Feb 02 2012

Using the Evil Overlord List to Write More Interesting Villains

1. If a competent villain must make one of the huge villain mistakes on the Evil Overlord List, the villain should have a good reason to do so. Here are some examples:

  • For example, it’s generally a mistake to try capturing a hero rather than just killing him (because the hero will always escape).   However, if the villain needs a human shield right now, an intelligent villain might plausibly decide that leaving the hero alive for now is his best plan.
  • It’s generally a bad idea to have vents that are big enough for a man to crawl through, because someone like Batman will exploit them.  In The Taxman Must Die, one very intelligent villain knows that large vents are dangerous, but builds a holding cell with large vents to pump in enough cold air to suppress a hero vulnerable to cold.
  • Building a walkway above a vat of highly dangerous chemicals can lead to all sorts of accidents.  In TTMD, one villain does, but just so that he can kill off an unruly employee with an “accident” if he has to.  In contrast, it’d just be idiotic if the villain built the walkway for no reason and got himself pushed into the vat.


2. If the villain does make a mistake, hopefully the hero forced him into a difficult decision.   For example, if the hero has stolen and hidden some critical piece of equipment, it’d make sense if a villain really wanted to take him alive rather than kill him on sight.  In that case, killing the hero would cost the villain something (he’d have to find the equipment himself rather than just torture the information out of the hero).


3. If the supervillain’s signature flaw(s) causes the villain to make a mistake, hopefully the hero exploited the flaw.  For example, if an incredibly proud villain captures the hero’s superweapon or power-suit, it wouldn’t be very satisfying if he relaxed his guard on his own just because he thought he had won.  One example that would be more interesting is if the heroes planted misinformation that made the villain think that the fighting was all but over.  (E.g. if the Justice League’s headquarters has been bugged, maybe the Justice League members could hold a fake meeting where they break up the group because supposedly it’s too dangerous to keep fighting.  A proud supervillain may think the real fighting is all but over and get caught off-guard when the heroes actually attack).  I would generally recommend giving your heroes as large of a role as possible in the downfall of the villains.


4. A brilliant villain might make a “mistake” that is actually a trap.  For example, you know those scenes where the heroes successfully guess the villain’s password and steal all of the incriminating evidence?  A brilliant villain might set up his computer so that it pretends to log in successfully after a certain number of incorrect passwords, but only gives the heroes access to reams of incorrect information.  This incorrect information might frame other important characters, which could cause the heroes to do something that angers characters that wouldn’t otherwise have been a problem.  (For example, instead of giving the heroes any sort of valuable information in Watchmen, maybe Ozymandias’ computer could have given false information implicating President Nixon and/or the Soviets in Ozymandias’ scheme?  It would have distracted the heroes from what was actually going on and might have drawn them into conflict with a powerful third party).  Another cool, intelligent thing a villain can do with passwords is have his computer immediately notify security if it registers an incorrect log-in attempt.  (Depending on the situation, it might make sense to immediately attack the intruders, but if the intruders are police officers, then it might be better to feed them misleading information than try to kill them).


Are there any particularly clever subversions you’ve used in your superhero stories?  Please let me know in the comments below.

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Using the Evil Overlord List to Write More Interesting Villains”

  1. B. Macon 02 Feb 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Thanks to Wings for helping me brainstorm this article.

  2. RandomGirlon 02 Feb 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Ah, yes, at least a minor subversion to “the trust-worthy second in command”.

    One of my villains does not trust her second in command entirely *because* he is her second. That means to get there, he had to trick, subvert, and bully a lot of other underlings in the first place. Just because he seems loyal to her doesn’t mean he is, so she doesn’t trust him.
    In an organiztion where people can get promoted to any sort of standing, there are those that will take any shortcut they can for power.

  3. daveon 05 Feb 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I have due to several reasons. My character is modeled after myself as well as being influenced by some situations I’ve gone through and others I have met during my life and since this project started very late 2002, I’ve made up my mind to see this through and to get it published one day. That’s my main motivation for doing this.

    1. My character is a villain by necessity who needed to get other countries on the same page and to be aware of what was going down. The end result would be in a 3rd World war where 80% of Earth’s population would be dead or harvested (or missing)

    2. He will kill or maim others but usually stays out of sight because he’s a background type of guy who doesn’t take the spotlight who’s main task is to ensure that the history of the world is recorded for what is about to happen next.

    3. Only a handful of people have figured out how he operates and can defeat him so having him lose to anyone is normally impossible.

    4. His background is unknown to everyone except for those who’ve encountered him before he “awakened” and came to life.

    5. He has a Thermonuclear weapon or rather a Hydrogen bomb installed inside of him so that he can use it as a last result or whenever it is needed.

    6. He himself is made of an unknown material and is possibly not from earth because of the make of his armor and how much damage he can take before being crippled. He is also not human anymore either which makes matters more interesting.

    7. Even though he is labeled as a bad guy, he knows what suffering is and usually tries to do what is right despite how evil he looks and the fact that what he does is questionable.

    I plan on writing 3 books, with the first one being about the story at present time, the 2nd story about the beginning, and the 3rd about the future. Even though he’s not alive, he’s my role model and has inspired me in many ways to become better and is almost always in my thoughts.

  4. Elenaon 08 Jul 2012 at 4:26 am

    I’m planning on starting a script that focus on a girl who used to date a supervillian. She decides the best way to win back her ex is by making him jealous. And who better than the easily moldable mind of the local superhero. I decided that in this story the villian was in the classic toxic accident first and gained enhanced mental abilities. The hero got his powers on purpose because he was curious as to if it would work. He got flight. Just flight. I’m also playing w the idea that if you get two doses of toxic waste instead of one, you die.

  5. B. McKenzieon 08 Jul 2012 at 7:09 am

    “He got flight. Just flight.” I like the limitations here.

    In terms of developing the romance (especially as far as male readers are concerned), it might help to come up with ways in which the girl’s plan to win back the villain affects the central plot*, ideally giving her something to do besides just being a love interest (e.g. in The Dark Knight, Rachel Dawes doesn’t get much of a role besides being something for Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent to fight over, so she’s less memorable than she could have been).

    *Or the conflict between the superhero and supervillain, if the romance is the central plot.

  6. Slickon 29 Jul 2012 at 4:38 pm

    B.Mac, I’m working on this villain and his motives for why he’s combating my hero and I’d like your opinion.

    My hero fights crime to try and keep order and prevent chaos. But my villain sees the hero’s efforts to maintain structure and order and this strikes him as fascism. So he fights the hero to prevent from bringing down destruction and genocide in his efforts for order. It’s not necessarily an “Order vs. Chaos” kinda fight, it’s more like a “Tyranny vs. Freedom” kinda fight (in the villain’s eyes).

  7. Slickon 30 Jul 2012 at 12:19 pm

    B.Mac, you there?

  8. B. McKenzieon 30 Jul 2012 at 1:05 pm

    It sounds workable. I don’t have strong opinions either way.

  9. ekimmakon 26 Dec 2013 at 2:16 am

    I remember you mentioning that last point about passwords when reviewing my Yuki Girl story.

    Although I can see why it would be pretty important to have tight security, especially with top research like the Exodus Suit, it seems a bit unfair that Xenith went to all that trouble of disguising her intrusion, only to be caught because there was an alarm.

    Additionally, it would make her evading capture all the more implausible: if I were in charge of security and an alarm went off, I’d send guards to all the possible escape routes, and then have them close in. It gives her no way out.

  10. Jade D.on 24 Jun 2014 at 12:42 am

    Would it be Okay if the villain needs the hero for something. An example from my story is that there is a device that the villain is using to allow an alien invasion. However, the only people who can use it (who all happen to be heroes) are people with a certain marker gene combination (pasted down from generation to generation). Since these heroes are unconscious anyway, would it make sense for the villain to capture and keep them alive?
    Or is this too rare a situation for this to be relevant?

  11. B. McKenzieon 24 Jun 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Jade, I think that’s a good reason to keep a hero alive, though I’d recommend having him take some step(s) to make sure that they will not threaten him moving forward (e.g. destroying their equipment, grabbing/disabling any powers he can, maybe using bomb collars or implanted explosives, and just generally confirming to readers that he’s not idiotically giving them a get-out-of-consequences free card). Also, it feels intuitive that this explanation would cover why he needs ONE hero alive, but if he chooses to take multiple heroes alive, hopefully it’s because the heroes have some feats of trickery and/or persuasion (e.g. convincing a skeptical villain that it won’t work unless they have several heroes there).

  12. Freyaon 20 Sep 2014 at 11:45 pm

    It was so satisfying to read this list and go ‘yes! My villain is actually competent!’

  13. simonon 28 Apr 2015 at 4:53 pm

    Okay i want to knw wat u think of my story.Its a superhero take on a spy story,its about a 15 year old kung fu prodajy kid named Simon Auchour.His always wished he could more about the exccaleting crime in his city.At his school three strange droids came crashing in ,one droid carryin a orbe.The droid were chasin after the package durin the disturbance simon thought he could help and begun to fight . The droid but was defeated . The orbe fell in his hands and scanned him nd gave him a sumo spy suit(secret undercover motion opreative spy suit.basically it can produce any weapon bt only whn truly needed.I have made a short term villan who wants the suit after thinkin he was cheated out of it(his a billionaire.To make it interesting i made his family nd 2 of his friends knw his secret nd help out with missions.

  14. Jackon 23 Jan 2016 at 5:07 pm

    Hey B.Mac I’ knew to posting and I don’t know if this is the right spot to put this but…
    What do you think of a story where the whole team is anti-heroes and/or villains?

  15. B. McKenzieon 23 Jan 2016 at 8:19 pm

    “What do you think of a story where the whole team is anti-heroes and/or villains?” I haven’t seen enough villain-as-main-character stories to have observations on recurring problems. I guess it’d be cool if the main thing separating the antiheroes from standard heroes were something besides obsessively lethal. Do you have a synopsis/summary?

  16. Jackon 27 Jan 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Hey B.Mac First sorry for the long wait but i can only get on my WiFi every so often between school and work. I do not have one, and as for that I had a team of six going.
    I was going for a mix of characters so I’ve got a ex-cop, her main anti hero trait was lethal due to lack of trust in the system. A assassin she only on the team due to a deal made with the teams hacker she helps them and she stays out of prison. The hacker he’s not a in the field character and he’s the one who assembled the group he’s one of the few team characters who leans agenst killing every baddy they fight. Then there the Merc while he hires out for money he does has have a strong sense of morals but life has berried them down in him. The thief is a straight up take the money girl with the same deal as the ex-cop but unlike her she agrees with the hacker only the Lethal question. Then finely there the solider he was the first one the hacker recruited he’s one of those people who never seems to laugh and you never know if there joking, he’s also the one who has to keep the thief and Merc in line since neither is realy Sirius.
    Oh… and powers wise I was thinking…
    Ex-cop= she can see the last thing someone saw befor death
    Merc= wall crawling
    Thief= minor speed 50 mph
    Soldier- Plant based, not sure
    Assassin- Human only shoplifter
    Hacker- Healing touch
    what due you think?

  17. Jackon 27 Jan 2016 at 3:57 pm

    P.S. Sorry for the long post

  18. B. Macon 27 Jan 2016 at 7:11 pm

    I think the powers are interesting (they aren’t typical for the character’s skill sets or roles, which I think is helpful). What is “human only shoplifter”?

    Re: character choices… if you haven’t already done so, I’d also recommend working in several conflicts between characters over issues besides how lethal they are, preferably being as unredundant as possible. E.g. the merc’s buried morals might create problems for someone, the thief’s loyalty might come into question (correctly or not), the distance between the hacker and the team might lead to trust issues one way or both ways, and maybe somebody comes under suspicion as a potential police informant or undercover agent (e.g. an ex-cop that is avoiding jail under hard-to-verify circumstances might raise some eyebrows there), and any/all of the characters can have character growth in some direction that creates problems.

  19. Jackon 02 Feb 2016 at 4:21 pm

    Hey B.Mac
    Again sorry for the wait I don’t think I’ll be able to reply but once a week and sorry that was supposed to be Shapeshifter but I guess me or auto correct messed up, probably both. Thanks for the complement on the powers I was trying for helpful but not obvious, although I think I’ll give the Soldier porcupine quills instead of plant based power.

    As for the jail thing yeah she’s going to have to try and hide her face every known and again. Because while the Hacker whipped her from all government and Non-government files people still know her face, helped by the fact she was wanted by I.A. for the suspicious death of a suspect. And as for the enter team stuff I’m writing a short story so I don’t have to go to far into that but yes I did think of that with the thief but then I decided to have all but the Hacker and Soldier think of her as a mere announce because while she will stop in the middle of a plan to steal she is definitely not a snitch or killer. And no I planned on even thought the Hacker and Soldier started the team together they disagree on how to go about it. Yes the soldier is lethal but that’s just one argument, he dislikes having the extremely kill happy assassin on the team and a thief who don’t follow orders. But the mane argument threw out the story is supposed to be weather the Hacker has the right to judge kill or don’t kill while he’s safely behind a screen calling commands, or the soldier’s in the wrong to execute the enemies paid thugs when he feel’s that letting them live might cause latter damage.

    Thanks for the help and I’m going to warn you that once I start it this story will probably only take a month or two. Then I’ll be onto a new project and asking questions about it.

  20. Jackon 02 Feb 2016 at 4:23 pm

    Again sorry for long post I spazz when I type and try to say it all at once.

  21. B. McKenzieon 02 Feb 2016 at 8:58 pm

    “sorry that was supposed to be Shapeshifter.” Ah, that makes a lot of sense.

    “Because while the Hacker whipped her from all government and Non-government files people still know her face, helped by the fact she was wanted by I.A. for the suspicious death of a suspect.” If you were going for team paranoia (e.g. suspicion that she’s an undercover cop or criminal informer), one sign that someone is working with the police is that they have resources of poorly-explained origins. Especially resources/capabilities that would be really hard for a criminal to swing on his/her own (e.g. destroying electronic files and probably a few hard copies as well).

    Also, you mentioned that the hacker is one of the few characters that shies away from killing. In context, that might also be suspicious — if they are already wondering if he’s also working with the police to make her cover more believable, him being reluctant to commit felonies might be a red flag).

    “I’m going to warn you that once I start it this story will probably only take a month or two…” Hey, good luck! That’ll be a pretty badass pace.

  22. Jackon 04 Feb 2016 at 4:27 pm

    Hey B.Mac I say a month or two because when I write I just sit down and type till I finish. Normal I have plot and character arcs figured out. Although it helps that I dont worry about grammar and spelling and just hand it of to a friend who proof reads and tells what to correct. Also I say a month because this story I’m not doing to much paranoia and enter working so as to finish early because while I want to write it, it is not my best or favorite project so far.

    Thanks for the help I’ll leave you alone for a while. Unless you have any more insight I never shy away from help.

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