If you’re like me, you love villains. A brilliant villain makes the movie or book more interesting. He or she also elevates the stakes and brings the conflict to life. But what lifts a villain to the coveted, blood-spattered A-list?
A few character traits:
appears unbeatable, is stronger than the hero/heroine
isn’t interested in rebuilding after the apocalypse but loves power
maybe had a part in the world’s demise in the first place
has some understandable motivations or a tragic backstory,
attracts a like-minded following:
rules with fear and/or violence
mirrors the hero or heroine
is devoid of human compassion
wears a mask (an actual mask or masks his true intentions)
Some Memorable Dystopian Villains
The Terminator: this flesh-coated assassin with an unbreakable exoskeleton terrified the shit out of audiences in the 1984 movie. But during the sequels, the cyborg developed human-like traits and even protected the main characters. Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays this iconic role which made the Terminator an item of our pop-culture subconsciousness. With the developments in cloud computing and artificial intelligence, could a T-1000 enter our future?
Agent Smith: What would the Matrix movie trilogy be without this anti-viral antagonist who can clone himself? He even has a sense of humor and delivers some of the most memorable sci-fi punchlines. Hugo Weaving is a character actor who excels in his portrayal of undying AI-Smith. The Chosen One (wonderful Keanu Reeves as Neo) sure has a handful battling this bad guy. Agent Smith is the right hand of a bigger, more sinister system, and he personifies the evils of trusting machines with strategic decision making for humankind.
The Governor of TWD: The Walking Dead cast bulges with exceptionally well-crafted characters. It’s a stroke of genius by the scriptwriters to make “normal” humans more lethal than the undead walkers. Listing all the marvelous baddies in TWD would take forever. My personal favorite will always be the Governor who is possibly the most despicable in Walking Dead history. He takes people who ask for help and forces them into gladiatorial battles with zombies. But he has a soft spot (a zombie daughter), besides a backstory offers some understandability to his motivations. A great post-apocalyptic storyline changes a character: what used to be a decent human being turns into a monster or vice versa.
Compared to the hero, a villain needs explaining on the author’s part. I suggest you design him with care to justify at least some of his vile actions. The villain is the driving force of your story’s conflict. Plain evil is boring, but an unpredictable mix of motives keeps the reader turning the next page.
I’ll call my villain “he” throughout this article just to make things easier. You can create a fantastic female villain by using the same principles. Some of the most memorable villains are female—femininity coats cruelty with an extra layer or opposites. Remember that not all heroines are kick-ass fighters. Softness on the surface makes the fangs hurt more upon a venomous bite.
Although authors might see villains and antagonists as the same coin’s different sides, they’re two separate things. The antagonist is a plot device, a person, or an oppressing societal system the villain personifies (like O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984). When personified, the antagonist’s sacred assignment is to sabotage and delay the protagonist’s plan. Hell, even mother nature can play the part of an antagonist. Tie the antagonist to the type of conflict you choose as your story’s backbone.
Without a believable, layered villain which you can peel like an onion, your story flattens. Pure evil is a caricature: one-sided and predictable. Think about your favorite books: why do you remember that particular villain?
“But a well-written villain doesn’t fit neatly into the evil box. The best villains are nuanced. Think Hannibal Lecter, Gollum, Baby Jane. There’s a reason why these villains need no introduction. You remember them because they’re complex. They are evil, but they’re not just evil. They’re disturbing, haunting, and unnerving. You can’t look away from them in much the same way as witnessing a train wreck.”
Below is a list of excellent motivations, but the sky is the limit when you mold a villain that breathes. Design a motivation which you haven’t seen before.
– Romantic interest: love and sexual desire are among the strongest motivations on earth. A person will cast aside self-preservation, even stop eating or sleeping. Neuroscientists compare love to psychosis; it’s a state of ultimate bliss and chaos in the human brain–consuming. And yes, the sugarcoated and the vindictive views on that special someone are useful for a writer. You see the person you want to conquer as perfect, but if she dates someone else, that ideal view covers with darker, bloodier colors.
– Duty and honor: at war, your side is the good guys and the enemy the bad. If you have to kill a fellow man, there can be no doubt. But the noblest motivation of doing your duty can turn into the famous last words uttered before a military tribunal: “I only did my duty. I obeyed orders. I had no choice.” Some of the most haunting books and movies deal with this moral question.
– Revenge: being wronged in the past. Nothing drives a blade through the squishy human heart like revenge. Serve this meal hot or cold; it’s always delicious.
– Fear: the hero is the real danger to peace and prosperity. The villain cannot refrain from acting when Superman will demolish earth.
– Family issues: who hasn’t rebelled against a father, or felt like the black sheep? If the king denies your right to the crown, shall you melt into the shadows to plot an uprising? The character of Loki is a famous example.
– Fame or status: classic movie villains strived for world domination/causing the apocalypse just because they could. Rewrite the worn-out trope with a twist: the villain seeks to develop the society. Think of the most massive human experiment in history: the communist dictatorships. The road to hell might indeed be paved with good intentions and the will of men who could.
– To fit in—everyone needs to feel accepted, to belong. What if the people around you are crazy and fitting in means losing your mind? This is the question which the hero Winston Smith asks in Orwell’s 1984. In addition, the villain is more crazy and intelligent than poor Winston can ever become.
– To develop, and not only as evil. What if the villain’s noble goal just happens to hurt other people?
– A desire to better humanity: the fate of mankind demands developing a superior mutant race via cruel human experimentation, making a pact with the world-conquering aliens, or surveilling everyone from the cradle to the grave to keep them in line.
– Desperation: raises the stakes and heightens the conflict—on both sides. What if the villain attempts to keep his family safe? What reader wouldn’t identify with his motive?
– Loss of perspective. They say the first victim of war is the truth. You can lose perspective when the thirst for scientific knowledge overrides everything else. The advancement of a military or political career causes collateral damage. Hunting a fugitive through thick and thin makes the character ignore his fundamental values.
The villain is always right if you ask him, and as a consequence, the protagonist is wrong. Turn the tables: if this were the villain’s story, would good and evil mix with grey shades? Or would he use magic to turn black into white? Right and wrong are perspectives. If Nazi Germany won WWII, the meaning of terrorist and resistance fighter would trade places. The winner writes the history books and no one is a war criminal in his own mind.
Give the villain charm and let him seduce the reader. Thus, he becomes another reason for the reader to keep reading. You also cause a mix of conflicting emotions when the villain rips apart his victim–according to his nature.
Create secondary characters and enamor them with the villain. What villain doesn’t enjoy a court of like-minded followers? How scary is the high-school bully without his posse? Remember that the followers see positive traits they admire. No one follows for the devil because they love evil.
A Force To Reckon With
Make the villain equal, or preferably more potent than the hero. This way, you’ll keep the reader on her toes. The villain must do his job so well that the reader no longer believes in the hero’s success (or survival) during the critical plot point called the darkest moment.
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