Writing a compelling villain

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Not every story has a villain, but in the ones that do, the villain is just as important as the protagonist. A good villain is memorable, the audience understands their motivation, and maybe most importantly they’re a lot of fun. Today we go over our five top tips for writing a compelling villain for the screen.


Understand your villain 


The best villains are nuanced, compelling characters who have as much depth as the hero themselves. You should make sure you understand your villain as much as you understand your protagonist. When writing a compelling villain, you should ensure that the emotional layers are there and that you know what they are. Any characterization exercises you do for your hero, make sure you’re doing for your villain as well. This could mean journaling in their POV, completing a character arc worksheet for them, or writing out their backstory in detail.


Create a compelling backstory


Speaking of backstory, you need to make sure your villain has a good one. There should be a rhyme and reason to why they do the things they do. Their backstory should explain why they are the way they are. Even if the audience never gets to see the full picture, there should be a sense that there is something in their past that formed them into the evil person they are today. In The Incredibles, Syndrome is a big fan of Mr. Incredible as a child, but becomes disillusioned with superheroes as a whole and begins hunting them for sport. While his childhood trauma doesn’t in any way justify his actions to the audience, it certainly helps them understand why he’s behaving this way, rather than just being evil for the sake of it. 


Make your villain a worthy foe


Of course, your protagonist is a very special character. In a fantasy world, they may have powers no one else does. In a thriller, they may have skills and knowledge others lack. In a horror piece, your protagonist has the guts to survive what no one else can. Just as your hero is special, your villain must be special too. Otherwise, your very special character would easily defeat them, and the audience wants to see a struggle. You don’t get epic fight choreography when a hero and villain aren’t well-matched. Basically, if your villain isn’t a worthy foe, the protagonist does simply walk into Mordor, and we can’t have that. Give your villain the powers, or the brains, or the resources to be a real challenge.


Consider your hero’s shortcomings


Not only should they be a challenge, your villain should be a custom-tailored challenge for your hero specifically. Think about what your protagonist’s shortcomings are, and then create your villain accordingly. The bad guy should always seem unbeatable at the beginning, forcing the hero to think creatively and grow as a person before they are able to approach beating them. When writing a compelling villain, you should be thoughtful about what is going to push your protagonist to their limits, and then push them past that point as well, forcing them to change as part of their character arc.


Give your villain a fatal flaw


When writing a compelling villain, they should seem unbeatable, but that doesn’t mean they actually should be. Going back to the example of The Incredibles, we hear from fan-favorite costume designer Edna that she doesn’t do capes, due to the high rate of death from supers who wear them. What does Syndrome have as part of his custom uniform? That’s right: he wears a cape. It’s been long enough that I feel okay spoiling this particular film: at the end, Syndrome is sucked into the engine of his jet, caught by, you guessed it, his cape. This particular fatal flaw is proof that you don’t have to be over the top in order for your hero to defeat your villain (unless you want to be… in which case, we support you). Something as simple as a cape can be their downfall, as long as your hero is the one who puts the pieces together to use the villain’s flaw to their advantage.


Is there anything else you’d add to this list? We’d love to hear your best advice for writing a compelling villain. Drop us a line if you have something to add!


Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi


Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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