(Spoliers: Die Hard, Sunset Blvd., Selma, The Silence of the Lambs, The Apartment, The Matrix)
Of course we love our great heroes – Die Hard’s resourceful and charming John McClane, farm boy dreamer Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, and Clarice Starling, the determined rookie in Silence of the Lambs. But don’t we kind of like our great villains – villains like Hans Gruber, Darth Vadar, and Hannibal Lecter – even more?
Creating a great villain can really boost the power of a story with a human antagonist. Besides just the entertainment value of a compelling character, our heroes are really only as great as the villains they overcome. If Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) was about John McClane stopping a teenage shoplifter, would McClane be so impressive?
So how does one create a great villain? First, you should lavish the same attention on the villain as you do the hero. And that starts with the villain’s motivation. One of the traps of screenwriting is to make your hero villainous because they’re just naturally evil. But people rarely see themselves as the bad guy. They have goals that they can justify to themselves. A good villain may even see themselves as the real hero of the story!
The Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) weren’t trying to be evil. They were looking for the Ark because Germany was at war and they thought the Ark might be a weapon that could help them win. From their perspective, they were patriots.
So be sure your villain’s motivation is plausible. Doing a treatment of your story from your villain’s point of view, with them as the “hero,” can be a good way to ensure their behavior is believable. (See this post for more on that technique.)
Considering and justifying the antagonist’s goals can also help you create villains who are not overtly villainous. If the antagonist and the hero each have a goal, but the goals are mutually exclusive, then there is conflict.
Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.) is a great “villain,” but her motivation isn’t evil. She wants to reclaim her lost movie star glory. She even helps our hero, Joe Gillis, quite a bit, paying off his debts, giving him a writing job, and buying him nice things. However Joe doesn’t want to become Norma’s arm candy and pet screenwriter. He wants to write a different script with young development exec Betty. And he’s also interested in romance with Betty – and decidedly not with Norma. Thus Joe’s goals are mutually exclusive to Norma’s goals, and that is what makes her a villain from Joe’s point of view.
There has been some controversy about the new movie Selma (written by Paul Webb) because it portrays President Lyndon Johnson as an obstacle to the voting rights act, a take which history does not support. Let’s leave aside the question of historical accuracy for now and look at the nature of the villains in the movie.
First of all, Johnson is not the real villain of Selma. Governor Wallace and the Selma Sheriff are the bad guys. But even they are motivated by a desire to protect a way of life they enjoy, and to a lesser extent what they see as the rule of law. Yes they are racists, and yes they encourage brutal, inhuman acts. But they justify these things as their duty as protectors of society. We may not agree – that’s not the point. Their motivation is plausible.
Johnson is more interesting. He is certainly an antagonist to Martin Luther King, Jr. in this story. But his motivation, even in the inaccurate portrayal in the movie, is not to prevent blacks from voting. He supports King’s goals. He simply wishes to delay and focus on problems he thinks will make more of a difference to the average black person in America. He believes King will bring violence on his followers with little to show for it. Here is a case of mutually exclusive goals – the characters are in conflict, though neither is a "bad guy."
Let’s look at a few more great movie villains.
Hans Gruber in Die Hard: Hans is extremely clever. He also has a cadre of henchmen and weaponry, but it is really his intelligence that makes him such a challenge for John McClane. He’s always one step ahead of our hero. This forces McClane to be even cleverer, making his success more impressive. Gruber also matches McClane’s working class charm with erudite wit. And though Gruber is a thief, he makes it clear that he is no ordinary thief – he’s an exceptional thief. He’s proud of his skills and believes they entitle him to his rewards.
Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally): Through most of the movie, Hannibal is behind bars and not an apparent physical threat to Clarice. But it is made clear that his danger is still real – he likes to psychologically torture and manipulate people. Clarice is repeatedly warned not to tell him anything personal or let him get into her head. And the danger is illustrated when Lecter talks a prisoner in the next cell into suicide. Hannibal is an unusual villain in that he is actually helping Clarice with her case. But he wants something in return. Hannibal’s goal is to learn Clarice’s secrets. In other words, he wants to get inside her head… the very thing she is trying to avoid. Clarice is racing against a clock to find the killer Buffalo Bill, and the only way she can succeed is to win the battle of wits with Hannibal.
Sheldrake in The Apartment (written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond): Here we have a villain who is not a criminal or a psychopath, but is still a bad guy. He is using and mistreating poor Miss Kubelik, promising her he will leave his wife when he actually has no intention of doing so. He justifies his actions by saying women like Miss Kubelik are unreasonable, that they should know these things are just flings and not get so attached. Sheldrake is brought into conflict with our hero, C.C. Baxter, because Baxter is in love with Miss Kubelik. As long as Miss Kubelik is under Sheldrake’s spell, Baxter cannot achieve his goal. It’s hero and villain in a very grounded, common story.
Agent Smith in The Matrix (screenplay by Andy & Lana Wachowski): Smith is a powerful foe. Neo is told repeatedly that the Agents are unbeatable – and in fact we see this when Morpheus, Neo’s mentor, is forced to fight Smith and is quickly defeated. In the end, we know Neo is “the One” precisely because he’s able to beat an Agent – powerful villain equals great hero. Though Smith may be the most “evil” of the villains I’ve mentioned, he still is motivated by what he sees as a heroic goal: protecting the Matrix from the human rebels. The machines need the Matrix and Smith is a machine. He’s simply trying to protect his people.
Notice also that all of these villains (except perhaps Agent Smith due to the nature of the story) are well rounded, three dimensional characters. Again, you want to give the villain or antagonist just as much thought and attention as the hero.
Who’s the villain of your story? Are they powerful and plausible? Because your hero’s greatness depends on them!