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