t’s a staple of narrative thought that a hero is only as good as his villain. In fact there are many people out there who would say that villains are more often the most interesting characters in a story. It’s also true that it’s very easy to create a villain who is an obstacle more than a character. No matter how much trouble he causes the hero, and no matter how many henchmen he kills in a fit of pique, he’ll be nothing but a collection of moments, not a real character. He won’t stand on his own. Just like you should be able to tell a good story about your hero without a villain directly opposing him, your villain should be able to stand on his own without a hero opposing him.
Not all of these ideas apply to every villain. Some are much more important if your story, in whatever medium, is short. Others will make a bigger difference if you have time to explore a longer time period, or even multiple encounters between your hero and villain. Some will come more easily in a visual medium, others will play better in a novel. Though it might feel like I’m sucking some of the fun out writing a scene stealing, campy villain, with a little work a few of these elements injected into even the cheesiest villain will add depth without hurting whatever atmosphere you might be going for.
1. Evil is best when it thinks it’s doing the right thing
Almost nobody is motivated by wanting to do evil. People don’t get out of bed, even if that bed is surrounded by slaves waiting to lather them in perfumed oils and the finest silks, and think, “What can I do wrong today?”
This is one of the things that makes Darth Vader a far superior villain to the Emperor. He’s on a crusade to bring order to the galaxy. He’s been twisted by war and loss of love into believing that monolithic authority is the only way for the universe to prosper. He’s thrown in his lot with Palpatine and he’s not about to change horses midstream until it might cost his son’s life.
The Emperor is just a hissing old man who can throw lightning. He’s focused on cartoonish Evil with a big “E.” If he didn’t have so much of the franchise propping him up he’d be laughable. He wants power for power’s sake. That can sometimes work, but it’s much more frightening to connect the evil that a character does with an ethos that isn’t obviously all about themselves.
It’s what makes North Korea a punchline for a lot of us and not the horrendous tragedy that it is. The stories about how the Kim’s have acted over the last few decades are full of such self-aggrandizing, bald-faced lies about themselves that it’s hard to take them seriously. Sure, you probably aren’t going to plan your spring break there, but distance breeds a sort of dismissive humor about the real evil that’s going on there. The same kind of distance that’s likely to exist between media and its audience.
2. Scale your villain properly
The villain is always more powerful than the hero. In fact sometimes he or she is only the villain because they do have more power than the hero and we like rooting for the underdog. This can make for lazy villains, and in cases like 300, lazy heroes. When the odds are so desperately stacked against a hero that he stands alone against an army that stretches to the horizons the villain doesn’t need to prove his evil very much, and the hero appears so brave that we won’t stop to think about whether he’s on the right side. Hence the airbrushed bullshit about Spartans being champions of freedom and democracy while Xerxes represents utter subservitude and slavery. The odds are so against Leonidas that we forget that he’s defending a society that throws babies off of cliffs and hands young women over to old priests as sex slaves.
Believe me, you can do better than 300. Think about the resources available to your hero. Are they alone? Do they have a group of plucky friends? Are they part of a full on rebellion with a small army fighting with them? Should your villain be the head of a criminal organization, a street gang, a giant corporation or an interstellar army ready to destroy planets? With proper scaling both of your central characters have the proper room to breathe, and your universe maintains a proper size.
3. Connect the villain to the hero
No, not by having him be your hero’s father or mother. And for god’s sake never let the villain say, “You know, you and I aren’t that different.” Just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean it can’t be true though. Let the audience see it. A villain who is essentially the hero, but missing the little part that makes the hero good, is compelling. Comic books are where this trope really shines. Your hero and villain will have plenty of time to bounce off of each other and get entangled. They may even get to know each other and see the points in their lives that lead to different places.
If you must have the villain be actually related to your hero make sure they have some contact when one of them is a child. The innocence with which we view children and the innocence with which children view the world can both be peeled back. Though it’s more common for a father or uncle to have nefarious schemes, it could be just as horrifying for an adult to watch a beloved child become a serious threat. “Luke, I am your father!” just isn’t the most effective use of this idea.
You’ll notice most of Marvel’s heroes have villains who are their dark twins, handled with varying levels of success. Wolverine has Sabertooth. Spiderman has Venom. Hulk has Abomination. One of Batman’s central concerns is that his presence has created his super villains. Joker’s madness is a reflection of Batman’s own obsession.
If you skip this one the villain better be connected to some kind of generic group that people can get behind hating. Yes, that’s right, make them a Nazi.
4. Give the villains a life of their own
There are two villains that embody this perfectly for me, Thulsa Doom and M. Bison (he’s not a great villain in and of himself, but he nails this trope) from Street Fighter: The Movie. Bison actually has one of my favorite bad guy quotes, “The day I killed your father must have been the most horrible day of your life, but for me – it was just Tuesday.”
Similarly Thulsa Doom has already dismissed the secret of steel that is the center of Conan’s life. When confronted with Conan, despite his demonstration of power, he seems almost bored. Some new, sad barbarian has wandered in from the wastes to bother him about some decade old atrocity he committed. He is comfortable in his power. He is unassailable.
Even if the villain has done great wrong to the hero they should be essentially unaware of the hero’s importance, or even existence. Villains with no concern other than tormenting our hero are often more aggravating and annoying than truly effective. Much as I usually enjoy Sabertooth he is not nearly as compelling when he’s obsessing over Wolverine as when he’s been doing his own thing and gets the chance to fuck with him. A large portion of Batman’s rogues gallery is obsessed with tormenting or besting him, and it tends to make characters like the Riddler more ridiculous than menacing.
Joker of course is a stand out, but it’s taken years and years of stories for his rivalry with Batman to reach its modern heights. Even Lex Luthor is more effective when he’s trying to do something nefarious beyond killing Superman. This goes back to rule number one, villains don’t fight with heroes because they want to kill good people. They run up against them because they have opposing goals.
5. Give them people to care about, and who care about them
It’s easy to let this turn maudlin or tacked on, but showing that even the most terrible people have people who love them, and maybe even people they love adds a real depth. Dr. Girlfriend and The Monarch are a great example of this. In fact, Venture Bros. does a fantastic job of humanizing characterrs we don’t usually see humanized while still clinging to an over the top presentation. Palpatine is Vader’s family until he finally chooses his son. Howard Saint, from The Punisher, has his wife, sons and even his consigliere, but he prizes loyalty above all else. When he feels betrayed he kills his wife and his best friend.
Heroes will almost always choose people over principles, at least when lives are at stake. Villains will almost always choose principles over people. The best villains are principled to the point of the destruction of human decency. Their ethos is twisted to serve only themselves or to place one single idea above all other connections.
This also gives you the choice to either watch the villain throw away everything that’s made him human and relatable or to redeem himself and sacrifice his schemes for someone or something he cares about. Either way you’ve enhanced the journey and added punch to the ending.
6. Make them selfish, but not megalomaniacal
Don’t get me wrong here, a maniac standing alone and bullying everyone into serving his mad plans for world domination can be fun. There have been some lovely scenery chewing villains, but they don’t go down in history as one of the greats, which means neither do their heroes. When a villain spends all of his time grandstanding he’s sure to pull off some great moments, but one can’t do much more than wave your hands and marvel at the madness of it all. It keeps them at arms length. If you must make them a mad egotist give your villain time to be away from all that.
Throw in a home life. After he’s done shouting at his mooks let him go and bounce his favorite niece on his leg. You’ll find that rather than removing energy from the character it makes his grand gestures that much more grand because we see that he isn’t like that all the time. Villains can often seem like they’re always on. Villainy comes easy to them, when our heroes are struggling. Even the most determined heroes get tired. So do villains. Give them the big moments, but give them the small ones too.