A good villain provides the story with tension, keeping readers interested in what happens next. But to do that, the villain must be threatening. Unfortunately, when writers begin creating villains, they usually follow all of the worst examples we have. Instead of providing the hero with adequate roadblocks, these flimsy cutouts float off once the wind picks up.
To give you more direction and better represent a variety of stories, I’ve updated my original 2015 guide (PDF) to threatening villains. Let’s take a fresh look at how to make your villain threatening – and keep them that way.
Ensure They Outmatch the Hero
The first step is to set yourself up for success. Is your villain inherently more powerful than the hero? If not, either your hero is too powerful or your villain isn’t powerful enough. If you don’t fix this, your villain won’t feel threatening, and plotting conflicts between hero and villain will be hellishly difficult. In a best-case scenario, your villain will have to outwit the hero to have a fighting chance. This can get the audience rooting for the villain instead of the hero.
For instance, Marvel’s Loki is a delightful character, but he wasn’t powerful enough to take all of the Avengers in the first Avengers movie. It’s no wonder fans liked him so much.
Power comes in many forms. It can include money, social influence, authority, physical prowess, impressive technology, or magical abilities. Your villain doesn’t necessarily need magic if your hero has it; however, they need to be capable of defeating the hero. That means their abilities have to match up with the story.
Think through the types of conflicts you want to write. Are they courtroom showdowns, magical puzzles, or exciting chases? If the major conflicts in your story are fights and your hero is the only one with combat abilities, how will you make those fights exciting? At best, your hero will plow through a bunch of meaningless minions to reach a villain that’s rich but can’t punch back. Minions are helpful, but your villain needs to be more hands-on to make an impression during conflicts.
Now let’s say your villain has fancy tech, including powerful drones and a flying fortress. This means your muscled hero has to fight the drones while using them to get into the fortress. That sounds both fun and challenging. However, you’ll still need a direct encounter between hero and villain for that final turning point. Perhaps the villain is holding a loved one hostage, creating an emotionally fraught social conflict. Or maybe the villain has climbed into a big mech, and the final showdown will be another large fight.
Make your hero the underdog. This will increase both their likability and the story’s tension.
Avoid Cartoonish Evil
The biggest myth about villains is that they become more intimidating if they show off how evil they are. This usually involves lashing out at one of their own servants, and that will backfire. A villain who kills minions whenever they’re disappointed not only has no self-control but is also destroying their own assets. In the Star Wars sequel trilogy, Kylo Ren even attacks some ship controls with his lightsaber during a tantrum. In these cases, the hero can stand back and let the villain defeat themself.
On top of that, these displays are often so over-the-top that they make the villain look like a cartoon character. In classic cartoons like Pokémon, Looney Tunes, or Sailor Moon, the villain barks incessantly but never manages to bite anything. These villains aren’t taken seriously.
While cruelty can play a role in making a villain threatening, it has to be carefully targeted. Before you show your villain killing someone, ask what you want to accomplish with this. You have several possibilities.
- Showing their prowess. Does being cruel in this instance take any skill on the villain’s part? Slaughtering animals or minions who are already under the villain’s control does not. On the other hand, breaching enemy defenses or defeating capable warriors does show prowess. In this case, focus on showing how easily the villain overcomes tough obstacles. You can include cruelty, but it’s mostly beside the point.
- Establishing ill intent. It’s not hard to establish that a villain means ill. For one thing, they can just say they’re going to kill someone. In almost all cases, the bigger question is whether they can pull it off. However, there are exceptions. If the protagonist is under the villain’s power to start with, the biggest question may not be whether the villain can hurt the protagonist, but if they will. In this case, cruelty toward the protagonist or one of their fellows raises the likelihood the protagonist will be hurt in the future. This is useful when the protagonist is a prisoner.
- Getting audiences to root against the villain. If your story has medium to high stakes, you shouldn’t need cruelty for this. In that case, give your villain goals that are worth opposing. However, for stories with social or emotional stakes, the villain may need to mistreat others to establish themself as a villain. In this case, the trick is to use a light touch. Not only do exaggerated depictions look unrealistic, but also it’s easy to create a depiction of abuse by accident. That’s a sensitive topic most writers are not prepared to handle.
Similar to cruelty, threatening displays also need to serve a purpose. What does your villain accomplish by brandishing a sharp knife while they sit on the throne of their dark fortress? Probably nothing. On the other hand, if the villain is addressing the hero and uses the knife for a threat, that might mean something. The same goes for rants about how they love to eat people or how much they want to destroy the world.
If your only intent is to show off how evil the villain is, at best they will become a cliché, and at worst they will look like a joke.
Give Them Victories
Nothing is more vital to a villain than getting some wins. The audience needs to see that the villain makes good on their threats and is capable of doing damage. Unfortunately, storytellers often have trouble with this. Villainous victories aren’t always compatible with the plot, and it can be hard to watch our heroes lose.
In many stories, the villain’s victories can start before they’re introduced. Give them a grand entrance by showing the devastation they’ve caused first and then naming them as the source after.
- Are people disappearing from their homes late at night, when all of the doors are locked?
- Are businesses going broke because of notorious ransomware, only to be bought by a mysterious private equity firm?
- Was an important magical artifact stolen, granting an unknown thief its great power?
Starting with the damage provides a source of tension for your story right away and makes your villain scarier. However, it may not fit the story you’re telling, particularly if you’re building up a secondary villain or converting a character from friend to foe.
For a stealthier entrance, let your villain accomplish big objectives that either aren’t harmful or don’t appear to be at first. A friend who will turn into a villain might save the hero’s life. This establishes the villain’s prowess and adds emotional weight to their betrayal. A politician who has yet to show their true colors might get a large infrastructure project approved. Later, the hero can discover this project is more sinister than it seemed.
Once the villain is known to the hero, their record of wins has to be more carefully maintained. Because your hero needs to keep breathing, consider giving your villain goals that don’t include killing protagonists. Maybe the villain wants to capture important leaders, conquer territory, or convince bystanders to ally with them. In season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, evil Mayor Wilkins plans to turn into a demon so large it will destroy the town. To do that, he has to collect unholy ingredients for his dark rituals.
The villain might also have a reason not to harm the hero. That’s helpful when the hero is too pesky for the villain to tolerate otherwise. However, keep it simple and genuine. A former friend might still care about the hero. An evil politician might worry that the public will turn against them if a popular superhero dies. Wanting to crush the hero’s spirit is not a genuine reason. If you can’t come up with something simple and convincing, don’t bother.
If your hero and villain do get in a direct confrontation before the climax, your hero should be aiming to escape alive – defeating the villain must be out of reach. However, the hero might still sneak into the villain’s fortress and rescue someone who’s been captured. Just remember to restore the tension afterward by making something else go wrong.
Cultivate Their Minions
In many stories, the hero should be winning some battles, particularly if you’re writing any kind of series. Your hero may need a short-lived happy ending at the close of book, issue, or episode one. But if your villain needs to win rather than lose, how does that work? The answer is minions.
For maximum threat, even the lowest-level minions should be scary at first. This is a great match for a scrappy hero who will grow in prowess during the story. Near your story’s opening, show how your hero shakes in their boots when facing minions. After they have a training montage, they can beat their first low-level minion, only to get their ass kicked by a mid-level minion. Any monster or villain will become less intimidating with exposure, so providing an escalator of opponents is key to maintaining threat over a long story.
If you want your hero to be badass from the start, you won’t manage the same threat level. However, you can still have enough as long as minions can create significant obstacles. If your hero easily defeats the minions in combat, maybe there are so many minions that some can fight the hero while others kidnap people and carry them away. Your hero can’t be everywhere at once.*
Use minions to distance your big bad from any failures. While letting your hero defeat minions instead of the big bad certainly helps, it may not be enough. If your villain chooses which minions to send on a mission and gives them directions, they are also responsible for the outcome. When those minions fail, it shows the villain is bad at strategizing.
However, your villain doesn’t have to act like the minions’ attentive boss. In season four of Teen Wolf, the villain simply puts money on everyone’s heads. Then freelance assassins show up in droves to collect the bounty. Whether each assassin succeeds or fails is nothing to this villain, because they’ve chosen a deliberate strategy of waiting until a random assassin succeeds. This way, Teen Wolf can feature a pair of teen assassins who can’t fight werewolves directly, but who can infiltrate student spaces to poison someone with wolfsbane.
Similarly, it looks better when the villain sends out a whole army to search for the protagonists. Failure still reflects on the villain a little, but they aren’t counting on any particular minion to do the job.
More important minions can also act on their own. They might take initiative to impress the villain and hopefully get a reward. Generally, this works well for giving the first installment in a series a defeatable antagonist while preserving the series big bad.
Put some thought into your minions. The better they come off, the more intimidating the villain who controls them will be.
Maintain Their Mystique
Keeping your villain interesting and intimidating requires managing the impression they make on the audience. For that, you first need to understand what impression you want to create.
The classic threatening villain is designed to be scary. Sauron is a good example from epic fantasy, but I could also use most horror villains as examples. The key to scary villains is that they can’t feel too familiar – or, for that matter, human. In the Lord of the Rings movies, Sauron stays in his armor and barely speaks. Once the audience understands that the villain is just another person, they aren’t so scary anymore.
For this reason, avoid depicting scary villains too much. Instead of giving the audience a good look at the villain, they can see the villain’s aftermath or glimpse their long shadow before it disappears again. Perhaps the villain’s whispers echo through the woods, but the protagonist can’t figure out where the strange voice is coming from.
However, scary villains can make more appearances if they meet two criteria:
- They don’t think or operate like a human.
- They have high novelty.
This is significantly harder to pull off, but it has been done successfully many times. The T-1000 from Terminator 2 has no issue maintaining its fear factor, as it has both interesting abilities and robotic single-mindedness. In contrast, the Joker creates novelty by behaving in a chaotic manner – though attributing this to “insanity” is problematic. Don’t use marginalized traits to explain villainous behavior.
If your villain isn’t scary, they should have some human complexity to make them deeper and more interesting. Audiences will get bored with a walking evil caricature very quickly. That means if your villain is a stand-in for real people who do bad things, such as greedy billionaires or corrupt politicians, your characters need to feel more genuine. However, keep them competent and capable of doing damage.
Finally, you may be aiming for a sympathetic villain. These are villains that the audience may be partly rooting for, and they often join Team Good at some point. They usually have a tragic backstory, and they often face hardships throughout the story so that they feel like an underdog. Because of this, most sympathetic villains aren’t threatening enough to be the story’s big bad. However, they work great as a secondary villain that provides obstacles earlier in the story, sheltering the real big bad from failures. They might even be a minion that defects.
Can your villain be too threatening? Sure. Not everyone wants their story to be scary. More than that, it’s possible to make your villain so powerful your hero doesn’t have any chance to succeed. That will actually reduce tension by destroying uncertainty over the story’s outcome. But as long as you don’t have those issues, your villain should benefit from being more threatening, not less.
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