Storytelling

How to Make Your Dastardly Villain More Memorable

What makes a villain truly memorable? Their swirly cape? Their nefarious mustache? Their maniacal laugh? But are any of these details why you remember these characters? Here are some aspects of villains that make them memorable.

Spoiler Warnings: Brian Azzarello’s Joker, Under The Red Hood (2010), Watchmen, Se7en

Appearance

Many memorable villains are just a bit…off. They’re human, but they have some characteristic that makes our subconscious flinch away from them. Each of these famous villains dips their toe into the Uncanny Valley, and they are all better remembered for it.

  • Darth Vader‘s armored suit marks him as distinct and unique. No one would mistake him for a common Imperial officer.
  • Joker, arguably Batman’s greatest foe, is known for ghoulish white face paint. Several versions of him, most notably from The Dark Knight, but also from Brian Azzarello’s Joker, sport a Glasgow smile. Joker is a criminal mastermind in a city filled with them, but he is easily the most memorable of the lot, and his war paint contributes to that.
  • The Terminator is a robotic death machine hell-bent on keeping the murder-party going, but until the end of the movie he appears to be wholly human. He also understands the value of pants, which is generally considered a human trait.

However, your villain shouldn’t be solely defined by his appearance. Penguin and Two-Face have human yet distinct appearances, but they aren’t as beloved as the Joker. There is more to a memorable villain than merely than a fancy set of armor or scars.

Personality

Just like heroes, villains need interesting personalities to set themselves apart from the pack. Think about Penguin. Can you remember much about him besides his name, strange appearance, and fondness for umbrellas? Perhaps there are some Penguin enthusiasts out willing to set the record straight, but his lack of personality means that he’s not one of Batman’s more memorable foes.

Two-Face is a better known villain than Penguin due to his bipolar personality. The problem is, it isn’t exactly unique: Jekyll and Hyde were famous decades before Two-Face‘s introduction. While more people know of Two-Face than Penguin, low bars make everything more impressive.

Joker is a different kind of beast however, and easily the most infamous. Let’s go back to Azzarello’s Joker. Joker is a violent murderer, but he has a dark and vicious sense of gleeful humor many villains don’t share.

Trigger Warning: Torture

Early in the comic, there is a scene in a strip club. A gang leader crossed the Joker, and he is trying to make amends with him to avoid a violent death. Joker puts him at ease by taking him backstage for an implied lap dance. In the next scene, the gang leader, now skinned, is pushed onto the stage, and slumps against a stripper pole. Joker walks out, and slaps a dollar bill against his stripped rump, where it sticks.

That moment stuck with me. Instead of being your typical cold and calculating villain, he has a sense of humor to contrast his violent and brutal nature. He may be cruel and callous, but I wouldn’t call him “cold”. Joker exhibits personality traits that differ from your average villain, and he is more memorable for it.

Just like heroes, perfect villains are boring (looking at you, Superman). Lex Luther has a crippling ego coupled with a determination to best Superman no matter what. Flaws bring contrast to their qualities, so give them some for good measure.

Modus Operandi

Modus operandi is how a villain tries to achieve their goals, be it through outright physical violence or emotional manipulation. Although this is important for all characters, villains in particular need definition so that they can be properly depicted. You should try to make the M.O. interesting and well defined to make them stand apart.

Are their plans simple, or complex?

Joker is the easiest example of a villain with simple plans. In Under the Red Hood, Joker distracts Batman long enough with his goons to murder Robin with a crowbar and incendiary explosives. He has no problems getting his hands dirty; his plans involve direct action and minimal steps. If you choose this sort of character, don’t hesitate to describe the villainous outcome.

On the other hand, Watchmen’s Ozymandias has a plan that is devious and complicated. He stands behind the scenes, each finger tugging on a string to move every piece into place. From the cancer victims to the staged assassination attempt, his plan has multiple aspects, and betrays a thinker who creates complex machinations. If your villain is this type, make sure your plan is well understood by the audience when explained. You might think yourself clever, but people don’t like being confused.

Whichever you choose, remember that this is not a bipolar choice. There is a mystical place known as the middle ground.

Does the villain act alone, or is he the part of something greater?

I don’t mean “Does he have goons?” Ozymandias uses cat’s paws, but his plan is his own, and he handles the most important parts himself. He gave the Comedian a final punchline himself because he threatened the plan. It showcases his ego and a high level of caution, making him a more distinguished and well-defined villain.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have SPECTRE, an organization made of many capable villains that harry James Bond. Plans and resources are shared, and together they strive for world domination. SPECTRE is a great example of a powerful criminal organization that stands as a single entity while being comprised of many singular agents.

What is the villain’s goal?

All villains (just like other characters) should have a clear goal that determines how they act. Your goal doesn’t have to be huge in scale, just clear. Maybe Bob is a spiteful douche who wants to keep Mary and Susie from being bff’s.

Every goal should have a motive. If you do not give your villain a clear motive for their plans, they are just a boss monster for your heroes to overcome. You don’t have to make their motive obvious, but keep it in mind when writing the character to add more depth.

 

Villains need to be relatable, but at the same time distinct and different. Create the MO, appearance, and personality, but then add details to make the character come alive. Villains are characters, and you should flesh them out just like you would any other.

Villains are a mountain for the hero to climb. If you set your hero in front of a molehill, people will laugh. Give your villain teeth, or hell, make things interesting and let them win. I always loved Kevin Spacey in Se7en. Sure, Brad Pitt puts a few extra breathing holes into John Doe’s noggin, but you can’t help but feel that he still won at the end of the movie.

Have a favorite villain? Think I grievously sinned by failing to mention some great example? Let me know in the comments!

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Comments

  1. Rebekah

    Well, I wouldn’t say you sinned grievously in not mentioning him, but I would definitely add Professor Moriarty to the list.

    • David Mesick

      You are completely right, Moriarty deserves a place on this list. Unfortunately, I haven’t read a lot of Sherlock, so I am not very familiar with Moriarty. Most of the information would be pulled from wikipedia. That isn’t exactly fair to him, so I elected to discuss villains I am more familiar with.

      Thanks for commenting. Glad to know people are reading and discussing this.

      • Cay Reet

        Moriarty doesn’t appear in the original stories a lot, but there are some authors who’ve done a lot of stuff with him. Michael Kurland did several good novels which portrait Moriarty as an anti-hero (certainly not above committing crimes, but in the name of greater good). If you want the evil one, there’s a collection of shorter stories by Kim Newman, “The Hound of the d’Urbervilles,” in which some of Moriarty’s greatest plans are recounted by Colonel Moran (his second in command and hence his ‘Watson’). I especially like “The Red Planet League” and “The Adventure of the Six Maledictions” from that collection.

  2. Phoenix

    Agreed on Moriarty. Penguin, on the other hand, does have distinctive personality traits. His upbringing was that of a studious “mama’s boy”. She’s the one who pushed him to always carry the umbrella. He’s very intelligent, but also obsessive. He has been portrayed as greedy, cunning, vengeful, social-climbing, approval-seeking. His weakness may have been too many personality traits rather than focus on one or two. Unlike many of Batman’s foes, he’s not emotionally disturbed or blatantly insane.

    Joker’s stand-out drive isn’t that he’s a cunning mastermind, but a mind driven to chaos. He wants to dance and he wants Batman to be his dance partner. The steps he takes to lead the way into madness are those he thinks are funny. He doesn’t just kill anyone available or steal shiny things. He doesn’t just spray acid. He does it for laughs.

    • David Mesick

      Very good point. Perhaps I should read more Batman comics, because every time I have encountered Penguin in movies or cartoons, none of that really shows. He always was portrayed as another mob boss with a distinct physical appearance. You’re also very right however, giving too many traits or making a character too complicated will make them seem washed out and all of the colors will seem muddled rather than distinct.

      You’re also right when it comes to Joker. Most villains’ motives go beyond doing it simply “for kicks”, so it’s interesting and a bit terrifying when you encounter one where it’s simply that. On that note, I do highly recommend Azzarello’s Joker if you haven’t already read it. It’s a very fascinating portrayal of the Joker, and one that focuses on him rather than on his relationship with Batman.

      Thanks for commenting, I always enjoy a good discussion.

  3. Dave

    Off the top of my head, one of my favorite villains was Grand Admiral Thrawn, from Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars books. Intelligent and ruthless, but a lover of art and culture as well. The fact that studying a species’ art gave him insight into how to defeat them was just icing on the cake.

    Also, Ultimate Thanos, from the Ultimate Fantastic Four’s Godwar run. Unflappable, supremely confident, winning even when it seems like you’re beating him. He never breaks a sweat, because his enemies are all gnats and it is merely a matter of time.

    • David Mesick

      Funny that you should mention Thrawn, as I’d heard that he is a great villain from a friend who read the books. I’d heard that he was also intelligent when it came to punishing his underlings; instead of just killing those who failed him, he used discretion and rewarded innovation. I like that, as it actually makes sense.

      Not sure how I feel about Thanos though. Haven’t read the comics, but I’d heard that he has a habit of thwarting his own plans. While I love a villain who is confident and has the competency to back it up, when you make a villain that much more powerful than your heroes they can’t win, and you need to manufacture a victory. Either the villain makes a blunder and causes their own failure, or you have to use extenuating circumstances. This can weaken the story and your protagonists.

      One of my favorite villains I haven’t mentioned here is Nyarlathotep from Michael Alan Nelson’s Fall of Cthulhu. Sure, he’s a all powerful elder god, but he also exhibits distinctly human traits such as confidence, cruelty, and spite. He has the same problem as Thanos though, as he’s so powerful none of the heroes can defeat him. This is consistent with Lovecraftian horror though, as the heroes never really win against the horrors that plague our universe. Superhero comics are usually a bit different. Villains should also fit the genre and type of story they exist in.

  4. Zuzu

    Why had no one mentioned Darth Maul? He is probably one of the most underdone/disappointing villains ever.

  5. Devlin Blake

    You missed my FAVORITE villain; Johan Liebert from Monster. He was calculating, sadistic, beautiful and smart. I mention his beauty because he’s NOT how you expect a villain to look or act; soft spoken, intelligent and quiet.

    He was able to convince others to horrible things; such as the time he ran an underground bank and let the other share holders destroy each other just so he would watch. Or the time he led the uprising in orphanage, again so he could watch.

    He also had this way of inspiring serial killers, in fact everyone he met, to follow their darker instincts. He had plans so complex you barely understood them, yet he deserted the plans when he felt they no longer served him.

    Yet, he was also plagued by his own inner demons, such as the time he read the picture book and fainted dead away.

    He also had a twisted sense of loyalty. In order to repay the doctor that saved his life, he murdered the ones who threatened the doctor’s career. He even murdered his own twin sisters adopted parents.

    The whole time, he told people that either that doctor or his sister would kill him.

    He’s my FAVORITE villain. Evil wears a pretty face.

  6. Carly

    You missed Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Khan and Admiral Marcus from Star Trek: Into Darkness, but mostly Khan. He’s a good villain. He does have loyalty to his crew, sure, and helped somehow handle the Klingon situation, but he also killed Admiral Marcus, Pike, a bunch of Starfleet officers and ALMOST killed Kirk.

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