Jul 17 2009
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.