A hero is only as good as their villain. If your villain is a weak, one-dimensional, cardboard version of the people you hate, you won’t give your hero someone to struggle against and grow from. If your villain is so powerful that your hero can’t even dream of fighting back, your hero becomes a helpless victim. The protagonist can grow and become the person they need to become only when faced with their perfect antagonist. This begs the question of what makes a perfect antagonist?
1. They keep the hero from reaching their goal:
When it comes to the function of a villain in your story, keep in mind a villain’s purpose is to prevent the hero from reaching their goal. If you want to take this a step further, have your villain compete against your hero. This will create the greatest amount of conflict between them.
2. They attack your hero’s flaws:
Your villain doesn’t have to be invincible(although they can’t be weaker than the hero). The power a villain has over a hero revolves around their ability to attack your hero’s flaws. Your hero can be super-strong, super-fast, and invincible, but if their flaw is that they have a soft spot for money, your villain can attack this vulnerability by offering to make them rich at a snap of their fingers. Does this mean the end of the hero? Well . . . the hero will have to either grow and overcome their weaknesses or they won’t be able to achieve their goals.
3. They won’t attack your hero’s strengths:
When writing characters, we can assume that if a character is a great warrior-king, like Othello, their villain should also be a great warrior-king. Having this fight between two warriors could create the most intense conflict in your story, right? Wrong. John Truby, in his book, The Anatomy of a Story, recommends you focus on attacking your hero’s weaknesses more than attacking your hero’s strength. Shakespeare knew that which is why he didn’t have another warrior-king fight Othello but instead created the devious, scheming Iago, who crafts Othello’s downfall.
4. They are human:
This doesn’t mean they have to belong to the human race, they just have to reflect the flaws inherent in the human condition. They should be self-aware of their actions, introspective, sometimes kind, and even regretful (whether or not they’re open about it). Maybe the villains want the best for the world and for your hero. For example, (SPOILERS FOR BREAKING BAD (2008-2013)) in the series Breaking Bad, Walter White, an underpaid, undervalued high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with lung cancer and he turns to a life of crime producing and distributing crystal meth. At some point of the story, both his wife becomes opponents to his objective. Even though she wishes to stop Walter from reaching his goal, she does so because she wants the best for him and their family. This is to show that a villain may have motives that, according to themselves, would be better for the hero.
However, there are exceptions to every rule. Some villains in the horror or monster genre, for example, are literally monsters. The Xenomorphs in Ridley Scott’s, Aliens, are monsters whose reproductive process involves taking the lives of other living beings.
Other stories that explore themes of good and evil can still have monsters who are villains. For these kinds of monsters to grip your audience, you need to keep from the audience the clear reasons why they became monsters. In The Dark Knight trilogy, a movie series that explored good, evil, and human nature, Heath Ledger’s Joker was a monster who embodied this theme. What fascinates audiences about the Joker is that Christopher Nolan, the director, refused to give their audience a clear reason on why the Joker is how he is. If Christopher Nolan would have revealed that the Joker had a tragic backstory that justified his behavior, the magnitude of the story’s argument would be reduced to, “people become evil because of tragedy,” instead of leaving us wondering for nine years what made him into a monster.
5. They have reasonable values:
Part of the process of building your characters is defining their values. When writing your villain, be sure they don’t hold shallow values like greed, power, or tyranny. Instead of greed, write that they value the fruits of their labor. Have your villain value control to save others from themselves as an alternative to power. Suppose they want to order, and they think the best way of achieving it is tyranny. Be fair with their values.
6. They have good intentions:
A cutthroat villain who kills others in the most deplorable manner to conquer the world is a cliché. A cutthroat villain who kills others in the most deplorable manner to save their daughter, however, can be written in such a way that they become relatable. A great way to create a sensible villain is by giving them a strong yet faulty argument for why they should achieve their goal.