Hello readers, and welcome to another installment of Being a Better Writer. Today’s installment is one that I’ve been waiting on for a while, as it’s been near the very bottom of Topic List #19. In fact, it is the second to last post from this list! There’s only one more to go after this, and then Topic List #20.
Which is why if you’ve got a writing topic you want to see a future BaBW discuss, now is your chance to get it on the list! Hit up the Topic Call post and leave your suggestion in the comments there to get your interest covered by a future Being a Better Writer!
As for other news … I don’t believe there’s anything that I didn’t already post about in last week’s news update, so we can dive right into today’s post!
So this one has been on my mind for a while. Months, actually, since it was put on the list. I usually leave a little space for last-minute additions, and this was one of them that I grabbed after seeing a writing thread where a bunch of readers were discussing how the villains of a piece had fallen flat.
Now, as a quick aside, I do want to remind us all that there is a difference between an antagonist and a villain. Just as there is a difference between a hero and a protagonist. Someone that is acting in opposition to a protagonist is not automatically a villain. They are an antagonist. Merely being opposed to a primary character is not an automatic trait of villainy. In fact, even the definitions of these two terms note the difference. An antagonist is one who opposes the protagonist of a story and acts as an obstacle, but that is the limit. A villain on the other hand, is a character who’s evil motivations are integral to the plot.
And yes, the definition does include the term “evil” there. A villain may have ambiguous reasons (for example, Thanos), but there is no doubt that what they are doing is wrong in some awful fashion, and their aims are more than just being an obstacle to the protagonist.
In other words, it’s like the old logic puzzle or play we all encountered in grade-school: Some antagonists are villains, and some villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains, and not all villains are antagonists.
If that was a little confusing, just look at it this way: A villain can exist in a story and not be an antagonist (in fact, there are plenty of stories where a villain exists, but doesn’t play against a protagonist, or may even assist them temporarily), and an antagonist can exist but not be a villain. The two terms are independent of one another.
Now, if we want to talk about antagonists and how to use them, perhaps we can put that on a future list. But now that we’ve noted the difference between the two, lets get back to our core focus today with villains, and how we make them scary. Hit the jump!
See, there are plenty of stories out there that present villains that are not scary. Sometimes this is played for laughs, such as in the excellent film Megamind where it’s pretty clear that if the titular supervillain protagonist Megamind ever actually did hurt an innocent bystander it was very much by accident and he would probably send them flowers, because he’s doing villainy for the role. That, and he’s a supervillain, which as he directly points out in the film, is different from a regular villain (and if you want to see how, I would recommend watching the movie as it’s a delightful load of fun and quite intelligent about its study of what makes someone a villain).
Other times though, a villain is unintentionally not scary, and that can be a serious problem. The discussion I saw that spawned this post, in fact, was over a collection of stories readers had read that had left each reader feeling let down because the villain didn’t feel like a villain to them. Sure, they “were” the villain, even in definition given by the story. But they never felt, for lack of a better term, scary. The readers never felt that they were really a threat or cause for alarm. If anything, they were more of an antagonist who maybe put a few roadblocks in the way.
Now some of this could be villain/antagonist confusion. Sands, the whole reason I wrote a post about the difference between a hero and a protagonist (linked above) was because so many young, newbie writers (and readers) I would see online would use the two interchangeably, when they’re not the same term.
Villain and antagonist are the same way. So perhaps that lay at the root of things. Perhaps these readers and writers were merely confused because a newbie author referred to their antagonist as a villain, and then of course didn’t actually deliver a villain.
Now, there are other BaBW posts discussing other aspects of writing villains, so if you’re thinking right now that your picture of what a villain is happens to be lacking and you’d like to expand it past this post, click that “villain” tag at the top of the post and start reading, because BaBW‘s archives are quite vast and deep. For now though, let us focus on two things: Having a villain, and making them scary.
Because some of these authors and readers had no doubt encountered a real villain in some of these stories, someone who was acting with evil intent for their own aims, but the villain had never left an impact.
So, let’s talk about that, after all this preamble. How do we, as writers, make our villain scary?
Well, I want to start with something that was from the preamble—but don’t back away, it has a purpose. I want to talk about this definition of a villain for a second, particularly this specific bit about a villain needing to act in evil to be a villain.
There’s a trend, not as popular now as it was a few years ago, to try and fill stories with “moral relativity.” In other words, the idea that “good” and “evil” were just “nebulous concepts,” and that there is no real right or wrong. These stories generally don’t land well because they’ll try to present a “villain” that the author then argues isn’t a villain because there is no “evil,” thus making the villain “not wrong” and undermining the whole structure of their story. A story isn’t a story without a conflict.
Now, there can be stories with a question of if a character is evil and a villain, or exactly what their goals and aims are. But, the takeaway here is that in order to have a villain, you must have a somewhat solid view in the story for the reader to grasp of what is right, and what is wrong. Without this, you cannot have good or evil, and therefore cannot have a villain.
This is why a lot of stories have a “pet/kick the dog” moment when introducing a protagonist or antagonist, which usually gets expounded upon for villains. Most people would agree that pausing to pet a dog is a nice thing, while someone who kicks the dog is acting in an evil way. Amp it up to de Vil levels and skin the dog for a coat, and well …
If you want to have a villain, you must have a moral system of some kind in the story for your villain to act outside of or in opposition to. Evil, in other words. Even if it’s lawful, but for purposes that are clearly morally objectionable (for example, it is lawful to foreclose on a bunch of tenants in the middle of winter and kick them all to the curb while reselling all their possessions with the aim of abusing one’s privilege as a slumlord to make a bunch of extra money, but that doesn’t make it morally right, just the aim of the majority of US property owners).
To have a villain, you must have a system of morals, of good and bad, something that makes it clear they’re acting in a way that is reprehensible. This can vary based on what the notions of good and evil, right and wrong are for the setting of your story, but the key element, no matter what, is that the villain is willing to, able, and executing wrong in some way. If they are not, then you don’t have a villain.
Okay, so that’s how you start with a villain. But what now? What do you do next to make them ‘scary?”
Actually, let’s define “scary” for a second, since we’re not speaking just of horror here. “Scary” is a vague term, so let’s be a bit more clear. Think of “scary” as “The reader experiences dread and tension whenever this villain shows up.” That is the scary we’re going for.
They don’t actually have to scare the reader. Not in the sense of the classic horror monster. But we do want the reader to dread the appearance of our villain.
A great example of this kind of dread? Darth Vader. That hallway scene in Rogue One? That is a classic case of “dread” playing a part in the scene that’s coming. Those who had seen the other Star Wars films knew what Vader was capable of, and they know that none of the rebel troopers stand a chance against him. Is the scene scary? Well, maybe to young viewers as Vader mercilessly cuts his way through a dozen people without even trying, but it’s not really a horror scene.
However, that doesn’t stop the first-time viewer from being unable to look away the moment that scene starts, because they know something is about to go down. The scene communicates the dread of what’s coming pretty darn well.
Our villains? We should aspire for that kind of dread if we want a “scary” villain. The sort of impact where the moment they show up, our reader cannot look away, and they have no idea what’s about to happen outside of “some serious stuff is about to go down.”
That’s the scary we’re looking for. Our villain appears, and the tension of the scene ratchets upward. Suddenly all bets are off, and who knows what might happen? The reader can’t look away!
But it’s not as simple as dropping a villain into a scene. After all, the discussion that prompted this had plenty of villains in scenes that didn’t feel villainous or bring with them a sense of dread. So, what do we as creators need to do in order to achieve that if simply saying Villain!” isn’t quite enough?
Well, for start, we’re actually going to take a page out of Megamind‘s book here. Because while one of that film’s most iconic and well-remembered lines is certainly true in context, it’s also true with any villain.
Presentation is a huge deal (and yes, I put this clip here because it is fun).
I challenge you to think of any villain who you remember with any sort of fondness, and consider how they were introduced. Was it in a way that made it clear that this individual was a threat? A danger? A wild card?
We could link dozens of Youtube clips from films alone showing how the presentation of the villain, the audience’s first look, is incredibly important. Consider the first look we were given at the Joker in The Dark Knight. Or Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Darth Vader in Star Wars. Sands, Cruella de Vil in A Hundred and One Dalmations (the animated one).
Books are no different. Think of the build up given to classic villains in books many of us read growing up. Look at the build-up and presentation of Voldemort in Harry Potter, or Ms. Trunchbull in Matilda. Think about how they were presented and given context to the reader and the setting.
Every one of these villains is given indications, be that fear, people stepping away, shuddering, or panic, from those around them to “sell” the impact of the villain. If you are going to introduce a villain to your setting—actually, scratch that. If you are going to write a story with a villain in it, think about how you are going to tailor that setting to sell the presentation of the villain, to make them stand out as a force to be reckoned with in some way.
Now, please note that this doesn’t mean you immediately have to identify the villain. You can have a “hidden villain” that is every bit as menacing and impactful the moment they are revealed because of everything that they did before the audience knew who they were. Take the Joker in the now-famous opening of The Dark Knight. We spend a good five minutes watching this bank robbery go down without actually knowing that the Joker, our villain, is right there in the middle of it. He is one mask among many … but there are little clues and hints about what’s truly going on as the rest of the robbers carry out the robbery and make comments about their boss. Then there’s the reveal where the Joker takes off his mask, and suddenly every scene before that takes on a new significance, because who the audience thought was a random background mook is in fact the big bad.
For a story that did this very poorly to the point that it undersold the entire end of the movie, look at Ares in Wonder Woman. Oof. The difference there was we never got to see Ares doing any of the background stuff that made them the big bad, it was just dumped on us at the end. Joker works because we see these robbers going about the robbery, and then we see that all these little interactions we’d already seen had greater weight in the villain’s plan.
Point being, the presentation of your villain does a lot for how the audience will see them through the rest of the story. However, there’s one other aspect of this where a lot of stories go wrong: Show the villainy. Don’t tell it (that was Wonder Woman‘s problem).
Trunchbull hurls a child by their hair over a fence for wearing pigtails. Vader breaks a man’s neck for not giving him what he wants. Deagle smiles as she informs a poor renter that her only goal in life is to make money, and if the renter can’t help with that, she might as well be dead.
Even villains we don’t see directly can still have their presentation “shown” to the audience. Voldemort, for example, doesn’t show up until the very end of the story in the first Harry Potter book, but the impact of his villainy is shown to the readers not in that the characters tell the protagonist about him, but shown in how they tell him, being very hesitant to talk about him or even say his name, acting as though he really might come back if they discuss him. Joker’s little tics while he’s playing the part of a robber show exactly what sort of calculating, cruel individual he is.
You want your villain to be “scary?” To bring that sense of dread with them when they finally appear? Then show them in a manner that builds it up.
However, and I bold this to make a point, do not make the mistake of going too big. Sometimes creators get the “presentation” idea right, but they then oversell their villain by showing them at their worst/most powerfull right from the get go, and never eclipse that. This is detrimental, because we want to give our audience dread, but not expose the full depths of the final conflict.
IE, Vader breaks someone’s neck, but he doesn’t do so by force-lifting the individual and hurling items around with the force, while twirling his lightsaber. He just breaks the guy’s neck. The rest of his fearsome repertoire is brought out over the rest of the story, escalating step by step as the story does.
Basically, presentation is good, but don’t spoil everything. If all your big bad is capable of doing is blowing a planet up, and that’s all the climax is going to be about, don’t let the climax simply be their introduction all over again with no new elements.
This is, as a side, I think where a lot of “bank villains” in common stories go wrong: They’re presented with the same power and capability at the beginning of their story as they are at the end, which really isn’t much. There’s no escalation.
Don’t blow all your surprises up front, in other words. The 1984 Transformers film starts with the big bad, Unicron, eating a planet, and holds that as the threat for most of the film … until the climax, at which point Unicron decides that simply eating the homeworld everyone is trying to defend isn’t nearly enough and, being Transformers, transforms into a giant humanoid robot that begins ripping the homeworld apart with his bare hands. Pretty much for no other reason than to show the heroes how little they mean to him.
It’s not a perfect movie, but I think the illustration of presentation and escalation stands pretty well: You can open with a villain that can destroy a planet as long as you escalate to something more in the final act.
Star Wars, for example, opens with a small ship battle and shootout, then halfway through blows up a planet to raise the stakes, then has that same power, now useable, the threat to the antagonist as we end with a much grander space battle than we started with.
If you’re seeing bookends, well yes, something to keep in mind.
But we’re not done, despite how long this post is already. Because there’s one other thing we need to discuss, something that supports everything we’ve talked about thus far and is vital to making a villain truly scary, truly something or someone our reader dreads.
Again, this is where “bank villains” and a lot of generic villains go wrong: They’re presented as a threat, built up as one, but then don’t ever really act on that. Maybe they get into “shenanigans” attempting to stop our protagonist, but they don’t often threaten.
In other words, a lot of villains who aren’t “scary” aren’t because they’re paper tigers. They’re built up as big, bad villains, but don’t ever actually take anything from the hero/protagonist or really impact things.
And we don’t want that. Readers pick up on this quickly. It’s like the line from Dara O’ Briain about the movie 2012, where he notes that no matter what the protagonist does, the lava chasing him always matches his speed. If he’s running, it’s just at his heels. If he gets in a car? The lava speeds up. O’ Briain then said by about halfway through he was wondering what would have happened if the protag had stopped and turned around, postulating that the lava would have immediately gone ‘Oh, he’s called our bluff, back down the hole, we got nothing!’
Don’t let your villain be toothless despite all that presentation. Give them their teeth. And their claws. Let them be a threat.
Let them wound. Let them kill, even. If our protagonists get in the way, do not be afraid to “sell” exactly how strong and outmatched they might be by the villain by letting the villain do what the villain does.
Why? Because we don’t want the lava from 2012. We want our readers to sit up when the villain makes an appearance, to take notice and fear what might happen next. Each time the big bad takes the stage, we want our audience to fear what might be lost. We want our audience to know the rules of the game have just changed, and may change further. That our heroes will not be walking away unscathed.
Another way to say it is that our villain should bring a cost to our protagonist or heroes, and that the reader should dread that cost, whatever it may be.
But the villain has to deliver on that cost. After all that presentation, all that build-up, etc … They need to deliver on it.
There are a lot of ways to do this. The mentor death is a classic of mythology. Death of a friend, loved one, or even a protagonist is another.
But while these are classics, they’re far from the only way to give our villains a cloud of dread. There can be the way they toy with our heroes/protagonist, clearly aware they could end them at any moment and sometimes considering it. There can be the way they strike from unexpected angles, always inflicting a blow, but never one the audience or characters see coming. There can simply be how they have a way with words and make the protagonist doubt everything they’re doing.
Point is, when they show up, something is about to take a blow of some kind, and the story’s tension (and the dread of the villain) goes up.
There is a warning with this, however. Like with the presentation, don’t oversell it. If the villain shows up constantly taunting the hero or protagonist, constantly needling them and raining blows, it can wear out the audience and with them the villain’s welcome. Moderation, in other words. It’s one thing to face pressure, another to always ratchet the tension and dread up with a villain appearance. Don’t oversell things, or even the blows your cast takes from the villain will start to blend and become bland, rather than impactful. Do have the villain show up with teeth, don’t overdo it.
Well, that wraps up this titanic post. So, to recap, a villain is by definition evil, so you need to have a semblance of right and wrong in order to have a villain at all. Once you’ve got that right and wrong with the villain on the wrong side of it, give them some presentation, shown, to sell the reader on what kind of threat they actually are. Then, as the story gets going, let the villain use their teeth and harm the protagonists in some manner. Don’t pull the punches, let them make the protags bloody!
Work at this, and you’ll write a villain who brings dread and fear to the audience when they arrive. A villain that will stick in their memory, along with the shivers of tension they inflicted.
A villain that truly is a villain.
Good luck. Now get writing.
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