Friday, October 9, 2015

The 1>2>3 Formula: How to Write the Perfect Villain

As promised, here I am, and here is the post on villains.
I’ve noticed that people seem to be more sloppy with their villains than with anything else, (myself included,) and I want to shed some light on the subject.
There are a bunch of writings out there about how to build a better villain, but none of them seem to fully encompass what a villain is supposed to be, or how they’re supposed to work. That is something that I find disturbing. Because while everything in writing is supposed to be pure creativity, there are formulas to everything. (Or most everything, anyway.)
I’ve tried to put an antagonist formula together, and I think I have something.
What we need for the perfect villain is what I’ve decided to call the 1>2>3 equation. And it reads like this:
  1. Personality
  2. Appearance
  3. Other‒Think, “What makes them uniquely bone-chilling?”

You see, each of them feed into the last one, with 1 being the most crucial to develop and 3 being more minor. This formula is a bit underdeveloped, but I think that if you can fully flesh out your villain according to it, you won’t be sorry that you did.
For example’s sake, I’m going to use several of my favorite villains from movies and books so that you can see how the formula could have affected them.

  1. Personality‒You simply CAN NOT have a good character without a fully developed personality, and that goes for villains, too. (Villains are people. Duh.) Personality is probably the hardest part with villains. I mean, how does one create a person who is more than a scary cookie-cutter character, but at the same time, make them believably evil? It’s partially in the motive. Your villain should have some reason to be doing what they are doing‒be it revenge, madness, or just because they can. It also can have a lot to do with backstory. (That seems to be Marvel and DC comic’s strategy.) I think, personally, that it’s both. We can have blood-chilling motive as well as tragic backstory in the same picture, correct? Of course!

(I have made links to the example character’s wikipedia pages, in case you’d like to research for yourselves. Clickey-clickey. =D )

The Joker, from DC Comic’s “The Dark Knight:” Disfigured by chemicals and driven mad by something that happened in his past, (all of the Joker “backstories” are unresolved,) the Joker is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing villains in the handful I’ve encountered. Psychologically unstable, as well as having a very gruesome sense of humor, he’s terrifying. (You wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley, that’s for sure.)
Backstory: While it’s very undecided what exactly happened to Joker, the main story of why he went mad has mostly to do with an attempted heist gone awry, falling into a vat of chemicals, and finding out upon returning home that his wife and unborn child are dead. (You can read the whole story here if you feel so inclined.)
Motive: Even people who have gone insane can be greedy. And I think that losing his family made him rather intent on killing the innocent‒an off-handed revenge on fate, if you will.

Loki, from Marvel Comic’s “Thor:” A crafty, humanoid alien with both a tragic backstory and a “good” motive for his behavior, Loki is obviously the perfect villain. Manipulative, insecure, a bit irrational… what’s not to appreciate?
Backstory: Loki, born on the alien planet of Asgard, was adopted, and also a frost giant‒aka, monster. Throughout his childhood into adolescence, he always felt that his adoptive father‒(not to mention all of the Asgardian people)‒preferred Thor, his stronger adoptive brother, which fed into his development with bitterness and jealousy.
Motive: His motive was mostly insecurities‒he wanted to prove that he could be just as good as Thor, and that he was just as powerful. He also wanted revenge on everyone who saw him as “lesser.” So he went for world domination of Earth. Nice move.

James Moriarty, from BBC’s miniseries, “Sherlock:” A cunning mastermind; manipulative and ruthless, Moriarty is a psychopath. (Or a sociopath, actually. I did my research.) He is the sworn arch nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, and they have many run-ins on the show‒the kind that leave you chilled to the bone because he is SO smart, and he uses his intelligence in the most mind-bogglingly cruel ways.
Backstory: It seems to be implied that Moriarty is rich, or at least somewhat well-to-do, as he has grand tastes and is very intellectual, but not really any backstory is provided for this character. (Which implies to me that he has very little backstory involving itself in his behaviors‒that he perhaps decided to become a criminal mastermind on a whim, and realized that he liked it.)
Motive: He doesn’t seem to have much motive, except to prove that he is smarter than Sherlock Holmes, and capable of efficiently killing people and all-around breaking the law. Which is, in itself, disturbing. He is as disgustingly heartless as he is just because he’s parading his twisted, evil ego.

So, with all of that said, I realize that I haven’t provided a female villain. It’s because the world of film and literature is very deprived of good female villains! That should give you ideas‒maybe your future novel could have a completely scary villainess? *hint, hint* (I’d totally read that.)

  1. Appearance‒This one is important, but villains don’t necessarily have to “look” scary. They can look any way that you decide they should. I have watched and read several stories where the villain was gorgeous, and that was one of the things that made them so frightening. In other stories, there’s one or two things that makes them scary, such as a hand grotesquely twisted in a childhood accident, or a long scar from an operation that did nothing but make their condition worse. That is all fine and good, but I personally have very little patience with “dark dark dark dark” villains‒I’m sure you know the type. The polar opposite of the “Mary Jane” character, and they can be just as much of a turn-off to read. So please, don’t make your villains just “DARK”. Make them fascinating in a way that it disturbs the reader‒and possibly the protagonist‒to be fascinated by them. That in itself will make them truly dark.

The Joker: As I said earlier, as part of his backstory, he fell into a vat of chemicals and was grotesquely disfigured‒his skin was bleached, his hair turned green, and his mouth became fixed in a perpetual grin. His voice in that movie was generally calm, and kind of raspy, with a laugh caught between the syllables. It made it creepy. (Voices are important, guys. But please be careful not to overdo it.)
Loki: Now, this fellow isn’t hard on the eyes at all, but that isn’t what we’re talking about here. *clears throat* Loki’s appearance contributes to his character in a different way from the Joker’s. Instead of just being scary, it’s the devilish look he gets in his eyes, and the way his mouth seems to be always turning up in a smirk. And his walk is always very cool and collected, even if he’s walking up to an armed enemy. So, to put it straight, his presence is intimidating.
James Moriarty: Moriarty has always seemed very kind of creepy to me. Maybe it’s the way he laughs when he’s outsmarting someone, maybe it’s the way he smiles when it seems like he has no way of escaping, but somehow or another, the dude always sets me on edge. And his voice is like a contradiction. It’s kind of whiny and high most of the time, but his words are almost always murderous. So overall, Moriarty is just plain creepy in all areas of his existence. (Especially in the BBC miniseries.)

  1. Other‒ There is always something extra in a good villain. (Good villain… oxymorons, anyone? ;D) That something could be anything‒a fetish, a quirk, an odd habit, a strange fascination… you name it! Find something that disturbs you, personally, and weave that thing and the feelings attached into your story. Your villain should give you the shivers, not just your readers! So remember, guys, details.
    The depth is in the little things.

I think that if you follow this set of guidelines‒the 1>2>3 equation, as I’m calling it‒your villains should be fantastically authentic. (Authenticity should have been my middle name. I love it so much.) Maybe they’ll be what will make your books a bestseller, or maybe they’ll be why your beta readers don’t sleep at night. *shrugs*
And with that, I’m out.
You are completely amazing, and good luck writing your villains! =D

P.S. Dear Beta Readers,
It is not my goal that you don’t sleep at night. I used that as an example, and in no way do I wish any of you harm. ;)
Someone-who-adores-the people-who-put-up-with-rough-drafts


  1. THANK you, I see those problems a lot in villains, sometimes even my own (says the guy whose beta readers occasionally refuse to talk to him). The hardest part is if you want to make a villain sympathetic. How is the audience supposed to feel for the person they're also supposed to be afraid of?

    1. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who notices these things! (Even things that I myself have been guilty of.) And as for sympathy and your protagonist relating to your antagonist, I have found that giving them something in common (like a character trait, though perhaps varying in severity) usually creates some depth and gray area. (I really like the effect it has on the characters and the story itself, making the protagonist more aware of themselves, and giving the antagonist some leverage to manipulate their minds. It also seems to create a sort of disturbing feel to the scenes where the two meet, which contributes to the overall chemistry between the characters in a very fascinating way.)

    2. In my WIP, I am attempting to write a highly sympathetic villain, and I think you're right on giving him something in common with the protagonist, because in my case, I think the scariest thing about him is how similar he is to my protagonist. It makes you realize my MC is only a breath away from being no better than the villain. (Of course, I'm not even halfway through writing the rough draft of this, so I have no idea if all of this will translate how I'm planning it to.)

  2. Wonderful post! personally, it's easier for me to create a villian vs a hero, but even I can get stuck sometimes :)
    In my WIP, the main villian is the hero's own brother, which makes it difficult to write him evil as well as a caring brother.
    Thanks again for your posts. They're very helpful!

    1. Thank you for reading my post and commenting! =)
      I personally try to avoid writing villains FOR the hero because that has a tendency to make them one-dimensional and boring, but it works for some.
      And that sounds exciting, even if it is difficult! Good luck with your writing and your villains. =)

  3. Excellent and compelling post on crafting an excellent villain.
    I find they really carry a story better than the hero simply because they need to be more. More evil, strong, and smart so the hero will have to fight much harder and overcome more obstacles if they are to win the day.
    Well thought out and presented.

    1. Thank you for reading, commenting, and the compliment! =)
      The villain has a tendency to be just as important if not more important to plan out than the hero, because of the reasons that you said. There is more hanging on their character much of the time, more involved in their actions and the aftershocks of them, and just in general, they're a bigger issue and for whatever reason people don't seem to treat them as such. But I'm looking forward to seeing new breeds of villains! This is a really exciting time in the writing industry. =)

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  5. This was exactly what I was looking for! I tend to create very cliche characters, both heroes and villains. I think this equation should really help me come up with a more original villain! Thank you!

  6. Thank you for this! I fully intend to use it to better flesh out my villain.

    1. I'm glad I could be of service. =) Good luck with your writing.

  7. Thanks, Alyssa (oh hey, that's the name of my original character), for posting this. I've been having a lot of trouble trying to create a good villain (lol) for my story and I think this should help. :)

    1. You're welcome! (Also, it's cool that your original character and I share a name.)
      I hope it has helped you! Good luck with your villain and your stories. =)

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. I always seem to have trouble coming up with a solid villain or character.

    As far as my current project goes, my villain is an ethical villain, forcing his "good" on others. This was helpful for developing his uniqueness. He was bland before.

    Do you have any advise for villain goal planning? Or for things that can encourage a protagonist to fight against the antagonist?

    Again, thank you!

  9. I agree, I hate it when villains are 'dark'!
    The villain of my current project is a teenage girl, and I am trying to figure out how I can make a 17-year-old seem scary! Any tips???
    A (VERY) helpful resource I have found for character's personalities is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. I think my villain will be something like an ESTJ.
    Thanks Alyssa for the post! Very helpful!

    1. It depends on whether you want her to be sympathetic or not, but my advice is to have her appear to be battling something else off-screen. Like conflicting morals or social expectations. If she's sympathetic, show her panicking or crumbling under the pressure. If she's not, show her conquer her problem but by becoming even more of a monster in the process.

  10. The motive for Moriarty was to prove that Sherlock was just like him, possibly showing a bit more into his past than previously thought. Maybe he was insecure because he was so different as a kid, since it is hinted that he started doing evil things at a very young age. The point to a good villain is that they are just like normal people. They have goals, emotions, conflicts exc. just like everyone else. Just a thought. But if you dig deep enough, you can usually always find a motive. Even in Moriarty.