Kate Argent from Teen Wolf in her werejaguar form

Audiences and storytellers get attached to great villains, be it for their sympathetic motivations or their flawless sense of fashion. It’s no wonder that we want to see those fabulous baddies return to threaten the heroes again and again, but there’s a problem. Villains have to be defeated eventually, and once they are, it’s difficult to bring them back as anything but a pale shadow of their former selves. Countless big bads have been dredged back up well past their expiration dates, and I’m not just talking about how “somehow Palpatine returned.”

Fortunately, there are ways to successfully return a defeated villain to the story. To that end, we have a case study in Teen Wolf’s Kate Argent. This show absolutely loves to recycle its old villains, and Kate is by far the most successful attempt. Let’s see how she does it! 

Let Some Time Pass

Cover art from The Eye of the World.

Everything is more difficult if you try to bring a villain back shortly after their initial defeat. The loss is still fresh in the audience’s mind, and a bad guy who immediately launches a comeback will seem like they don’t know when to quit. Even if the villain didn’t actually die, this still violates the audience’s expectations. A defeated enemy isn’t supposed to be a problem anymore. 

That’s exactly what happens with Ishamael in the early Wheel of Time books. Rand defeats him in a magical duel as part of the first book’s climax, which should be the end of it. Instead, Ishamael immediately pops up as the main villain of book two, and his plan is to magically duel Rand again. If you can’t beat them the first time, you’ll definitely be able to beat them once they’ve spent a whole ‘nother book getting stronger! 

Ishamael then pulls this trick again in book three, which is more extreme than most authors will attempt. But even if he’d limited himself to a single return, the damage has already been done. With no time passing between Ishamael’s terms as the main villain, he practically shines a spotlight on his own lack of threat. 

Compare that to Kate, who’s one of Teen Wolf’s main villains until her death at the end of season one.* While she gets some foreshadowing in season three, Kate doesn’t actually return as a bad guy until season four. Granted, the way she’s resurrected is a bit contrived, but that’s separate from her role as a threatening villain. 

This gap between appearances gives time for the memory of her defeat to fade. It’s not that audiences actually forget, but the details aren’t as sharp, which lessens the reduction in her threat level. Plus, the extra time gives us a chance to grow nostalgic for Kate, which we couldn’t have if she immediately reappeared at the start of season two. 

So how long does your villain need to wait before returning? There’s no concrete rule, but I recommend at least a full novel or a season of TV, hopefully more. You need to adjust if you’re writing something that is unusually long or unusually short. How your villain spends that time is entirely up to you. They could be dead, in hiding, or perhaps working as someone else’s lieutenant for a while. Whatever it takes to keep them out of the spotlight

Pick an Intimidating Villain 

Kylo Ren looking sad.

The most acute problem with bringing a villain back is that once they’re defeated, their threat level goes waaaaaay down. The hero’s already beaten them, which raises the likelihood that the hero can beat them again. The first step in mitigating this problem is to pick only the most threatening villains from your roster to return, so they won’t have such a deep hole to dig themselves out of.

The good news is that the most threatening villains also tend to be the ones storytellers most want to use again, but that’s not always the case. We can also get attached to scrappy villains, villains with an especially tragic backstory, or just a villain we identify with for whatever reason, and none of those are good candidates for villainy round two.

How the villain was defeated also plays a big role. In the climax of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren is thoroughly defeated in a fight that, by all rights, he should have won. He’s a Sith Lord fighting against an ex-stormtrooper and a neophyte Force user with zero training. The only mitigating factor is that earlier, Kylo was shot in the leg, but any hindrance from his injury is too subtle to notice. This makes him a lot less scary going into the next movie. 

The Last Jedi makes it even worse by having Rey get the better of Kylo in Force tug-o-war,* only for Kylo to be completely outwitted by Luke a little while later. Even if Rise of Skywalker hadn’t been a total train wreck, there was no way to restore Kylo’s threat level, which is probably why they brought Palpatine back in the first place. 

In contrast, Kate isn’t killed by the heroes at all. Instead, she’s taken out by the season’s other big villain. This is actually very helpful, as it creates a feeling of unresolved tension and it means audiences haven’t actually seen Team Good defeat her before. She was also quite threatening in her first appearance, mostly due to ruthless cunning and also a boatload of guns.* 

If you don’t have any mitigating circumstances in your villain’s defeat, it’s best to pick one that it took all of Team Good to bring down. The more effort it took, the better. If the main character defeated the villain in a one-on-one duel, that’s probably not going to work. 

Combine Novelty and Threat 

Peter Hale with glowing blue eyes.

Let’s assume you’ve picked out a returning villain who was really threatening in their previous incarnation, someone who took all of Team Good’s combined effort to defeat. That’s a good start, but they still won’t be as threatening as they were before. A defeat is a defeat, even with mitigating circumstances. It’s also likely that your heroes have gotten stronger or more skilled in the interim, especially if you incorporate my first tip and allow some time to pass. 

What’s more, if your baddy comes back and repeats their original performance, it’ll be a drain on the story’s novelty. We’ve already seen this act – show us something new! Teen Wolf actually has this problem with its second season-one villain, Peter Hale. 

In Peter’s first run as a villain, he turns into a monster and attacks the heroes. Not overly complicated,* but it’s honest work, and it’s very threatening. The threat level is raised even further because nearly everyone on Team Good is either a regular high school student or only just figuring out their powers. 

When Peter returns a few seasons later, his big plan is to… turn into a monster and attack the heroes. He’s actually a bit weaker this time, and the good guys have gotten much stronger. Gee, I wonder who’s going to win? 

The solution is to combine a power-up with something that also gives the villain a novel twist. It’s not enough to increase their existing powers. That isn’t tangible enough for audiences outside of a video game, and it doesn’t provide much novelty. Instead, a villainous encore should come with some new power, skill, or type of minion. Possibly all three!

Kate starts Teen Wolf as a hunter, with expert marksmanship, weapons training, and extensive knowledge of various monsters’ weak points. When she returns, a quirk of her resurrection process brings her back as a werejaguar. So now she has shapeshifting and superstrength in addition to her previous skills, plus she fights very differently. She also picks up a couple of powerful minions from somewhere, when she always worked solo before. 

When the heroes fight Kate 2.0, it’s a very different kind of fight. She used to stalk from the shadows with a rifle. Now she gets up close and personal with claws and fangs, though she can still use guns when she wants to. She’s not only more powerful now, but also different in a way the audience can easily understand. 

Use a Personal Connection 

Colonel Quaritch from Avatar at the gym.

An unspoken question whenever you bring a villain back is “why this one specifically?” They can be as threatening as you like and have a bunch of novelty, but if it feels like you picked them at random, that won’t be very satisfying for the audience. There needs to be something pulling the villain back into the story; otherwise, you might as well invent someone new. 

That’s one reason Colonel Quaritch is such a baffling choice as the villain for Avatar: The Way of Water. In the first film, Quaritch was reasonably threatening with his army and mech suit, and they even give him a Na’vi body of his own for the sequel so he’ll have some novelty. But he has no connection to Jake or any of the other characters beyond losing a battle to them once. 

Logically, it’s odd for the humans to pick Quaritch as their leader the second time around, as his main claim to fame is losing the first time. Dramatically, Quaritch is a complete void, which is far worse. And since Way of Water makes a big point about Quaritch not dying, he could return to be the villain for yet a third film. I guess anything’s possible when your movies make billions of dollars. 

Fortunately, Kate would never let us down like that. She has not one but two major connections to Team Good. First, her brother Chris has joined the heroes and also turned his back on the Argent family tradition of hunting monsters. This gives them a really interesting conflict where Kate resents him for abandoning the family even though she’s now a monster that the rest of the family wouldn’t hesitate to kill. 

Kate also has a special grudge against protagonist Scott. You see, Kate’s niece Allison was part of Scott’s team until she tragically died at the end of season three. Kate blames Scott for Allison’s death, and she’s only about 95% wrong. 

These connections give season four a lot more dramatic weight because the fight is personal. Kate’s not just here to play the technical role of antagonist; she’s challenging the heroes to a grudge match. It’s a type of unfinished business that helps audiences understand why the writers picked her to return.

The specific connections you use depend on the story, but it should be something more than the hero and villain having fought before. If you want to use their previous battles, those battles need to have been especially personal in nature. Like, maybe the villain almost turned the hero to Team Evil, and the hero still has mixed feelings about saying no. If all they did was fight, that’s just the default. 

Give Them Immediate Wins 

The Borg Queen from Voyager.

Here’s the harsh truth: Even if you do everything else right, your returned villain is still operating at a disadvantage. They lost before, and that doesn’t bode well for their future chances. It’s even worse if they show up and immediately get clotheslined by Team Good. That’s bad for any villain’s threat level, but it’s especially bad for returning villains, as it confirms the audience’s preexisting expectations. 

For example, consider the Borg Queen from Star Trek: Voyager. This is Queenie’s second outing, as she previously fought the Next Generation crew in their film First Contact. She’s facing a different group of heroes on Voyager, but it’s still Starfleet, so the normal rules of a returned villain apply. 

First, the queen tries to get Seven of Nine back into the collective, which fails. Then queenie tries to wipe out the free Borg of Unimatrix Zero, and she fails at that too. Worse, the free Borg take a few of her ships and ally with Voyager. Granted, we never see those allies again, but it’s not a great place for the villain to be. When the queen is also the villain for Voyager’s finale, is it any wonder she isn’t very threatening? All she does is lose. 

To counter the threat loss from their previous defeat, returning villains need to announce their presence with an opening salvo of victories. Honestly, this is useful for any villain, but it’s especially valuable for a bad guy you’re bringing back. Even if you aren’t able to follow some of the previous sections, having your villain win a few battles goes a long way toward making them threatening again. 

Does Kate perform such glorious feats upon her return to villainy? Naturally. Her first act upon returning to life is a bit of light kidnapping, and the heroes are helpless to stop her. Then, she breaks into a vault to steal an important magical artifact,* sweeping aside Team Good’s attempts at resistance. 

These early victories are a great chance for Kate to show off her new powers and to establish that she means business. If the heroes want a victory against her, they’ll have to work hard for it despite her loss back in the first season. You’ll notice that she can win these victories without ending the show because she has goals other than “kill the protagonists.” I cannot overstate how important this is. 

If your villain’s only goal is to kill the heroes, they can only succeed if you’re writing a story where protagonists regularly die. This doesn’t work for most stories, so the villain is left to shake their fist and exclaim that next time, they’ll totally do the heroes in. At the risk of repeating myself, this is true of all villains, not only returning ones. It just matters more because bringing a villain back raises the difficulty level of your story. 

What If You Can’t? 

Sasha blushing while Anne looks on.

There will always be villains who you really love but can’t figure out how to bring back as the main antagonist. If that happens, it’s better to pick another option rather than forcing the character into a role they won’t fit. Fortunately, there are several to choose from! 

Most apparently, you can redeem the villain. We know from the likes of Zuko, Loki, Sasha, Catra, and a bunch of others that audiences love a redeemed villain. This has challenges of its own, but is often a useful fit for antagonists who just aren’t capable of providing a challenge to Team Good anymore. Fortunately, we have an entire article on how to go about it

If redemption isn’t in the cards, you can always keep an old villain around as an unreliable or antagonistic ally. This kind of character is often called a “shapeshifter,” though, as with any storytelling term, definitions vary wildly. Whatever you call them, this is someone the heroes occasionally work with but who is never part of Team Good. They may still have their own agenda, or they may be largely neutralized while still being too evil to properly redeem. 

Gerard Argent from Teen Wolf is a great example of an ally who’s both unreliable and antagonistic. He crosses the moral event horizon pretty early, so he’s not getting redeemed. But he does have knowledge the heroes need, and once he’s defeated at the end of season two, he at least seems harmless enough.

A final option is to have the villain work for someone else, probably your new big bad. This way, the character you like no longer has to oppose Team Good all on their own, but they can still be around to ruin the hero’s day. This works especially well for villains who have a grudge to settle, as now they can focus on the target of their grudge without having to create a conflict for the entire story. 

It’s also a good step on the villain’s path toward redemption, as we see with Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fourth season. He’s well past his prime as a primary villain, but he can still work for the new main baddie on the side. This gives him something to do as he becomes increasingly conflicted about fighting the good guys. 

Unfortunately, there’s no way to 100% guarantee that a returned villain will be successful. On paper, Palpatine follows a number of my suggestions in Rise of Skywalker, and we know what a disaster that turned out to be. On the other hand, there’s no way to completely guarantee anything in storytelling. The key is to make your case for why a returned villain is worth the audience’s time, and my tips will at least help you with that. 

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