking, he slowly moves his hand against Daggetts’ face, then his neck, and by the end of their conversation Bane has got Dagget’s whole head. We hear the sounds as Bane kills Daggett offscreen. At the beginning of the conversation Daggett thought he was in control but by the end of the scene the truth has come out.
Bane is not just physically intimidating, he’s also psychologically intimidating. Just by putting his hand on you he is reminding you that yes he can do whatever he wants. And if he wanted to he could squeeze you like a soda can.
A villain who runs around punching people or showing off their karate skills is never as scary as a villain who looks you in the eye and reminds you how powerful they are. Usually the threat of violence is just as scary as actual violence. A great villains always manage to stay in control by reminding those around them of what they are capable of.
While a villain should be able to rule through intimidation alone, but it’s also good to show they mean business. They can rule from their shadows, but their handiwork should also come out into the light.
It’s not enough for Darth Vader to threaten to blow up your planet. He has to be willing to actually fire up the Death Star and prove his point sometimes. The villain should be menacing but also follow through with actionable behaviors.
But to be truly threatening, it’s not enough for them to simply do bad stuff. They should be very precise in what they do. The best villains are able to get inside the protagonist’s heads. To mess with them. They know things about the protagonist that the protagonist is only vaguely aware of. Great villains can read their enemies like a book. They know how to manipulate the hero and exploit their flaws. And this is the part that makes them scary. Not the fact that they can hurt you, but that they know how and where can hurt you the most. They know how to get what they want. To turn the hero against himself
VILLAINS ALSO HAVE A WEAK SPOT
But villains also have a weakness. Usually it is a moral one. They are greedy. They are too proud to admit their mistakes. They overstep their bounds. They get the upper hand but they press their advantage too far.
Villains have a fundamental flaw. They will always eventually lose because of their internal character. They don’t know how to win even when they have all the cards because something about them is broken inside.
Villains take something good about humanity and they twist it. Villains are fascinating because there is something clearly off about them. It is not just that they are evil and bad. There is something about them that is admirable.
They are often eloquent speakers. They have great leadership ability. They usually highly intelligent. Oftentimes they are visionaries, they are ahead of their time.
But whatever was once good about them has now become twisted beyond recognition. Every villain has the same basic problem. They wanted something good but they wanted it too badly and it corrupted their soul.
And that’s why the hero will always defeat them. Because the race does not belong to the strong, nor the wise, nor the powerful. Evil is quite tiring. Twisting everything around you is exhausting. But doing the right thing, doing good, becomes its own reward. When you chase after good, you become stronger. But by the time the villain figures that out, it’s always too little too late.