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.