Thursday, August 2, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed: “How to Write a Good Bad Guy” • by Auston Habershaw

The villain is a key role in any adventure story. It’s really, really hard to have Star Wars without Darth Vader. There is no Infinity War without Thanos. Hell, there’s not even a 101 Dalmatians without a scenery-chewing Cruella De Vil.

Despite this clear need for a villain, however, not every villain is up to the task. A great many villains just do not tickle the imagination and fail to make their stories click with the audience. They’re dull and, worse still, forgettable. Can you think of a really good book, story, or movie with a forgettable villain? I can’t.

So, how do we avoid this? Well, here I present my (incomplete) list of things to do to write a good villain.

#1: A Villain Complicates or Creates Conflict

First, a villain exists to create or complicate conflict and tension in the plot. To use English-major speak, the villain frequently (though not always) serves as the chief antagonist for the plot—in other words, they are the ones that usually create the conflict that the protagonist needs to resolve. Even in the case where they are not the antagonist (case in point: in the film Titanic, Hockley—played by Billy Zane—is the villain but is not the chief antagonist, as he does not create Rose’s conflict), they always serve to complicate or heighten that conflict. So, Darth Vader indirectly orders Luke’s aunt and uncle killed, which creates Luke’s drive to become a Jedi and defeat the Empire. Likewise Belloq, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is always there to take away the things Indy wants most (the idol, Marion, the Ark), thereby driving Indy forward.

This is arguably the most essential thing a villain does and any character that fails to do it is not actually a villain at all. It’s just some lady with a cool outfit and a bunch of dopey henchmen.

#2: A Villain Invites Comparisons to the Hero

Second, the villain acts as a thematic counterpoint to the protagonist. By understanding the villain, we likewise understand more about the hero. Killmonger is such a wonderful villain in Black Panther because he is the direct counterpoint to T’Challa—where T’Challa is a child of privilege, Killmonger is a child of poverty; where T’Challa is unsure, Killmonger is driven to the point of obsession. This can also be seen in the relationship between the Joker and Batman (Chaos vs Order) and, to skew more literary, between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in Treasure Island (Jim is youth, innocence, and honesty, Silver is age, cynicism, and lies). Much as the bass guitar adds volume to a band’s sound, the villain adds richness to the hero’s journey—through the villain, we understand the purpose of the story better.
#3: A Villain Must Have an Understandable Goal

“Ruling the world” is not a goal. Say it with me now: Ruling the world is not a goal. Why not? It’s way, waaay too vague. The villain needs to have a purpose, and that purpose needs to be specific enough that the audience can understand it. This is essential for us to fully comprehend what the villain represents and why we must reject it. Villains are characters, not forces of nature beyond our ken.

For this reason, I would not characterize the xenomorphs in the Aliens franchise as villains—and the movies understand this, too (or, at least the good ones do). The villains are always human beings—guys like Burke who are willing to sell out Ripley and her friends in order to make some money. We understand their goals and, therefore, we understand the stakes of the story and why the villain must be stopped. The scariest thing about Mustapha Mond in Brave New World is that his plan, horrifying though it is, makes total sense given a certain point of view which we, the audience, recoil from.

#4: A Villain Must Be a Well-Developed Character

Beyond their goals, a good villain must be more than just a caricature of a person. They can be single-minded, sure; they can be crazy and over-the-top, but they require facets like any other person. The reason for this is not to make them likeable or identifiable (though a villain can be these things), but rather to make them a reasonable counterpoint to the hero (that second purpose, remember?). Even though Vader seems a completely single-note character, we know there is depth there—Obi Wan hints of their shared past, there is a certain mystery about him—who is he? What is his deal? How did he become evil? All that is important (really important, as it turns out) and it is essential to keeping the audience invested in the struggle between good and evil.

The more real the villain seems, the more terrible their agenda becomes. They are not sketchy metaphors with legs—they are living, breathing people. Real people cannot be written off as “just crazy.” A real person forces you to engage, and that makes the villain more effective on the page or on the screen.

#5: A Villain Must Stir Negative Emotions

We must not completely admire our villains, because then they become heroes and your story is suddenly very different. I’m not saying that the antagonist can’t be a good person or that a villain can’t be sympathetic on some level (they totally can), but a villain is not a villain if they cannot force the audience to gasp or scream or rage. Accordingly, the villain must be deviant from accepted norms in some notable way. This might sound obvious, but the world is full of bland villains who are supposed to be hated, but who have no emotional effect on the reader and, therefore, fall flat.

In the end, the villain can (and should) be a central part of what makes any story tick, but they need to be treated as a character, not a plot device.

On the day Auston Habershaw was born, Skylab fell from the heavens. This foretold two possible fates: supervillain or sci-fi / fantasy author. Fortunately he chose the latter, and spends his time imagining the could-be and never-was rather than disintegrating the moon with his volcano laser. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published short stories in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, among other places. His fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is published through Harper Voyager—the final installment of which, The Far Far Better Thing, will be released in November of 2018. He lives and works in Boston, MA, and you can find him online at

His first appearance in Stupefying Stories was “Thief of Hearts” in Stupefying Stories #7, and his next appearance will be “Upon the Blood-Dark Sea,” coming soon.