Darth Vader from The Empire Strikes Back

Darth Vader makes a strong case for most recognizable villain of all time.

Every time I sit down to write an article about villains, the same odd fact occurs to me: Nearly every villain I can think of to use as a positive example comes from movies and TV rather than novels. Azula, Darth Vader, Killmonger, Kuvira, Gul Dukat, Admiral Cain, the list goes on! A few book-based exceptions come to mind, but not many. In most cases, when I remember a book’s villain, it’s because of how memorably bad they were. Even in books I generally enjoy, like Curse of Chalion, Legendborn, Three Parts Dead, and most of Discworld, the best I can usually say for the villains is that they’re okay. 

Since Mythcreants’ audience contains a lot more novelists than screenwriters, I’ve got a problem. When giving advice on villains, I want to use the best examples around. But if they’re all from a different medium, that might not be very helpful. This conundrum caused me no small amount of angst, but I’ve finally arrived at the conclusion that while film does have an edge in creating memorable villains, novels can do it too with the proper preparation. 

Why Film Has the Edge 

M. Bison from the Street Fighter movie.
Raul Julia’s performance famously elevates M. Bison far above the Street Fighter script

Before we can cover how to build a memorable villain in prose, we have to understand why they’re so much more common in visual stories. 

Actors and Aesthetics 

A villain’s performance is such a vaunted aspect of film* that actors are often best known for how well they portrayed a particular bad guy. Villains are often grandiose in a way that the hero is not, simply because villains more easily benefit from candy and don’t need to be sympathetic or relatable to the audience. 

Screen villains also benefit from visuals that bring across every epic costume piece and supernatural power in all its glory. In a high-budget production, expert designers go over every aspect of the villain’s look and sound, making sure it’s precisely calibrated to communicate who the villain is from the first frame. 

Both of these aspects are very difficult for novelists to replicate. Even the best dialogue is only words on a page, which is one reason so many villains go from sleazy and reprehensible to sexy and alluring when their book is adapted for the screen. At the same time, while written descriptions of a villain can be cool and evocative, it will never match the experience of actually seeing the villain with your own eyeballs.*  

Greater Focus 

A major disadvantage film has when compared to books is information density. Even an entire season of television often struggles to communicate the same amount of plot, character, and setting information typically found in a mid-sized novel. That’s why adaptations try so hard to simplify things, often to the point of losing essential story elements. 

For our purposes, that means filmed stories are more likely to identify a single villain early and then stick with that villain for as long as possible. In contrast, books often portray an entire faction that contains multiple villains. This second approach is more realistic, but it means there’s less focus on the main villain, so they’re less likely to etch themself in a reader’s memory. Cost is also a factor here, as each additional film character means hiring a new actor or commissioning new animations, while novelists just need to write down a few words. 

Unlike the previous section, novelists can emulate this aspect of screen villainy; it just comes with tradeoffs. If the story is highly focused on a single villain, not only does that mean there’s less time for secondary bad guys, but it can also reduce immersion as the villain seems to teleport wherever the heroes are so they have someone to fight. This happens in film too; audiences are just more willing to forgive it. 

Villain POVs 

Finally, we have the narrative elephant in the room: point of view. Films simply aren’t constrained by it the way books are. A movie can cut over to show what the villain is doing, no problem, and sometimes the filmmaker has no choice. A book can make everything clear through the hero’s POV by use of description and narration, but if a film wants us to know something happened, it has to show us. 

The result is that we tend to spend a greater percentage of a filmed story following the villain than we do in books. The longer we spend with the bad guy, the more time we have to absorb them into our memory, and the greater chance they’ll stand out when we think about the story later. 

Can novelists imitate this aspect of film? Yes, but that doesn’t mean they should. Giving the villain their own point of view costs a book much more than cutting to a different camera. Not only does it require a bigger shift in the reader’s attention, but villains also lose a lot of their threat once we see what’s going on inside their head, something that doesn’t happen in TV and movies. 

Alternatively, some novelists are tempted to write their story in an omniscient viewpoint, so they can cut to the villain whenever they like without a new POV. That’s not a good idea either, as omniscient narration has huge implications for your story and shouldn’t be done simply to spruce up the villain. There are better ways, and I’m going to tell you about them!

Foster Interactions Between Hero and Villain  

Cain and Adama from BSG.
In BSG, Cain and Adama have no choice but to talk, as they’re both still fighting the Cylons.

Most novels are about the main character. If you want a villain who plays a memorable role, you’ve got to make them part of the hero’s story. I have a few tips for how to do that.

Make Your Villain the Face of Evil

A common reason villains don’t stand out is because they’re subsumed by their faction. The evil army has a leader, but if the hero mostly battles evil foot soldiers, that leader won’t be as important. This is true even if the leader makes a big appearance in the final battle. 

The solution is to create a premise where your villain isn’t some distant leader, but is in the hero’s face all the time. If your story is personal in scale, this can be literal. Urban fantasy hunters can easily encounter the big bad on their evening patrol. Alternatively, political leaders have to meet with each other all the time, even though their decisions go far beyond the personal. 

If your story requires more initial distance between hero and villain, this is trickier. Opposing generals rarely encounter each other in a war story, and if your heroes are sneaking into the dark lord’s realm, personal attention from the villain could mean the book is over. For such stories, the best option is usually to make your villain an ever-present aspect of their realm, the way Sauron has his stamp on every action taken by the forces of Mordor. 

How such a presence manifests depends on the story. If your hero is a general, then the villain’s feints and charges will substitute for their actual presence. For the classic dark lord, they might have created the minions your heroes encounter, so every enemy is an extension of the big bad. 

Be aware, there’s a downside to making your villain so present in the story: any time your villain is defeated, their threat level goes down. Of course, if your villain is present so they can beat up the hero, that’s a boost to threat level, but most stories can only have that happen so many times. That’s why Chris’s article on making your villain threatening recommends using a lieutenant for early confrontations. 

Increasing your villain’s presence without decreasing their threat level is a careful balancing act. You need to show that your villain is taking actions, but not create too many direct confrontations. The longer your story, the more difficult it is to balance. I’ve found the simplest option is for the heroes to witness the aftermath of your villain’s evil plan, but that might not work for every story. 

Create a Friendly Enemy

Longtime Mythcreants readers know how often I extol the virtues of making your villain friendly and polite. It has so many benefits! It subverts the classic expectations for a villain, and it ups their threat level. A villain who shouts and blusters appears to be compensating for something, while a bad guy who smiles and offers tea projects confidence. 

But for our purposes today, friendly villainhood has a more immediate benefit: it’s easier to create interactions between the hero and villain if the villain wants to talk to the hero. When the two are exclusively at each other’s throats, meetings become brief and explosive. 

Friendly villains may try to win the hero over or simply want to negotiate certain aspects of their conflict. Either way, you can get a lot of drama out of these interactions, as your hero decides whether to sacrifice some of their ideals for short-term gain. If you take it a step further, your villain might be so friendly that they’re masquerading as a good guy. Just be sure that once their true colors are revealed, their previous actions still make sense. 

Remember that friendly villains don’t have to like the protagonist. They can be manipulative or downright toxic, as long as they have reason to sit down for a peaceful chat. What’s important is that by creating opportunities for the hero and villain to converse, you’re giving the audience more time with your big bad.  

Forge a Personal Connection

If you really want to turn up the heat on the interactions between hero and villain, make their relationship personal. It’s one thing to talk to a bad guy because necessity demands it; it’s another when that bad guy is someone from your hero’s past. 

If you pick a friendly connection, it gives the hero added reason to seek the villain out for something other than smiting. They might be siblings, childhood friends, former (or current) lovers; the list goes on! Beyond motivating your hero, this connection also adds drama to any interactions with the villain, exactly the sort of thing to stick in the audience’s memory. 

You can also go the other way and make the connection a hostile one, though this is more challenging. If your villain personally wronged your hero in the past, or vice versa, that’s still a lot of extra drama since it makes the fight personal. However, this is less likely to motivate any non-fighting interactions – just the opposite. So it’s best to pick this one only if you already have a really good reason for the two characters to talk to each other. 

In most cases, this connection will be part of your hero’s backstory, so you can start the book with as much drama as possible. But if that’s not in the cards, you can also have your characters forge a personal connection during the story, positive or negative. This works best if you’re writing something long, so the connection can fully develop, and it’s easier if you pick a character who won’t become a villain until later. Though you can always write a story where your hero dates the current villain, if you’re prepared for the extra logistics. 

Imbue Your Villain With Novelty 

Azula firing a lightning bolt.
Azula’s blue flames are neat, but it’s her lightning that really stands out.

We’ve covered how to make your villain more present in the story by forging connections with the hero; now it’s time for the big bad to do some work on themself. Specifically, to boost their novelty, which is how they’ll make a big impression on the audience. We don’t have costume departments and special-effects crews to help us out, so we have to use some of these crafty options.

Shroud Your Villain in Mystique

Keeping your villain mysterious is something we’ve mentioned in previous articles because, like acting friendly, it increases threat level. If the audience doesn’t know exactly what a villain is capable of, imagination will fill the gaps with horrors. You can also use the unknown to increase novelty. Create some small and intriguing mysteries to give your villain a menacing aura.

When setting up micro mysteries, offer enough information to evoke the imagination. If your villain is a complete enigma, the audience has nothing to build on. Instead of mysterious, your villain will just seem bland.

For instance, if you’re writing a court drama, the villain shouldn’t be a complete stranger whom no one knows. That’s a big load of nothing. Instead, the villain’s crest should include a crown, but not the crown of any known kingdom. They throw elaborate parties where influential courtiers vie for the villain’s favor, but no one can say where the money for such events comes from.

The specifics of this approach can be adapted to different genres. An elder god might include “Lord of the Sacred Family” in their list of titles, but your hero has never heard of any other gods. An evil magic teacher might have just transferred from a school that isn’t on any official records, and rumors are all that can be found of it.

Will your readers expect you to explain these mysterious elements? Depends on how big a deal you make of them. A few lines of backstory can probably stay mysterious, but if it’s something that directly affects the conflict, readers will want to know.    

Break Your Villain Away From the Norm

We all know that spec fic worlds create novelty by contrasting against the real world, but contrasts within a world are just as important. If everyone is a wizard, being a wizard isn’t especially memorable. Your villain will need to be something else to stand out in the reader’s mind. 

The simplest option is to make your villain something completely different from the characters around them, the way Darth Vader is a Sith Lord surrounded by conventional military officers. You might have a valkyrie leading a gang of werewolves or an elf in a world where everyone else is human. 

That’s not always an option though, as many story premises require a villain that falls roughly within the same categories as the characters around them. If your story takes place in a dwarf mine and the plot delves deep into dwarven politics,* your villain probably has to be a dwarf. 

In that case, look for ways that the big bad can stand out within their required demographics. Buffy’s early villains all have to be vampires, but Spike is still novel for being an irreverent punk, while most of the other vampires take themselves very seriously. 

If your villain has to be a wizard surrounded by other wizards, your villain might stand out by integrating modern technology into their magic, breaking with the tradition of runic circles and spellbooks. Returning to our dwarf example, your villain might be an advocate for building above ground, contrasting with other dwarves who assume down is the only important direction. 

Give Your Villain Signature Attacks

A final option for making your villain more memorable is the way in which they attack the hero. This is something your hero has every reason to take notice of, so it’ll stick out for the reader too. If you’ve already done the work of making your villain stand out from the characters around them, then you’ve got a head start. How the big bad attacks will usually stem from who they are. 

The first thing to consider is how your villain’s attacks are tangibly different from other opposition the hero has faced. Flames of a different color look very cool on screen, but won’t make as big a difference in text. Instead, if the hero is used to fighting pyromancers, you can cast a hydromancer as the big bad. Being drowned is tangibly different from being set on fire. 

Signature attacks are easiest to implement in fight scenes, be they physical or magical. If standard enemy troopers use a laser rifle, the main villain can stand out for flying around on a jet pack with a pair of flamethrowers. Easy. 

However, this same technique can be applied to indirect and social attacks as well. In a war story, your villain might favor slower attacks that are relentlessly methodical when the common doctrine is all-out aggression in hopes of a quick victory. If cutting insults are the primary means for courtiers to attack each other, your villain might specialize in poems that seem complimentary until the vicious sting at the end. Granted, you’d have to write poetry in that scenario, so some options are easier than others. 

Take full advantage of the clashes between your hero and your villain. Even if you have a story where the two can occasionally meet without fighting, their confrontations will* be the most exciting moments of the story. Making the villain flashy and impressive in those scenes is vital for readers to remember afterwards. 

Not every novelist wants their villain to be super memorable. Some books have no villain at all, while in others being part of a larger faction is the whole point. But for books that focus on a single antagonist, these techniques will help you compete with the onscreen villains who always come to mind whenever someone assembles a list of best fictional bad guys. 

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