Writing Villains People Love
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
Antagonists are called just that because we are meant to hate them, and they our heroes. So why do we love, or at the very least love to hate them? Many stories are made or broken by their villains and in a lot of cases many believe that the villains of a story are far more interesting than the hero. But why? And why is understanding this so important to our own storytelling and how we write our Jokers, our Lokis, our Lex Luthors, and our Hans Grubers?
There are many paths to take with this question, but at the end of the day, like most things we don’t often consider, it comes down to psychology. Whether it is our need for entertainment, wish fulfilment, or something perhaps a little darker, it all comes down to how we relate to them. In a previous post I talked about how getting readers to relate to our characters is half the battle, and while I was focusing my main points on to our heroes, the same goes for antagonists. It seems counter intuitive considering the bad guys are… well bad, so it doesn’t feel natural to want our readers to relate to some psychotic killer, but it is a little more complicated than that.
Storytelling has always been political, whether the majority of those that consume it, in whatever form, realise it or not. There is, more often than not, some underlying theme that runs parallel with world events and social issues at the time of writing. The villains in those stories tend to reflect that. The biggest modern example of a change in storytelling due to world events is the year after the September 11 attacks. Superhero movies saw it’s resurgence, which would snowball into becoming the giant cinema presence it is today. The people of the western world started to look to these impervious, supernatural beings in cinema to save them from threats their governments could not (not literally of course). The very appeal of S.H.I.E.L.D was that of a government entity taking back control over the bad guys and keeping us safe. I could go on over paragraphs about this, but let’s stick to the point; as our good guys have changed to reflect these things, so too do our villains.
The idea of mob bosses and criminal masterminds are on the decline for popularity, and as we as citizens become more tech-savvy and our access to information grows, our bubble of ignorance shrinks, and with it our understanding of the world expands. We become more aware of politics, and the scandals that go along with it. As such, businessmen, evil conglomerates, and even politicians are rapidly becoming the villain of choice for many stories. So my first tip to writing a good villain is, consider what you want them to reflect, or to represent, keeping in mind the events and issues of the world at the time, and even the point you may want to make with them. Many authors shy away from asserting their own opinions into their work and most will show wisdom by not self-inserting as one of their characters, but that’s where villains come in handy. You can feel strongly about climate change, for example, and you can avoid an on-the-nose self-insert by using a villain to portray that, instead of a hero.
Honestly, nothing ruins a book faster for me than an author’s obvious self-insertion to any particular view through their characters (especially a long-winded monologue for no reason), whether I agree with the view or not, and whether its relevant to the story or not, and I doubt I am alone in that. Remember, use your views to tell stories, not the other way around. Layer it in, don’t make it the headline of a scene. But I digress…
Taking the previous example further, you can take opposite routes with it. You can have a corporation whose CEO is a money-hungry Earth-killer, and that works, but (ignoring the cliché) is it the best choice? Will readers relate to this villain? Probably not. In fact, a villain like this will help readers relate to the hero more, as they see their own concerns reflected in them. So, something worth considering but not what we are exploring here. What about an eco-terrorist who is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, but still needs to be stopped? Still cliché but far more relatable. The antagonist in this instance is doing things many of us secretly (or not so secretly) would want to do. Which is why even antagonists like this always have that little bit extra that makes them the bad guy. The trick is finding that line between relating to an antagonist and rooting for them; you want to bring readers right to that line, without crossing it. Thanos, is a good example of this, although of course what makes him the bad guy is very on-the-nose. His intentions are good; he wants to save the universe from itself, but of course his way of achieving them is evil. Thus, he makes a great villain because we can relate to him in some way. He’s also a great villain because he is a powerful presence, and him showing up inspires fear.
Which brings me to my next point; competence. A great villain is one whose entrance into a scene should make a reader fear for the characters for the rest of that scene. They exist to create tension, and if they aren’t doing that every time they show up on the page, they don’t work as a villain. I mentioned in my post about writing good characters that making them too strong ruins the tension of a scene and makes them boring; the opposite is true for villains. In The Last Airbender series, Azula works as a antagonist because she is fiercely competent. Not just in her physical abilities, but because she is clever too, which is why I love her as a villain. She is never written in a way where her cunning is ever undermined for the convenience of the plot. It is always used to create tension and turn scenes.
Tension is the cornerstone of an antagonist, so important that the character themselves is sometimes not even required. There are many stories where the main big bad guy never even shows up on the page/screen, except for flashbacks. The Lord of the Rings, for example. Sauron is never shown presently in the story. He exists as a looming presence which makes him inspire fear in a whole different way. His character creates tension in a variety of ways, but chiefly is how other characters talk about him - with fear. You are constantly being reminded and shown how much even the scariest orcs fear Sauron, and so throughout the story, he is a constant, fear-inspiring presence despite not actually being present.
So, what about the villains who are just evil for the sake of evil? While I personally don’t believe any character works who doesn’t have some direction and only exists ‘just because’, there are some notable exceptions to relatable villains who are more chaotic in nature. That’s where things get a little bit dark and deep within the minds of our readers. Jungian psychology says we all carry a shadow-self, a primal version of ourselves with which our conscious self does not identify. It is neither a positive nor negative thing, it is simply a natural part of everyone. This part of ourselves is often what draws us to villains such as the Joker. A character who does things because he can, to amuse himself and to make a singular point that nothing really matters. Our shadow-selves represent that which is primal, something Sigmund Freud calls the ‘id’. Some people are simply more open to this part of themselves and it’s what makes these sorts of villains great too, when written well. How? Make the character interesting and chaotic - appeal to the id.
There are many great antagonists out there in cinema and books, my only advice beyond what I’ve said is, as always, research. Research your favourite villains and see if you can identify what it is about them you love so much, and then replicate that in your own way. And remember, your antagonist could very well be the reason your work gets talked about.
“...some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
― Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine)