Feb 29 2016

Creating Memorable Villains

We read a book to experience the journey a hero takes and to relate to the person they once were. However, a hero’s journey runs stagnant without a villain capable of proving their worth. Without a cunning villain, you have a hero basking in his awesomeness. Without a memorable villain, you have a hero walking a path we’ve grown bored with. Without a compelling villain, you have a story falling flat on its face and just going through the motions. The  superhero can only be as mighty as the super villains they face.

 

Brian has already discussed the motivations for both heroes and villains. It is true the majority of motivating factors can be boiled down into a mere handful, so how is it possible to make a villain stand out amongst the plethora of evil organizations and bad guys with advanced degrees? While the overarching reasons to turn to villainy can be simple as love or the temptation of power, it is the flaws of these well-known troupes that create a character strong enough to rival our heroes.

 

For the sake of discussing supervillain archetypes, I’ll use three whose construction is elevated beyond many. The first is Magneto, to this day, my favorite villain of all time. His backstory is as complex as his emotional state. Born to Jewish parents and witnessing the Holocaust, Erik Lensherr’s primary motivating factor as a villain is to rule the world to bring order to a chaotic system and to a lesser extent, punish those who have done him wrong. Magneto has arguably one of the most impressive powers in Marvel (he did nearly destroy the planet, steal nuclear warheads, and create an outer space base of operations) but he holds a fundamental flaw as a villain: he knows what he is doing is bad.

 

How can the knowledge you are a bad guy create a villain to survive the ages? He witnessed one of the greatest horrors as a youth and later, as Genosha is nearly eradicated, he witnesses it again. We have a man who is reflecting on his life’s work, realizing that his mighty strokes of villainy has done nothing to change the course of mankind. Worse yet, he realizes that he has become the thing he loathes and he moves from villain to dubious hero. We hope as an audience he will find absolution, not only for the horror’s he’s witnessed but the ones he’s perpetuated. The weight he bears as he rescues Kitty Pryde from certain death is but one of the many grand gestures he partakes in to regain a piece of himself loss to his misguided efforts. We witness Magneto, master of magnetism, feel sorrow for the wrongdoing he’s committed. A flaw as a villain that give us perpetual hope he’ll become a badass hero.

 

However, not all memorable villains need the hope of redemption to be seared into our minds. I think one of the greatest portrayals of a villain in the live action world is Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk in Netflix’s original series Daredevil. The mystery of who is running the crime in Hell’s Kitchen was well known to the viewer, and we eager anticipated the despicable businessman turned crime mastermind entering and dominating us with his unrivaled tenacity. Our first image of Wilson Fisk is not acting as the Kingpin, it’s of a man trying to understand the meaning behind a piece of art. What we see is Fisk lost in an emotional state, pondering sensations he’s uncertain of how to process. Fisk has a backstory a mile long in which we feel he is the victim, but in this single moment, we experience his humanity as he relates the work of art to a wall from the days of being abused.

 

Now, it’s not enough we see our villain as human. Fisk is the perfect example of how villains are created, not born. It’s rare for our super villains to be perfectly evil, instead, more often we find them driven to their profession. Fisk’s abuse at the hands of his father creates a common story and accessible by many viewers. As he is beaten, we root for him to go from the underdog to the man in power. What we don’t realize at the time, he becomes a man of power, to a man we detested in the first place. While he is now this powerful man, we see glimpses into his humanity. The need to feel sorrow fuels him as he stares into the painting. We only see him become more vulnerable when he courts the gallery owner, Vanessa. We sympathize with this man, forgetting his power or influence as he awkwardly tries to ask a woman he finds beautiful on a date. We’re geeks, we’ve been there and we feel a victory when she accepts.During the final battle, I found myself wanting him to win, not because I wanted to see Daredevil lose, but because I wanted the flawed man, who had endured so much, to walk away with yet another victory.

 

Netflix has proven it can create a villain we love to hate, they only solidified this in Jessica Jones when we met Kevin Thompson, aka Kilgrave (known as Purple Man in the comics) played by David Tennant. With the ability to control anybody with his voice, he previously forced Jones into a “relationship” against her will. Exerting his abilities on Jones, we understand her past with him equates to rape. So how can a man who is so extremely vile be considered memorable? Kilgrave wants the one thing he can’t have, a woman, Jones, to love him of her own free will. Again, we see a flaw, a flaw we have been victim to many times, wanting the object of our affection but not having our feelings returned. We see a sinister form of ourselves and we’re faced with the question, “If I had his powers, what would I do?” With such a great power, his machinations are extremely shortsighted and he has little desire for world conquest or even to be more than what he currently is. The only thing he wants: the thing he can’t have; a do-gooder with a serious attitude problem.

 

Kilgrave spends the series, forcing her into situations in which she must confront herself. She fears that his abilities will trap her again. Even when we discover *spoiler alert* that he can not trap her with his abilities, he creates situations resulting in her volunteering to become his girlfriend. For a moment, we witness Kilgrave being capable of good. Because underneath the destruction he causes to obtain Jones, he feels he is doing what he must to court the girl and win her over. His incredible intellect is flawed by his inability to comprehend the world beyond himself due to his sociopathic behaviors. We understand that he’s trying to win her over and has no idea how to do it because he can’t understand anything beyond himself. Jones has to face this reality and in a moment when she believes she will be captured by him forever, she confronts her demons and imperfections and walks away victorious. We’re left understanding why it ended the way it did, but we feel pity for the poor Kilgrave and his need to be loved.

 

In these three villains, we have a range of one who wants to rule the world for the betterment of his people, to a man who wants to overcome his past, and another desires love. Each of them are the product of their insecurities and we find their insecurities, partly because of the scale, and partly because of the super-status, blown so largely out of proportion we’re left wondering as the viewer, “Would that be me?” A villain can not be a hurdle for the hero to overcome and surpass to prove their own heroism. There is a formula to create a memorable villain, but it does require a certain amount of willingness to delve into the mind of the villain and explore them as a character.

 

  • Find their origin. At what moment did they create this persona and what does this persona hope to overcome?
  • Breathe humanity into their character. We need to see real people, people with flaws and kinks in their armor. We want to see a piece of ourselves in them that leave us questioning our own morality.
  • Let their flow be their motivation, not their weakness. We don’t want to see a hero exploit the humanity of another character or we watch our hero fall from grace. Let the villain’s humanity be their motivation to be a villain. Insecurity on all levels drives us, however when you’re super, it can drive you further.
  • Let us know your villain. If we only see the villain doing evil things, they will remain two-dimensional and be forgotten. Take a moment and step back and let us see how they operate doing even the simplest of things. We watch Magneto seek personal redemption, Fisk asks a woman on a date, and Kilgrave stops to have tea with his beloved Jones. Ordinary things will let us see them as human and not just a hurdle.

 

Amazing powers and an awesome uniform do not make a villain memorable. It’s the flaws in their humanity that breathe life into the characters. Be sure to treat them as a character and not just a punching bag for your hero. Let them develop, because as they develop, the strain between them and your protagonist will increase and you’ll be left with a dynamic that has us turning the page to see who will emerge victorious. Give them chances to be human and let the reader inside their world more than just the confrontations. Let us see them on date night or how they take their tea. The more we connect, the more we remember.

 

About the Author

Jeremy Flagg has written several books including the young adult Suburban Zombie High Series as well as a non-fiction book memoir, I.Am.Maine: Stories of Small Town Maine. He lives and writes in Metrowest Massachusetts. For more information you can find him at http://www.remyflagg.com

Children of Nostradamus (Nighthawks, Book 1) is currently available for order on Amazon.

23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Creating Memorable Villains”

  1. Aj of Earthon 01 Mar 2016 at 7:41 am

    Great article.

    I agree the best, most memorable villains are the ones that challenge our conceptions of the term due to the level of Humanity involved. I haven’t watched Jessica Jones, but Magneto and Wilson Fisk from Netflix’s Daredevil are perfect examples of this. The depth of these characters, the real internal workings there with all the flaws and strengths and fears, the real pathos, is what ultimately seals the deal. Yes of course their actions are nefarious, often deplorable, but when we get to experience the complexity of a villain’s mind, their heart (yes, they have them), we are then forced to place ourselves in their shoes. If we ourselves were the product of the same exact circumstances, would we personally behave any differently? And if so, how? What would we, a fellow Human in conflict, really do? Just by nature of this internal dialogue we have established a connection with these characters, because we have raised our awareness of the level of their Humanity.

    I think this is part of the function of art in general (in which music, literature, writing, performance, traditional media, all of it can be categorized): To produce thought and reflection in the onlooker. What do we see? How does it connect to our own experiences, if at all? Usually what provokes those kinds of thoughts is the attention paid to the work of art in question, the details, the many layers. In the case of villains in fiction, this is no different, as outlined here in this article. As an avid reader as well as a writer working to do justice with this very topic, I feel this is so important to pay attention to. Truly.

    Again, great article. Much obliged!

  2. Byakuya91on 01 Mar 2016 at 4:33 pm

    Interesting article and hats off to the author. I do think crafting a villain is something that needs to be given great thought. If you want your antagonist to be memorable, you need to make sure like the hero, he fits the story to a T. Specifically, where you could not imagine the story without him or her(much like the Hero).

    But unlike the Hero, I don’t think the bad guy needs to get the lion’s share of the focus. That should go to the protagonist. But I do agree, we do need to see them as a character with motivations, so as the audience needs to sympathize.

    I agree with B. Mac that altruistic bad guys are often some of the best antagonists. They aren’t so easy to write off and their rationale for taking such drastic measures, often make for compelling/memorable characters.

    Not to toot my own horn, but the story I am revising(for the third time) the major antagonist’s motivations are for altruistic purposes. To be succinct, she foresaw through a vision how a series of government experiments go out of hand and lead to the destruction of planet earth.

    The organization she used to serve( the protagonist serves it) tries to stop them. But they fail, and the entities escape earth, besieging a variety of dimensions and bringing about the destruction of all sentient life.

    Now, obviously her wanting to destroy earth is an extreme reaction, but one that ties into her backstory. Namely, her growing up in poverty, being ignored and wanting to be acknowledged. Combined with her attachment to books(she’s quite the bookworm), she sees herself as the unsung hero. The one who knows she’s going to be committing a major atrocity, but she sees it as saving trillions of lives.

    But on a personal level, she may feel like humans, at least, when compared to other dimensions/realms, have yet to reach their potential. Instead, their fear holds them back. Considering she loved stories about Sinbad, Robin Hood and other classic heroes, her perspective is skewed, to say the least. Seeing nothing but horror.

    Overall, that’s what I’m working with. I apologize if I sounded conceited, but I do agree with this article completely.

  3. Jeremy Flaggon 03 Mar 2016 at 6:12 am

    Aj,

    I agree wholeheartedly. I think this piece of reflection caused by the antagonist really makes them an integral part of the story instead of just a hurdle. I also do agree that there needs to be some amount of heart in there. I’m not denying a villain with purely chaotic evil intentions can’t be suitable in the right situation, (I’m thinking the “Nothing” in Never-ending Story) but you can’t connect with it.

    And watch Jessica Jones. If you liked DD, this will blow your socks off!

    Flagg

  4. Aj of Earthon 03 Mar 2016 at 10:06 am

    Jeremy

    You know, as a boy, whenever I watched the NeverEnding Story I was always the most scared of the Gmork, the monster in the shape of a wolf sent to kill the warrior-child Atreyu. The reason I was so scared of him was not because he was savage and fearsome, but because of his true nature. He was the servant to the power behind the Nothing.

    Behind it…

    To attempt to understand what this meant, the implications of some larger essence that had no real name, that was somehow pushing events forward from some other elsewhere, was terrifying. That it wasn’t just a storm destroying the world but that it was on purpose, that it was a plan and not just a physical one but one based in the dreams and hopes of all of Mankind–to consider the emptiness that was left behind when people began to forget those hopes, the elemental antithesis of everything that is in fact Humanity, that knew somehow what it was doing because people without hope are easy to control… For me, at the time really the same age as Bastian in the film, this is what would keep me up.

    Though with a name like Flagg, I suspect you understand exactly what I mean by this. Greater, unknowable evils, as well as the beings who serve them. Folks who walk between the worlds, weakening and breaking them…

    So yes, definitely there is room for the unknowable evil, the purely chaotic essence that pervades whatever is receptive to it. And truly, this is what frightens me the most, the worst sort of “villain” there is. One that is so far above the meaning of the word that we couldn’t breathe there.

    Against that, suddenly the on-the-ground Villains with Humanity, the Magnetos and Fisks of the world, feel a lot safer. With them, at least you know where you stand.

  5. Aj of Earthon 04 Mar 2016 at 9:30 am

    Also I’m realizing Flagg may actually be your last name. If so, I didn’t mean to just insinuate your personal association with villainy in the above comment. Apologies. I assumed a reference to Randall Flagg, infamous Stephen King villain.

  6. Jeremy Flaggon 05 Mar 2016 at 1:36 pm

    Randall Flagg is my a relative 🙂 And yes, there’s an association there 😉

  7. B. McKenzieon 05 Mar 2016 at 2:28 pm

    I strive to be the world’s most villainous McKenzie. Unfortunately, the world’s largest law firm happens to have a lot of McKenzies in it, so I don’t even think I’m #1 in Chicago yet.

  8. Anonymouson 09 Mar 2016 at 12:37 am

    Magneto is nowhere close to the most powerful person in marvel. That would probably be Franklin Richards

  9. B. McKenzieon 09 Mar 2016 at 2:25 am

    “Magneto is nowhere close to the most powerful person in marvel.” Ehh, he can plausibly destroy the world… at that point arguing about who’s more powerful is like arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

  10. Vixis Shiar'Deluson 10 Mar 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Magneto essentially controls the force of magnetism, not just rocks. I’ll briefly cover a few of his sub-abilities, but I have a link that will help those who don’t understand his abilities understand them a bit better.

    He could get rid of or change the magnetic fields of planets and stars if he tried hard enough. He’s created wormholes, can stop or change thought (through control of the brains electromagnetic thought transmissions) and read minds. He can rip molecules apart using the magnetic fields holding them together, and can put them back together to heal things.

    http://www.magnetowasright.com/pages/analysis/the-science-of-magneto.php

  11. (o_n')on 02 Jul 2016 at 10:23 am

    I thought the subject was about making memorable villians, not dicusing wich marvel villian is the strongest. Secondly the villian is only as strong as the writer makes them. I personally would hate any character with limitless power. It is just a red flag in most cases.

    My favorite villian as kid was Magica De Spell(comic version, I don’t like the Ducktales version, too cutesy), I am aware most americans aren’t very into Disney comics, unlike the rest of the world. I thought the reason I liked her, was because her potiental powers was unlimited(she could change the direction of gravity, change her or other characters’ apparence, controling plants), however there was more practical restricitons to her powers, she can’t do without a wand, a certain potion, her bombs or being vurneable to garlic(it works, because it is such everday item, unlike kryptonite). In fact she only after being the most powerful person in the world and to make it, she need the first earned money from the richest duck in the world. It somewhat obession, because she has tried for about 55 years now.
    Even she can change apperance, she don’t do it constantly, she uses the ability only then she find a need too and not then just fits the plot and author, which other female characters might learn of or least their authors. Changing apperance in the middle of the street, might get a lot of attention. Less antention then you just hiding in a bush rather change apperance, which Magica does mostly hide in bushes.

  12. Anonymouson 06 Jul 2016 at 12:43 pm

    @(o_n’)

    “I thought the subject was about making memorable villains, not discussing which Marvel villain is the strongest.”

    That it was. Flagg’s article utilized Marvel villains as key examples for sure, but I feel not for their strength and powers (or even their Marvel-ness) so much as for their multi-faceted complexity, conflicts and flaws–their Humanity. That was my take-away at least. Further, the discussion that developed went on to include other very excellent non-Marvel examples (enjoyed not just in the U.S. but the rest of the world as well, go figure) from literature as well as film, a certain superhero writing website and even one real-life multinational law firm. Who knew? And now, with your example of Magica De Spell–which is awesome, right on–we have that much more to include and consider, as Disney certainly knows its business concerning memorable villainy–better than most. Thanks for joining the conversation so amiably though, and without that tedious condescension that some folks confusedly bring to the table whenever they have a counter-opinion to offer. It’s a pleasure to have you.

    By the by, I corrected the many typos in that quoted sentence for you.

    Well met.

    -AoE

  13. AjofEarthon 06 Jul 2016 at 12:45 pm

    Oops, forgot my name in the above comment.

    Well met (again!)

    -AoE

  14. (o_n')on 07 Jul 2016 at 6:47 am

    @AoE
    I think one of reasons Disney has memorable villains, is big variety of age in audience.
    Their audience is families, but you need to entertain children and adult alike.
    Cruella De Vill properly works as a villain for a child, then she decides to make coat of Dalmatian pups, but adding that extra layer that she got a tiger shot and stolen in a zoo and she choose to use baby fur instead of normal fur does something. I don’t remember how many family movies I had watch, where children, pets or rarely their parents are taken as hostess by the villain without adding to plot. If villain take one of parents, don’t let them be super scientist/spy/hero, make them ordinary, but competent. Or least make a proper reason to get parents in the secret lair. The antagonist is awkwardly in love with your hero’s single parent since high school, but have no idea how to ask their love interest out. Stockholm syndrome or stepparent from hell are lot more promising, than hero’s dad are too smart to be in jail for sciencfic misconduct and the villain too stupid to realise it.

  15. AjofEarthon 07 Jul 2016 at 7:19 am

    “I think one of reasons Disney has memorable villains, is big variety of age in audience.”

    Heh, and here I was going to go with covert societal manipulation. 😉

    But if I had to personally choose the one Disney villain who’s the most memorable to me, it’s always been Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959). I think what stood out the most was that she didn’t sing songs, didn’t rhyme, didn’t make jokes–she wasn’t un-serious in any regard whatsoever. She was ruthless and exacting. Also, (pure bonus) she turned into a dragon and went out with an enchanted blade through her heart.

    Many of the villains that Disney has pumped out since (and also prior to) pale in comparison to this, at least I’ve always felt.

  16. (o_n')on 07 Jul 2016 at 11:27 am

    And all those are mentioned are female so far. Sadly I have only the old Princess movies in book version and villain gets very little to say in them.
    Weirdly enough I don’t remember any memorable male villains from Disney. Especially not those are portrayed in movies. In comics where is Beagle Boys and The Phantom Blot, which are simply thieves. The Beagle Boys are rarely interesting on their own( their most and only distinctive trait is one of them likes prunes), but their struggles with getting rich as fast possible without working are. The Phantom Blot is more interesting character, being working mostly out of sight, leaving notes with blot on as proof it was him. In fact he has a lot of common with supervillains in superhero stories, he break out of prison of free will and trying to kill or at least neutralize opponents if needed. Maybe that was reason he was used a lot in Disney’s parody version of Superman, Supergoof in 50s and 60s. I think he is second oldest Disney villain, who is still active in making crime. Only Black Pete is older, but he is not as interesting.

  17. B. McKenzieon 07 Jul 2016 at 2:08 pm

    “Weirdly enough I don’t remember any memorable male villains from Disney.” Of the Disney and Pixar movies I’ve seen, I haven’t found any villains particularly effective (male or female). I find the disloyal boyfriend in Frozen (a pleasant surprise) and Scar (well-executed vanilla) the most memorable in a field which doesn’t aim very high. In kids movies, I think the villains tend to play a much smaller role (especially in Pixar) and are much less surprising (especially in Disney) than in great adult works. E.g. in Up the protagonists spend maybe 5-15 minutes interacting with the main villain and/or his mission. Even Ellie, who dies ~10 minutes into the movie, has a much larger impact on the plot than the villain does. (Some Pixar movies, e.g. Finding Nemo/Dory, don’t even have a villain).

    I don’t think we’re even vaguely in the ballpark of a masterpiece villain here (e.g. Dark Knight, M, Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, Sherlock, Watchmen, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, etc). These are villains that routinely get extraordinary scenes, are hard to predict (even when you know what they want and/or what they’re like*), and generally drive the central plot as much or more than the heroes do. Chaos is a ladder… usually built by villains.

    *E.g. in Game of Thrones, Petyr Baelish is known to be a liar, but delivers many more surprises on that front than a lesser character like Wormtongue does. E.g. at one point he (SPOILER) convinces the king’s top general (a strictly honorable man) to launch a coup against an illegitimate king. Betraying the king fits with what we know of the character, so it’s believable that this is his actual goal. Surprise #1: he betrays the coup to the king to gain the king’s trust and favor. Surprise #2: he needed the king’s trust so that he could betray the king himself later.

  18. AjofEarthon 07 Jul 2016 at 2:55 pm

    “I don’t think we’re even vaguely in the ballpark of a masterpiece villain here… A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.”

    WARNING: SEASON 6 FINALE SPOILER

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHYL-uiLJ14

    /END SPOILER

    Cersei tho… Just, damn.

  19. B. McKenzieon 07 Jul 2016 at 4:50 pm

    One major difference between adult-themed villains and kid-themed villains is that the adult-themed villains get more room to be dark and/or actually succeed at some of their goals. E.g. Cersei accomplishes more in 3 minutes, despite being a ball of crazy disrespected even by her own completely nutters family, than any Disney villain could dream of. They’re LUCKY if they kill the old mentor.

  20. (o_n')on 08 Jul 2016 at 3:32 am

    You’re right about adult-themed villains mostly get a lot more accomplished and have more dark twisted personality.
    But there is excuses, I don’t remember any Johnny English villains do something truely remarkable, but that is comedy. I do however remember how terrifying Mrs. Tweedy was in Chicken Run. I mean killing a innocent chicken, run the chicken farm as a prison camp, ordering a automatic pie making death machine and almost succeed in killing main character twice. However she ending up being killed by a barn door. Evil villains get slain in children movies, in adult innocent and naive people get slain, maybe by a villain.
    I don’t think they would show in a children movie, that the villain blowed his own family up.

  21. Andrewon 23 Aug 2016 at 12:54 am

    Question: What would be good goals for villains to have? And not the typical world domination routine, goals that would make them more interesting

  22. B. McKenzieon 23 Aug 2016 at 4:55 pm

    “What would be good goals for villains to have?” I have some ideas here.

  23. young grasshopperon 23 Aug 2016 at 7:52 pm

    The main villains in my story are already subtly controlling the world from behind the scenes. Their motivation for interacting with my MC is to try and mold him into someone who can one day join their ranks and further their agendas.

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