Art of The Villain/Antagonist

During my writing and storytelling career, I’ve found many great villains that spanned from all different sources of storytelling. From books, movies, tv shows, video games, and even music – all are sources of stories that could harbor great villains. From my experience, I’ve come to know what it really means to create a memorable and great villain.

Villains are without a doubt, singlehandedly the most important aspect when it comes to storytelling. A great villain can make for a great story even if other aspects such as the hero, setting, or premise, do not live up to the reader’s expectations. Great stories almost always have a great villain.

If you’re a writer like me, awesome! Or if you are a fan of my works or simply stopping by, I welcome you to keep reading to find out how and what I think it takes to make a truly great villain.

Villains and antagonists are not the same. While villains are often antagonists, antagonists are not always villains. This is because villains are driven by their evil intentions to achieve a goal while an antagonist is considered as something or someone that opposes the protagonist.  The key here is motive. There can be another character of a story whose job is to hunt down the main character, therefore being considered an antagonist. But is he evil? I wouldn’t say so. Maybe the reason why that character is hunting the main hero is to save his village, use the prize money to buy medicine for a sick person, or even… stop the main hero from making a mistake that would be too costly. The key is motive, and how a character goes about to achieve it.

Motives are what make or break a good villain or antagonist. If the overarching goal of a villain is relatable and just, it can create the stems for a great character. A good test I found out to determine whether a villain’s motives is good or not is this: Take your hero and villain’s motives and put them down on a piece of paper without their labels. If people can’t identify who the villain or hero is, then you have the makings of a great motive.

Often times when I write, I never view my villain or antagonists as a bad guy. I almost always view them as a broken hero. They are shadows of what the hero would have become if the world was that much crueler to them. They are heroes of their own stories, chasing and sacrificing whatever necessary to achieve their goals. Giving a villain a heroic motive, but have them climb toward it with evil intent, can make them truly great villains and characters overall.

But aside form motive and action, their level of power or threat to the protagonist is just as important.

“Some men, just want to watch the world burn.” – Alfred Pennyworth

Sometimes, villain’s don’t have a justifiable motive. There are many in pop culture where villains are villains just because they want to be, and that’s fine. But what do non motivated villains almost always have? It’s threat and power level. It’s their ability and degree that they manage to pose as a threat to the main character. So what institutes a villain’s threat level? I’m not talking about wether they have superhuman strength, genius level IQ, or even how many henchmen they have. I’m talking about their ability to pose as a threat or obstacle to the protagonist. You can have a villain who has mastered hundreds of martial arts, has a 300 IQ rating, but if they don’t pose as a threat or impede the protagonist’s goals, then whats the point? In reverse, you can have a villain who constantly annoys or obstructs the hero’s journey, but if they don’t have a quality that makes them a threat, then it’s just another annoyance to the hero and not really a threat. Therein must lie a balance between these two factors: threat level, or the ability to impede the hero, and power level, the extent to which a hero is impeded.

I cannot stress how important building up villain’s threat and power level is. For writers, your villains should always be built up and never made to look weak. If anything, it should be a goal to always build up your villains and establish how dangerous they are in the story. What effect does this have? It does wonders for development. When the main heroes see how much more powerful the villain is, it forces them to grow and adapt. It forces them to learn new things, forces them to see what they can improve about themselves, because if they don’t change, then they won’t be able to stand a chance against the villain.

Villains have always been my favorite thing to create and write. When they are done right, they teach or remind readers valuable lessons. Villains are heroes in their own eyes, which is why they are also usually shadows of the hero, ones that experienced just enough pain that made them what they are. One of my favorite quotes, no matter how cliche it is:

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