One of the cardinal rules of writing good characters is that everybody should think they’re the star of the movie. And one of the cardinal rules of writing good villains is that the villain should think they’re the good guy – they need to be able to justify their actions on some personal ethical grounds, even if their ethics are twisted.
But in practice we develop our stories from the perspective that our main character is, well, the main character. This is mostly good. We want our hero to be active. We want them to solve their own problems. We don’t want them overshadowed by minor characters. Sometimes, though, we need to take a look at the story from another point of view.
Recently one of my students was struggling with a mystery story. There wasn’t enough threat or conflict as the hero followed the clues to solve the mystery. I pointed out that the villain wasn’t doing anything. He was simply waiting until the hero figured out that the villain was the guilty party, and then there was a big climactic showdown.
But that isn’t realistic. In real life, murderers take action. They cover their tracks or go on the run. They might actively try to mislead the people investigating them. A particularly villainous villain – the kind that makes for a good movie character – might sabotage or physically attack the investigator.
I suggested my student write a short treatment of her story as if the villain was the main character. What would he be doing? How would he respond to the hero’s actions?
I did the exact same thing for a mystery story I developed a couple years ago. Writing a two-page treatment of the same story but with the villain as the main character was enormously helpful. Suddenly, the villain was sticking his nose into the investigation, screwing it up and covering his tracks. I went back and revised my original outline to incorporate the villain’s actions. Things got a lot more challenging for my hero.
I find this exercise particularly useful for mysteries because often the mystery is the villain’s identity. That means the villain can’t be in direct conflict with the hero without giving everything away. The villain’s actions happen mostly off screen, and thus we tend to forget about them. But by figuring out their story, you can discover how their actions might affect the main character.
The technique can be useful in other genres, too. In an action movie, for example, writing a treatment of your story from the bad guy’s perspective can help you maintain the logic of the his actions. If you were the villain, would you really attack the hero at this point? Or would you wait for a better opportunity? The more clever the villain, the more heroic the hero is.
Consider one of the greatest action movie villains, Hans Gruber from Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza). Hans is extremely clever. He is engaged in a complex, challenging heist, one that has nothing to do with John McClane. And he sees himself as an “exceptional thief,” someone supremely talented and deserving of the rewards of his efforts. You could easily write a treatment of Die Hard where Hans is the main character and McClane is the villain threatening to disrupt his elaborate plans.
This same technique could be applied to other, non-villainous minor characters, too. You might try writing the story from the perspective of the love interest in a romantic comedy, for example. This will force you to make your supporting characters active rather than reactive. The love interest isn’t going to wait around forever for the hero to make his or her move!
It would be a waste of time to do this exercise for every minor character in a screenplay, but for significant characters who strongly impact your main character’s story, it can not only bring those characters to life but improve the plot.