Most character arcs are intended for protagonists, and viewpoint characters in particular. But a story can be greatly enhanced by giving arcs to other major characters – including the main villain. Unfortunately, villain arcs can be tricky. The audience rarely sympathizes with the big bad, and many villains spend most of their time offscreen.
Regina sent us this great question on the subject:
What are some ways to show a villain’s arc, if he doesn’t have a POV? Do I have to use dialogue? Do you have any suggestions for showing the reader that the antagonist’s motives are changed, short of coming right out and saying it?
Like Regina, you’re probably tired of watching villains rant to the hero about their motivations and secret plans for no reason. I’ll give you some ideas for arcs that work for typical villains and describe how to illustrate them without resorting to clichés.
Because of the obstacles storytellers face when creating arcs for villains, it’s conventional to go halfway. Here are a couple popular patterns storytellers use to give their villain a little more oomph without completing an entire arc.
Characters can accumulate negative karma by doing bad deeds, and when they do, it feels like an open plot thread to the audience. As soon as your villain cheats a grandma out of her retirement savings, your audience will expect that bad guy to get his due. You can close this plot thread just by letting them die, but it will feel more satisfying if you link their punishment to their bad deeds.
For instance, the villain of The Corpse Bride marries women for their wealth, kills them, and marries the next one. In the story it’s revealed that the titular undead bride is one of his victims. She confronts him about what he did (helping to close her arc), then watches as he drinks the poison wine she had prepared for someone else.
Villains who suffer from poetic justice aren’t given the opportunity to change as people. They don’t know the axe is about to fall on them; the threat comes from narrative conventions. That’s why these plot threads aren’t character arcs. However, they do give the audience the satisfying feeling that the villain’s journey has come full circle.
Whether through flashbacks, exposition, or in opening scenes, many stories describe the unfortunate incident that turned the villain from innocence to evil.
In The Incredibles, the backstory scenes show how the villain, Syndrome, once wanted to be Mr. Incredible’s boy sidekick but was rejected. This motivated him to turn against heroes and embrace villainy. Syndrome’s backstory creates interesting interactions between him and the heroes until he’s finally defeated.
Storytellers incorporating origin stories usually depict one tragic event and skip to when the previously innocent character becomes a certified villain. Then the villain remains a static character. To provide a full arc, the story needs to follow up on the original tragedy and give the villain a chance to reform. If Mr. Incredible had offered to train or partner with Syndrome as an olive branch and Syndrome considered the opportunity, it would have created a fuller character arc.
Easy Villain Arcs
Here are three character arcs that work for a lot of villains. I’ve boiled them down to their simplest level so they can be done quickly and efficiently. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are simple to express if you are sticking to your hero’s point of view. We’ll discuss how to express them in the next section.
The Gain-and-Loss Arc
The villain gains and/or loses something they care deeply about, and that drives their character change. Usually what they gain or lose is a person they love, but it can be anything as long as you can show the audience why it’s so important. The gains and losses built into these arcs are often used to make the villain lean toward good or evil, but a loss can also make your villain desperate and reckless.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Azula is a manipulative villain who uses fear to get others to do what she wants. She spends most of her time with her two best friends, who are only with her because of threats she’s made. After they turn against her, she finally realizes no one loves her. She becomes paranoid, thinking every servant means her ill. This downward spiral leads to her defeat.
This arc is very flexible in form, but here are the most typical steps:
- Flaw: Start by establishing the deep flaws in your character. Maybe this character is already a villain, maybe not, but they have villain potential.
- Comfort: Show the audience how the beloved acts as a balm for the character’s flaw. Perhaps the character meets this person and reforms, or the beloved just keeps them from doing anything foolish.
- Loss: The character is devastated by the loss of the beloved, whether by death, betrayal, or separation.
- Response: The character, now a villain for certain, shifts their behavior after the loss. Perhaps they go on a killing spree or spend all their time perfecting a device they think will bring their beloved back.
- Consequences: Because of the villain’s behavior, their fate is sealed, whether that means they die, go to jail, or become irredeemably evil. Bring the beloved back for the end, even if it’s just a mention. A hero might explain how the beloved would never approve of what the villain has done, or the beloved’s ghost might appear to carry the villain away to the underworld.
If you’re short on time, the first two steps can be shown in the same scene. Imagine the villain almost gets in a fight with someone who insults them and the beloved calms them down. That’s all you need. You can also shift the gain or loss to give your villain the arc you want. If you want you villain to be redeemed, start your arc with the loss, and then have the beloved reappear later to usher them back to team good.
The Obsession Arc
This is a villain that changes their motives during the story because they acquire a new obsession or goal. Often that obsession is the main character, but it also might be a shiny new superpower they discover while working toward a lesser achievement. The villain goes from causing random havoc or minor mischief to betting everything on their new vision.
In the Star Trek: Voyager episodes Year of Hell and Year of Hell II, the villain Annorax wields a weapon that makes its target never exist, altering all of reality in response. He invented this weapon to eliminate the enemies of his people, but in the process, he accidentally erases the colony where his wife was born. He becomes obsessed with altering the timeline until his wife exists again. After Captain Janeway causes the weapon to destroy itself, he gains his wife back but loses the weapon and his memories of perfecting its creation.
Here are the steps to creating a simple obsession arc:
- Need: Start by establishing that the villain has a need of some kind, whether it’s a desire for more power or deep loneliness after being cast out from their family or guild.
- Discovery: The villain discovers something that will meet their need and is fascinated by it. However, this something is well out of reach. Perhaps the villain only sees a picture taken at an unknown time and location, or they get a mere taste of a new power before it is snatched away.
- Pursuit: The villain musters all of their resources toward their new goal. They abandon previous pursuits, baffling others with their behavior.
- Deterrent: Just as the villain is about to achieve their aims, they get a strong message that it’s a bad idea. Perhaps they are obsessed with the hero, but the hero refuses to partner with them. Or maybe they are warned that their plans will have terrible and unintended consequences.
- Unfortunate Win or Fortunate Loss: Since they’re a villain, they probably decide to continue with their plans. While the results are flexible, generally one of two things occur. One, they succeed or partially succeed at their task, but it turns out what they wanted isn’t so great for them after all. Or two, the hero thwarts them, and in doing so saves them or even gives them some part of what they’ve been yearning for.
Besides allowing for character change, this arc can also incorporate a strong poetic-justice thread, because their own aims defeat them.
This is a great arc for villains who think they’re doing the right thing and consider all the harm they cause justified. In this arc, they have a revelation that challenges this belief, forcing them to adapt. If you want your villain to join Team Good by the end, this arc makes that easy.
In Serenity, a villain called the Operative hunts Mal and his crew. The Operative admits that he’ll do anything to achieve his aims, even killing children. That’s because he thinks by protecting the interests of his government, he is working to create a better world for everyone. After Mal reveals that the government is trying to cover up a colony they destroyed in their attempts to create a better world, the Operative abandons his mission and assists the heroes.
Here’s what this arc needs:
- Motivation: The audience needs to understand what the villain’s ultimate goal is and why the villain thinks their actions are noble. Perhaps they are planning on destroying an entire city, but the city belongs to a race that’s enslaving the villain’s people.
- Harm: If it isn’t already clear, illustrate the harm the villain is doing or plans to do in the name of their “noble” goal.
- Revelation: The villain is provided with information that reveals their harmful behavior will not achieve the benefits they imagined it would. Maybe their people have already made a peace treaty that is keeping them from being further enslaved, or the virus they plan to release into the population won’t make people peaceful – it’ll just turn them into mindless drones.
- Choice: The villain struggles with this information. Admitting it’s true also means admitting they have done terrible things without justification. Either the villain halts their plans and converts to Team Good or refuses to acknowledge the truth, doubling down on their harmful behavior.
- Consequences: The villain faces the consequences of their decision, meeting a tragic end if they doubled down or toiling to repair the damage they caused if they’ve realized their error.
Because this arc is good at converting antagonists to protagonists, consider it for any villains you think will be particularly popular with your audience. If your audience loves them and wants them to stick around for a sequel, your former villain will be ready to join Team Good.
Now let’s get back to Regina’s question. How do we demonstrate an arc for a non-POV villain without resorting to monologues?
The most important method of showing your villain’s character arc – or any character arc – is demonstrating a change in behavior. If you keep their arc simple enough, that could be all you need. The basic unit of changing behavior would look like this:
- The villain shows a clear pattern of behavior.
- An event occurs that would reasonably impact the villain.
- The villain shows a different pattern of behavior.
You can even do this with a villain that’s entirely offscreen. Imagine the villain’s mooks are sent out to the innocent village daily to collect young healthy people and drag them away, never to be seen again. Then one day the hero plays a magic flute, causing the mooks to leave the village without taking anyone. The mooks don’t return the next day. Instead, more powerful minions appear. They are immune to the flute, but they don’t even try to take more young healthy villagers. Instead they search the village up and down for people with flutes. The hero flees the village and the minions chase after, leaving all the villagers unharmed.
Keeping the villain offscreen can help make them mysterious and threatening, but it won’t give their character arc much emotional power. For that, you’ll want to bring them into some scenes. A kidnapped hero might watch while the villain obsesses over making everything perfect for their fiance, only to witness their grief and rage when their fiance doesn’t show up as promised.
The more complex their motivation is, the more difficult communicating it will be without using exposition or dialogue. However, it’s always good practice to demonstrate character feelings and attitudes as much as you can, even if you’ll also need to explicitly state them.
Let’s say your villain has an obsession arc, and at the start they feel lonely. That’s not easy to show when they share all of their scenes with the heroes. But in those scenes the villain might show boredom when talking to their uneducated minions and be surprisingly eager to engage bystanders in conversation. Victims of kidnapping could report that the villain made them listen to newly written poetry and sit down with the villain at mealtimes. Look for ways to show the arc first, and then add explanation where you need to.
When the situation is complex enough, dialogue will be an essential part of your toolkit. But that doesn’t mean you have to resort to awkward monologues. The key is to make sure everything your villain says is for their benefit, not for the audience’s or the hero’s.
For example, your villain might become fascinated with your hero because she appears to be descended from a line of sorcerers that the villain has been emulating. He might kidnap her and interrogate her about who her grandparents are, ask her about any family heirlooms she has, see if she’s heard of any items in his collection associated with the famous family, or even try to see if she can do magic. Pretty soon your audience will get an idea of what’s going on, even if they’re not sure about the particulars.
Giving your heroes a reason to care about the villain’s motivation can also provide an easy way around monologues. Make the villain a mystery the heroes have to solve, and then it will feel natural when the heroes dig up the villain’s backstory and puzzle out their clever plan. For instance, in the Harry Potter books, Harry has every reason to study old accounts about Voldemort and theorize about the villain’s motivations. This helps him find out where Voldemort hid the horcruxes, information Harry needs in order to defeat him.
If you want a sympathetic villain and you can afford to give them their own viewpoint, that’s great. Give them a deep arc your audience will remember. But if that doesn’t fit your story, bring them to life in whatever space you have to work with. If you can’t manage a complex arc, create a simple one. If a simple one is too much, try a pseudo arc. If even that takes too much time, just make them mysterious and menacing. Villains come in all shapes and sizes, and they can all enrich your story.
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