Oct 22 2008
One of the signs that your villain doesn’t suck is that he’s interesting enough to handle a scene on his own. No, we don’t need to hear about his pathetically traumatic family history or the byzantine machinations of his evil organization. Readers just need some sign that your villain has the competence, style and/or ambition that mark a good villain.
Your villain should not be out of the hero’s league. In fact, for most of the story, the villain should probably be winning against the hero. One common misconception is that the hero will seem less impressive or likable if the villain beats him a few times. No! A hero that defeats a crazy-competent villain will resonate more. For example, the only reason anyone remembers Luke Skywalker is because he defeated Darth Vader.
Fortunately, you can make your villain competent fairly easily. When your hero attempts some course of action, take 15 minutes to list anything that could go wrong. Then list anything that your villain could do to make the hero fail even more spectacularly. Your villain only has to exploit one glaring weakness in the hero’s plan to look competent. Does the hero’s plan require logistical support from his Batcave? Whoops. Even if your villain can’t take down the Batcave, he could try something like an EMP or sunspots to interfere with communications signals. Is the hero unable to teleport around town? Throwing him off with a decoy could buy the villain enough time to carry out his real plan.
Style is harder to pin down than competence, but there are still a few discernable signs of style. A stylish villain tends to dominate his scenes, even if he doesn’t have many lines. For example, there were a few scenes in the first season of Heroes that Sylar dominated even though he wasn’t actually present.
One scene that particularly sticks out is when Parkman and his FBI partner were fumbling around one of Sylar’s icy murder-scenes. First, there’s the horror factor. Sylar is obviously an extremely depraved killer. But more importantly, the gruesomeness of the murder is contrasted with the incompetence of the cops. They have no idea what’s going on. Sylar was more of a presence because he was obviously playing out of their league.
I recommend giving your villain an overarching and genuinely sinister plan. If your villain’s plan is only to get revenge against a few people, the stakes of your hero failing will be very low. For example, the first Spiderman movie dropped the ball on this one. What would the stakes of Spiderman not fighting the Green Goblin have been? Pretty much nothing, unless you were on the board of directors of OsCorp.
This doesn’t mean that the villain’s plan has to endanger the world or universe. That gets cheesy very fast. But this goes to competence: a villain that’s only playing for small stakes (like trying to kill a few OsCorp businessmen) probably won’t seem very competent or frightening. In contrast, Dr. Octopus’ plan was more ambitious and interesting even though it wasn’t particularly evil. He wanted to perfect a crazy-ass scientific theory to redeem himself for killing his wife the first time. Octopus’ plan had significantly higher stakes for Spiderman because he endangered many more innocent victims. (Sorry, ruthless businessmen, but readers just don’t care about you).