AMC ranked the Top 20 villains from films, which I think gives writers a good starting point when considering what characteristics make for a good villain. Let’s take a took…
- Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960)
- Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
- Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
- Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
- Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction (1987)
- Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944)
- Regan MacNeil (Satan) (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist (1973)
- The Queen (voice of Lucille LaVerne) in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Part II (1974)
- Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971)
- HAL 9000 (voice of Douglas Rain) in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968
- The Alien (Bolaji Badejo) in Alien (1979)
- Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List (1993)
- Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown (1974)
- Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery (1990)
- The Shark in Jaws (1975)
- Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
- Man in Bambi (1942)
What characteristics do all or most of these villains share?
Villains shouldn’t be easily defeated. It must be challenging for the hero to overcome the villain or it won’t be an interesting or fulfilling quest. This could be physical, mental, emotional, or some combination of power.
A villain can’t be unbeatable, though. Develop valid reasons that the villain is difficult to defeat, such as having more experience, knowledge, physical ability, connections, etc.
Vary the types of power a villain has in order to create interest and multiple avenues of challenge. Types of power might include, physical strength, magic, intelligence, money/influence, resources, etc.
Make use of opposing powers. The villain should have power that corresponds to a hero’s weaknesses. This will push the hero to develop and grow and create a more interesting storyline and character arc.
It is important that a villain be changeable. A villain having the ability to change threatens the opposition and has the potential to stall the hero’s progress. A stagnant villain is boring and easier to defeat.
Possibility of change also opens up avenues for a villain or antagonist becoming a reluctant ally. An unexpected turn can increase reader interest and allow for the goals of the hero and villain to temporarily align before returning to battling against each other.
The villain achieving his or her goal is often more important than individual conflict with the hero and can break ties and push him or her to accept temporary alliances in order to further a goal.
Villains must have rounded personalities with depth in order to be believable and interesting.
To be rounded, a villain cannot be all evil or do evil things for evil’s sake. He or she should have multiple motivations, which are often conflicting and a source of inner struggle.
To create depth, villains should have a complex history and challenging experiences. Often he or she will have suffered some level of psychological or emotional damage that has skewed his or her perception of love, power, and/or right and wrong. The villain’s initial state at the beginning of the story should be shaped by past experiences without relying too heavily on common tropes.
A villain must evolve and have a definable character arc. His or her goals, motives, and agendas should change throughout the story depending on what is experienced.
Evolving doesn’t necessarily mean “seeing the light” or changing for the better. Villains can become worse or more damaged if that is what the experiences dictate.
Villains should also learn from his or her mistakes. Do not allow a villain to repeatedly make the same stupid mistakes. It will be seen as unbelievable and irritating. Villains should be trying to defeat the hero just as hard as the hero is trying to defeat the villain.
Villains are rarely completely immoral. They simply have a warped sense of morality due to past experiences. This atypical morality may be derived from superior intelligence that makes a villain believe he or she knows better and sees more clearly than others.
This leads a villain to develop their own moral code. The villain usually believes in the “rightness” of his or her own code and believes that societal or religious morality does not apply because he or she is above it.
Well-crafted villains don’t give up easily. A villain is most often single-mindedly driven or obsessed with achieving a goal. However, it’s important that a villain still have moment away from this drive where the reader can learn more above him or her and see more deeply into his or her psyche. Truly obsessed characters are tiresome to read.
A driven personality is one the focuses intently on the idea of winning, and this attitude can be a consuming aspect of a villain’s nature because it ties the self to the achievement of the goal. It also pushes a villain to refuse to fail, which can push a person well beyond what a regular person would be willing to do.
When developing a villain, consider these elements and go beyond concepts of good and evil or right and wrong and focus on making a villain as interesting and, in some ways, relatable and likable, as your hero.