Jul 17 2009

Writing Villains Vs. Writing Heroes

1. Villains can be overpowered. In fact, they should be more powerful than the hero. The more a hero is challenged, the more impressive it is when he eventually succeeds.

2.  Likability and relatability are much less important for villains than heroes. The quality of a villain usually depends on his style, competence and scariness. If your audience isn’t enthusiastically urging on the hero to beat the villain, they probably aren’t thrilled about the story.

3. The villain’s powers should usually be easier to explain and more generic than the hero’s are. Working in a really complex power for a character that will probably only fight a few times is usually a waste of time.  Additionally, most villains have fewer powers than the heroes do.  For example, Luke Skywalker has a variety of force powers, but the only power we see the Emperor use is lightning.  Batman has a variety of gadgets, but the Joker has just a pencil.

4.  Villains can usually get away with a voice and/or personality that are relatively over-the-top. Villains generally aren’t on-stage as much as heroes are, so they have less time to make an impression.  In contrast, if a hero were really over-the-top, he’d have enough time to wear out his welcome.  Additionally, an over-the-top character is likely to be hard to like and relate to.  Those problems are much more serious for a hero than a villain.

5.  Villains are generally freer to have messed-up origins and mental disorders, but please stay away from racism and other prejudices. Racism is pretty much the opposite of style and competence.  Case in point, Dr. Doom.  As far as villains go, he’s unusually likable because his style and good intentions soften his megalomania.  Readers reacted pretty strongly when Marvel made him a racist. It’s really hard to make a prejudiced villain that is remotely three-dimensional or sympathetic.

5. Generally, a villain’s backstory and origin story aren’t nearly as important as the hero’s are. Likewise, the family and love interests of the villain are usually forgettable. (There are exceptions. For example, the tragic romance of Mr. Freeze won “Batman: The Animated Series” an Emmy).

6.  It’s more acceptable for villains to rely on contrivance (when something just happens to happen for no particular reason). “Good thing those miniguns were lying around!”  When the villain gets a lucky break, that’s dramatic.  How will the hero respond?  When the hero gets a lucky break, that’s usually bad writing.  Your readers want the hero to save himself, not rely on corny deus ex machinas.

36 responses so far

36 Responses to “Writing Villains Vs. Writing Heroes”

  1. GSkullon 17 Jul 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Interesting – it’s okay to be a sociopath, but an equal-opportunity sociopath (or an out-and-out psychopath) is to be preferred.

    I suppose one could break some of these rules if one is intentionally satirizing the the conventions or writing a comic villain, but that would call for a fair degree of care on the part of an experienced writer.

  2. Lighting Manon 17 Jul 2009 at 6:17 pm

    These guidelines are the conventions of the genre, that’s the point, they’re a distillation of what worked the most over the ages in B. Mac’s opinion.

    Although, I think the first and second rules can be a bit contradictory, especially in the early portions of a superhero’s career. Lex Luthor is often considered the ultimate supervillain (at least prior to Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker, which tilted the scales unfairly, by being awesome.) quite simply for the exact same reasons while so many people hold so much love for Batman. Batman is just a normal human being that through determination managed to make himself physically and mentally capable of combating the very worst of humanity, whereas Lex Luthor is an ordinary human being that made himself knowledgeable enough to be capable of fighting the very best the world has to defend it, the man of steel, an invincible alien capable of ripping every bone from his body in an instant.

    With the exception of a few incidents with lazy or incompetent writers, Lex Luthor has never been able to stand toe to toe with Superman, he has always had to try to succeed simply by virtue of being better then the Last Son Of Krypton, and he has always done so without solely relying on Superman’s no-kill policy to survive.

    In light of how much weaker he is then the hero, his victories are vastly more impressive, he becomes scarier, the reader knows that there is truly something to be scared of in him, and Superman’s victories are impressive because he persevered and stuck to his ethics throughout.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have a character like Doomsday. He is in every way utterly superior to Superman, he can push him through a moon without stretching first. His acts are capable of being impressive, if handled correctly, but his victories are assured. Superman’s victories over him have to be handled excessively carefully, otherwise it’s just a “Duh, why didn’t he do that from the start?” or the readers get to wonder how he magically got more powerful.

    Of course, most of what I’m talking about has more to do with nemesis villains then Calender Man or other villains of the week, in which all the guidelines apply for the most part.

    Despite my praise for weaker villains, it is a delicate thing to handle, because if they’re too weak, no matter what they’ve achieved, you can still completely destroy the severity, respect for your character and turn away readers. The Man Of Tomorrow cannot beat up a six year old midget, even if that six year old midget managed to get Lois Lane killed through precise political machinations, and writers have failed while writing Lex Luthor to the point that sympathy really was engendered towards him due to how far out of his league he truly was, so it is a tight rope walk.

  3. i88on 01 May 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I’m writing a “superhero” novel but in a villain’s perspective. “Black Jack” isn’t insane or over the top but mostly realistic in terms of he’s sarcastic, dry, and tells it like it is. He kind of makes fun of heroes and is kind of like that guy that everyone knows. The cocky ass that you just want to strangle at times but if you understood him you’d hang out with. He’s not particularly evil or causes chaos, he just robs banks and museums. Is this okay for a villain or does he needs to be more sinister or something like that?

  4. B. Macon 01 May 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Since the villain is the protagonist of your story, I think it makes sense that he’s a bit softer than the typical villain. (Like Dr. Horrible, for example). However, I’d recommend maybe thinking about getting him tied up in something maybe a bit bigger than a bank robbery for the central plot. For example, maybe a hero or villain is trying to do something significant that B.J. has to stop.

  5. i88on 09 Jul 2010 at 10:08 am

    Well his “mentor”/”Slayer” kills off heroes and doesn’t care who gets in his way. Black Jack actually has to become one of the people he makes fun of to “save the day”. I use mentor loosely because all Slayer did was give him a notebook explaining how to steal millions and never get caught.

  6. ekimmakon 13 Sep 2010 at 8:58 pm

    For number six, is it okay if the hero has that as his power? One of my characters has luck as a superpower, and uses it to his advantage. (Need to get away from thugs in a casino? Pull every slot machine you can, which will all score jackpot, and create a crowd trying to get the money, thus blocking the pursuers)

  7. Dillanon 03 Oct 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Hey my character lord sovereign is the main character but hes also like dr doom where his megalomanic themes are shofter due to his belief that under his benevolent dictatorship he can abolish war diseases hunger etc.hes like cable when he had the whole messah complex.I really enjoyed cables views on peace and was rooting for him to succeed.Im aiming for a villain whoes morals make you question whether or not hes true a villain.The heroes of my story are a multinational un santioned team who are boggled down by corrupt politicians.Another reason my character feels hes the only one capable of bringing or is that these politicians let petty squabbling prevent a chance for peace.I really like the moral complexity in showing a story where the villains a good guy and the heroes are shown in a darker context

  8. ekimmakon 29 Apr 2011 at 3:50 am

    Ok, my first thing to say is DON’T get the new version of internet explorer. It has an awful interface that lost everything that I liked about the old browser.

    Secondly, the relevant comment. I think a problem I’ve been having with my villains is that they’re either so nice that you wonder why they’re even villains, or psychopathically evil that people expect to die in gruesome and karmic deaths.

  9. B. Macon 29 Apr 2011 at 6:30 am

    As long as the relatively nice villains have some threatening goals, I think their niceness won’t be a major liability. For example, Napoleon in His Majesty’s Dragon is urbane and doesn’t have a “KILL EVERYBODY!” mentality, but that actually makes him more likely to conquer Europe. For example, he offers an enemy garrison to option to walk away rather than starve, but they must surrender their officers and weapons. He figures that without weapons or officers, they’ll be no threat to him, but the enemy will struggle to feed or rearm all of those men.

    In my own writing, one villain spares a hero that had saved his life previously*, but 1) his goal is threatening/mostly villainous and 2) he kills one hero, takes another hostage, and builds his sites in cities to reduce the chance of nuclear bombardment. He’s not unwilling to do nefarious things, but may be willing to consider humane alternatives under some circumstances.

    *This is Evil Overlord-approved, by the way. #68 here.

    As for the villains that are so psychopathically evil that people expect them to die gruesomely… I think it could work if they’re stylish enough. One really effective example is Hannibal Lecter, from Silence of the Lambs. He’s a cannibalistic serial killer, but his edges are somewhat rounded in a few ways–he’s sort of helping the police catch another serial killer, he convinces another asylum inmate that sexually assaulted the main character to kill himself*, and he’s an extremely high-functioning psychiatrist.

    *Even serial cannibals have standards.

  10. Marcus F.on 08 Jan 2013 at 10:59 pm

    I’m working on a story where a man finds out that he is half human & half angel. So my question is, Do the villains have to be supernatural-related? Since angels fall under the supernatural catagory.

  11. Mistion 28 Jan 2013 at 6:58 pm

    ^^^I have the same question actually because my hero is a sorcerer & it wouldn’t make sense for his enemy to be a terrorist or some mad scientist right?

  12. B. McKenzieon 28 Jan 2013 at 8:33 pm

    “I’m working on a story where a man finds out that he is half human & half angel. So my question is, Do the villains have to be supernatural-related?” No, but I’d recommend against something heavily sci-fi in the interests of genre consistency (which will help with your marketing).

    “My hero is a sorcerer…” A supernatural enemy is definitely an option.

  13. Immieon 28 Jan 2013 at 11:18 pm

    I’ve just finished the first draft of my novel. I’ve flicked through it and while I think that most of the important elements are there I’ve found the plot of the ‘villain’ to fall short and not make much sense.
    He’s the CEO of Wilkinson Enterprise (who are responsible for designing and producing America’s weaponry) and the hero only becomes interested in their affairs when she realizes they are in business with the mafia. She works out that they are selling designs of weaponry (that the government don’t know about) to the mafia, so they can be sold on to other nations who need to keep up in the arms race + wars.
    Now, originally it was going to be that the reason the CEO wanted to prolong the wars and keep the world in terror was so they would blow each other up and then, after that, they would start again, preferably under his rule.
    I’m worried this a) this doesn’t fit with his personality (NPD, controlling genius…the usual) but also that it really does not make any sense from an intellectual point of view.
    I also have, after starting to research major wars that are likely to happen, realized that a cold war scenario in the near future is unlikely to happen, and if it does it will be in chemical or technological warfare.
    How should I approach the editing of this plot line? Any advice on reworking/rewriting/completely changing would be much appreciated!

  14. B. McKenzieon 29 Jan 2013 at 7:22 am

    Some possibilities that come to mind:
    –“the CEO wanted to prolong the wars and keep the world in terror was so they would blow each other up and then, after that, they would start again, preferably under his rule.” This feels sort of comic book-y to me. For one thing, if the world blows themselves up, would anything be left that he’d actually want to rule? It might help to go with something more direct (e.g. cutting the arms dealer and just going with an international crime syndicate). Alternately, perhaps his narcissism interferes with and/or comes hand in hand with some vaguely likable goal (e.g. Napoleon the emperor vs. Napoleon the liberator of the serfs).

  15. Aj of Earthon 29 Jan 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Just my thoughts here but I’d say it depends. I think a story of Magic vs. Science, with the outcome determining which will govern the world to come, would be pretty righteous. But if that’s actually not the thrust of your story, keeping your antagonist in-genre with the pro is probably ideal.

  16. Sakitaon 16 Apr 2013 at 10:58 am

    Personally, I want to warn people to be careful with using mental disorders, even with villains.
    Some people really suffer from certain negative stereotypes of mental disorders. So be careful with that.
    Some people really suffer from negative stereotypes like addiction (example: ‘If they wanted to quit, they could. They just don’t wanna quit, they don’t have any willpower’) or schizophrenia (example: ‘people with schizophrenia are dangerous’) and other diseases. So please be careful with stereotypes about mental disorders.

    Otherwise, very helpful article. ^^

  17. XosMelon 05 Jun 2013 at 8:02 am

    ” “I’m working on a story where a man finds out that he is half human & half angel. So my question is, Do the villains have to be supernatural-related?” No, but I’d recommend against something heavily sci-fi ” – B. Mckenzie

    How is that sci-fi? Angels aren’t from the future. The idea has been around even before A.D. (the bible).

  18. B. McKenzieon 05 Jun 2013 at 5:57 pm

    The author was asking for help coming up with appropriate villains for a given hero (an angel). If you have a hero with a highly fantasy origin (e.g. an angel), I’d generally recommend against sci-fi villains in the interest of genre consistency.

  19. XosMelon 06 Jun 2013 at 7:33 am

    Oh I see now. Never mind, you have very sound logic 😛

  20. Thalamuson 02 Aug 2013 at 2:01 am

    I don’t know if this is the place to post this, but it is to do with the villain, so I was hoping that someone could help.
    I have a main character in my story, Thulis, who is the reason for re-introducing the protagonists into the (rather decayed and seedy) underworld of sorcery in Britain; for much of the story he will serve as the person giving them leads and resources to combat this cult of sorcerers who have been murdering seemingly random people, as sacrifices to their god, whom they see as the creator of magic (in doing this they hope to glorify magic and gain in power). However, it later turns out that the person behind the cult is Thulis himself, and he wanted them to attack the cult so that they would stir up the sorcerer community into war, which would aid his long-term goal of getting sorcerers in power (so that they can fix the problems facing humanity that mundane people cannot fix, and sorcerers cannot fix without being revealed – and the only way to stop themselves being seen as a threat and stomped out is to take power) and also get rid of John and Ambrose, who are the two most likely to challenge Thulis (for moral reasons, as well as practical – i.e. they would be a substantial threat). He set up the cult to kill people that needed to be removed for the plan to work, or who could have found out about it. What I was wondering was:
    a) Is this a decent idea, or a bad one?
    and, b) If you think it’s okay (and I hope so, since it is my working plot) then when should the twist be revealed? There needs to be time enough before the reveal to make the cult seem a substantial threat, and enough time after the reveal to actually stop the main plot.
    Thanking you in advance, and sorry for the long post.

  21. Thalamuson 03 Aug 2013 at 12:27 am

    I don’t like checking up on these posts, because I worry it looks like a plea for attention, but I really would like some advice on this if possible.

  22. Melissaon 25 Jan 2014 at 12:15 am

    I’ve decided to write my female superhero hero for a YA audience and it just donned on me that most of her villains will be high school students, maybe even people she goes to school with. I’m trying to see how far I can take a teenage villain’s “for the evlulz” without going too far.

  23. B. McKenzieon 25 Jan 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Thalamus, I think it’ll probably turn out well in the story itself, but I don’t know enough of the background to know what’s going on here.

  24. Melissaon 26 Jan 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Would all out murder be too much for a teenage villain? I know they’re capable of it but would it be extreme for a YA novel?

  25. B. McKenzieon 26 Jan 2014 at 9:01 pm

    “Would all out murder be too much for a teenage villain? I know they’re capable of it but would it be extreme for a YA novel?” I think it’d probably be okay, particularly if you handled it in a relatively tame way (e.g. off-camera or in a not-particularly-gruesome way). Even if you did want to push into more graphic territory (e.g. some of the kills in Hunger Games are pretty intense), I don’t think this would be a problem for an editor. (If editors feel the story is publishable except for the violence level, I don’t think they’d reject you over that — changing the violence level is easier than changing the mood of the work as a whole).

  26. Rebeccaon 05 Feb 2014 at 10:22 am

    “Villains generally aren’t on-stage as much as heroes are, so they have less time to make an impression. In contrast, if a hero were really over-the-top, he’d have enough time to wear out his welcome.”

    I’ve been developing my own superhero story, and I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for various villains, and I’m pleased with their threat levels, but I’m concerned now that my heroine might be bland now in comparison. What would you suggest as general advice?

  27. Grinny faceon 29 Mar 2016 at 10:28 am

    I could use some help with my villains, i had already thought up main characters and the villains, and then I realized I had to think up the villains again because they might be weak.

    The 2 most recurring villains consist of the AI super computer and the mayor. I think the mayor is okay (if a bit cliché since he’s just evil because it’s fun and convenient) but I’m having second thoughts about the computer. The computer is the one who basically sets up the premise for the main character telling the him he needs to cough up a billion dollars or else he’ll die of poison within a year. Then I thought, “why would some super com that can build anything who lives in the middle of the dessert ever need money?” The more I think about it, the more I think I should make someone else the guy the main character needs to get the cure from, but I’m not sure.

    Also, if my story doesn’t really have an air tight linear plot and is mostly episodic adventures, do I even need a main bad guy? I mean there’s definitely some villains who keep showing up every now and then but the story is about a bunch of bounty hunters who shoot, drink and joke their way from one job to the next, so I’m wondering if an overarching bad guy is even necessary. Except maybe the main character’s gradual insanity because of the poison.


  28. B. McKenzieon 29 Mar 2016 at 5:23 pm

    “Then I thought, “why would some supercomputer that can build anything who lives in the middle of the desert ever need money?” Some possibilities:
    –The easiest (but probably the least interesting) answer: The computer needs the money for resources, data, and/or paying humans to do (or not do) something.

    –The money is completely irrelevant to the supercomputer, and he’s just interested in throwing an extremely hard goal at the protagonist. Maybe he’s studying how humans act under high-stress situations. Maybe the computer anticipates that the human’s attempt to round up the money will somehow advance some other goal of the computer’s (e.g. weakening his enemies).

    –The computer is bored out of his mind, and this is his attempt at entertainment. Tic-tac-toe gets old really fast — way too predictable. The computer may have specifically selected this assignment for this individual because they’re hard to predict and/or he’ll have opportunities to learn about scenarios that have DEFINITELY never happened before.

    –The computer is trolling or playing with someone else. E.g. he has some sort of bet going on with another supercomputer, preferably with extremely high stakes (e.g. having a war would be highly destructive, so they’re settling a massive conflict this way instead). The poison may be the computer’s way of keeping his “player” in the game.

    –The computer is testing the human (either as a stand-in for humans as a whole, or as an individual).

    –The computer is punishing and/or taking revenge against the human (either for something he’s individually done, or against humanity as a whole a la “I Have No Mouth…”)

    “Do I even need a main bad guy?” I’d recommend at the very least an intermediate villain (or some sort of obstacle) to help steer the story early on. E.g. in your case, the most intuitive choice would probably be the supercomputer and/or the poison. If you were thinking of a more Gilligan’s Isle story where the story is really episodic with either no central arc or one that won’t come up often, I’d suggest making it so that the character’s poisoning isn’t villainous (e.g. he develops a rare disease on his own, or because he made a really distinctive choice, or there was an accident). My thinking is that readers won’t demand a revenge arc out of a nonvillainous poisoning, but they might get pissed if he’s been deliberately poisoned and doesn’t go straight for revenge (or at least undermining the supercomputer in some way, e.g. causing it to lose a big bet).

  29. Grinny faceon 29 Mar 2016 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks, I like the computer is bored and it’s having a bet with another computer idea, though I’d probably have to reveal the second com later in the story and just start with the first one sending the main guy out to get the cash.

    One more thing, about my 2nd villain the mayor, is there any way to make a character who kills people mostly for fun without making him a joker ripoff ?

  30. B. McKenzieon 29 Mar 2016 at 7:45 pm

    “is there any way to make a character who kills people mostly for fun without making him a joker ripoff?” A different voice and/or different personality traits, maybe a different agenda (he’s a mayor, so presumably he’s not as chaotic/anarchic as the Joker), different philosophies, etc. For example, if you’re familiar with Gregor Clegane (the Mountain) from Game of Thrones, he’s sadistic and deranged, but he speaks/acts differently enough from Joker that you’d never mistake the two. For one thing, Joker talks quite a lot about his motivations and his backstory, but the Mountain rarely talks (especially about himself), and when he does I think it’s usually threats and insults. He never has a motivation for anything, or a philosophy besides being a force of nature.

    Also, different approaches to problem-solving. The Mountain gets from point A to point B with a giant sword. Joker… he sometimes uses brute force, but he mixes in trickery and misdirection with his savagery. E.g. to me his most memorable weapons so far have probably been a pencil and a bomb hidden* in the stomach of one of his goons. He’s terrifying, but less because he’s an unstoppable fighter and more because he’s unpredictably brutal.

    *Just the bomb, not the pencil — that’d just be disgusting.

    I think there may be some redundancy between a supercomputer that’s mainly acting out of boredom and a mayor that kills mainly for fun. Potentially a lot. You may be able to avoid the two characters sounding similar with the same methods as above.

  31. Tyleenia Tayloron 30 Mar 2016 at 11:33 am

    What if the villian had been treated bad ’cause of his color? His stature? His size? Jus’ curious ’cause that’s a (not-so-major) villian of mine.

  32. B. McKenzieon 30 Mar 2016 at 12:32 pm

    “What if the villian had been treated bad ’cause of his color? His stature? His size? Jus’ curious ’cause that’s a (not-so-major) villian of mine.” In my opinion, demographic persecution more often leads to predictable/formulaic/one-dimensional scenes than interesting characterization, especially being persecuted for things the character has no control over.* The character could still be interesting anyway, but scenes that play out like “I hate you because I’m evil and/or stupid” would probably be more of a setback than an advancement there.

    *E.g. in most mutant persecution stories, mutants are hated because they’re born different** rather than because they make different choices, which I think tends to cheapen the characters. In The Incredibles, the issue isn’t who’s been born with special powers, but whether they choose to use them in a way that society disapproves of (e.g. being a badass, preventing suicides, anything besides working quietly in an insurance office, etc). That helps draw the attention to what your characters are actually doing, rather than which Census boxes they were born into, which I think is critically useful for memorable character development. (If the most memorable thing about your character is what he was born with rather than what he DOES, my recommendation would be run-don’t-walk to the closest desk and start rewriting ASAP).

    **Or had a mid-life mutation for some reason beyond their control.

  33. […] 5 Characteristics of an Epic Villain Writing a Great Villain 14 Motives for Becoming a Supervillain Writing Villains Vs. Writing Heroes Villains Are People Too, But… A Short Defence of Villains by Agnes Repplier Villains: because a […]

  34. YetAnotherOneon 17 Mar 2017 at 5:30 am

    I have a question about #1: Should there be an upper limit to your villain’s powers?
    Because my heroes have rather weak powers (inprecise teleportation, exhausting telekinesis, invisibility that’s destroyed as soon as one looks through a camera, aura-vision, and military training for all, though not at marines-levels) whereas my villains are really powerful (shooting lightnings, far less exhausting telekinesis, power armor, and being a battle-optimised cyborg).
    In-universe I justify it by having inexperienced heroes and the villains having access to far superior tech and training.
    I should also mention that my heroes are government funded and thus regularly work with SWAT-teams and military units. However, they are rather an anomaly, as they are the first ones known (and verified) to have powers.

  35. B. McKenzieon 17 Mar 2017 at 7:36 pm

    “I have a question about #1: Should there be an upper limit to your villain’s powers?” This doesn’t sound like it’ll be an issue for you, but if an author were considering a cosmic-grade villain, I think non-cosmic villains are easier to work with for character development and combat.

    In superhero team stories, it’s pretty common for the villains to be more rawly powerful than the heroes*, especially if there are more heroes than villains. I think that helps push the characters to make more interesting choices (e.g. anything besides rushing at the enemy).

    *Pretty much everything besides Watchmen, I think.

  36. […] 5 Characteristics of an Epic Villain Writing a Great Villain 14 Motives for Becoming a Supervillain Writing Villains Vs. Writing Heroes Villains Are People Too, But… A Short Defence of Villains by Agnes Repplier Villains: because a […]

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