How To Write The Ultimate Bad Guy
The foundations of a good story lie in its characters. Imagine J.K Rowling writing about the magical land of wizards and Harry Potter – without a paled skin, skull-faced, snake-like slits for nostrils, and red-eyed Voldermort – chasing him down, screaming bloody murder. Harry Potter wouldn’t be the successful novel series it is today.
The memorable charm of reading a good book with a hero-story largely depends on how great its villains are. After all, heroes are only as good as their villains.
A ‘good’ bad guy is not your average Joe. He or she (don’t forget our Cruella de Vills and Wicked Witches of the West) are complex individuals with a dark and shady past motivating their cruel intentions. Think of them as traumatized people who never went to much-needed therapy sessions.
The most important thing to remember when drawing up your villains is to make them relatable. Sure, villains are meant to be booed at, but at some level, their backstories make them compelling characters your audience can sympathize with.
Villains come in every shape, size, and form
You don’t HAVE to include a villainous character into all of your stories. It is completely possible to write one without creating a negative role.
But, if you plan to add a dose of drama and obstacles for the protagonist, formulating a villain is the way to go. Villains do not necessarily have to be power-hungry, taking over the world, ending humanity as we know it- type.
A more realistic approach could be a wicked aunt or a rude boss, or societal villains (representatives of society’s invisible rules).
There are stories where an individual isn’t portrayed as ‘the bad guy.’ Antagonism can be shown with a hint of evil present in multiple characters, which ultimately works against the protagonist.
Pride and prejudice, a classic, didn’t have a typical evil monster to combat. Darcy and Elizabeth faced the class system, Elizabeth’s prejudice, and Darcy’s pride.
Sometimes, a good person is shown to take a selfish step, which could be termed ‘evil’, turning them into the bad guy. It all depends on the storyteller and the story they choose to tell.
Every villain has their own story
As a writer, it is easy to forget to build up your villain. We spend so much time writing-up the perfect hero, our bad guys take a seat on the back burner. Every character in a novel has to be brought to life with dialogues, backstories, actions, and interactions.
Not all of them may be front-field players- most of them have supporting roles or play friends. But they are still important to make the story whole.
Case in point- Harry Potter (everyone’s favorite). The story of an orphan and a mistreated boy who finds a family at Hogwarts to call his own rings in our hearts because of the cherished friendship the protagonist has with Ron and Hermione.
Not just them, but Ron’s family becomes the warm and welcoming touch; Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Professor McGonagall become the guardian figures, and the rest of the students- Neville, Dean, the Quidditch team- all become unforgettable. The author spent time and words to construct the perfect atmosphere with these lovable characters.
The same goes for a villain. A ‘good’ villain needs a relatable backstory- Where did he come from? What happened to him? What motivates him to be bad?
While some notable negative characters have been portrayed to be just plain-old bad, without having a real reason to be, which works too, the majority of them have a devastatingly sad life, which turns them to become evil.
Joker, from the famous DC comics of Batman, is perhaps the most loved criminal. He was poor, struggling, alone and depressed. He blamed the city and its people and turned them into Gotham’s worst nightmare and the top villain of all times.
Customize your villains
There is only one factor to focus on to make a bad guy unforgettable- make them unique and make them your own.
Villains should make sense to the story. They should play into the narrations and, in the end, make your hero look good. But while doing so, it is easy to create a cliche. Nobody likes cliches. They are boring, bland, and unmemorable—everything you do not want.
So how to make a bad guy stand out? Get descriptive!
A vivid and thorough character description is a good way to introduce your antagonist. The physical features paint a picture in the reader’s mind and allow them to form a judgment. Say, for example, that I had to write about a demon.
A few attributes that I could include would be red-eyes, leathery skins, talons or fangs, low-bowing with a characteristic walk, or something of the sort.
Adding features that play to the villain’s story, perhaps a scar on the cheek from a previous injury. You could also involve the hero more into the villain’s background if you take the route of long-lasting foes.
Once you have a clear vision for your bad guy, it’s time to become him. Not in the literal sense, of course. But when you write his interactions and dialogues, think about his past and who he is as a person or monster, and how he would react in the situation.
You have to put yourself in his imaginative shoes and play out scenarios. That’s how you avoid becoming a cliche.
The point is to make your bad guys different, descriptive, and with a purpose.
What do all bad guys have in common?
Villains generally have similar sentiments.
- They are convinced they are the good guys.
- They make worthy opponents to your heroes.
- They can be similar to your hero, but with a misguided sense of morals.
- They are determined and cannot be convinced to do the right thing.
- They are proud, deceitful, vengeful, full of anger and loathing.
- Most importantly, they are jealous of the hero.
While they can be extravagant yet deranged, let’s not forget villains are, in fact, villains. They are the bad guys an author sets to fail right from the star— unless they feel like introducing a major plot twist and actually letting evil take over.
But, most times, the hero comes out winning. So, make your bad guy as juicy as you can; don’t let them overshadow your main characters.
The Best Mastermind Villains Of All Time
We all love heroes. What’s not to love between their unimpeachable moral compass and take-charge attitude? But, you have to give it up to the bad guys for having downright psychopathic tendencies and a deadly charismatic personality to go with it.
The world of films has created a long list of evil masterminds for us to applaud. From Professor Moriarty to Ursula the Sea Witch, we were served with many characters to target our hate. Out of that seemingly unending list of crazed maniacs, here are our top 4 picks of mastermind movie villains.
Movie – The Dark Knight (2008)
Played By – Heath Ledger
One of the greatest performances in modern Hollywood cinema, The Dark Knight’s Joker’ has left its mark on all our hearts. The fact that Joker was a master manipulator that turned Harvey Dent, an uptight citizen, into a two-faced whimsical madman or that he wasn’t hesitant of discarding his allies didn’t make him the bone-chilling figure he is.
He was a villain who came out of the blue, whose backstory was unknown to the movie’s characters and the audience. He seemed to be driven not by a tragic sob story, fueled by hate but by the simple desire of wanting to watch the world burn down around him. There’s nothing more terrifying than a mad genius with a devastatingly beautiful image of a burning world who can’t be shown reason.
Perhaps this is why the origin of his notable scar becomes unimportant. The knowledge of who he is, where he comes from becomes meaningless. Joker becomes even more memorable because he has the potential, which he repeatedly proves throughout the film, to outsmart the hero, Batman, and the other major players at a psychological and violent game.
But, the movie does not have a happy ending. Even with the Joker gone, the city is up in flames, Batman is forced to flee, the bat signal is destroyed, people start losing hope, and Gotham loses its symbol of peace.
Keyser Söze aka Verbal Kint
Movie – The Usual Suspects (1995)
Played By- Kevin Spacey
Who is a mastermind? A genius, a matter of spinning an impenetrable web of intricate lies. If that’s true, then a prime example of a compelling mastermind is perfectly played by Kevin Spacey in the 1995 blockbuster movie, ‘The Usual Suspects.’
Kevin Spacey’s role as Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint; a physically disabled con artist, was one of those unexpectedly deceitful fabrications of imagination that seemed to alter reality. When U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan interrogates verbal Kint, his fake persona of a crippled man, his detailed fable of the criminal exploit was the movie’s main focus. His convincible performance made us all fall in love with a criminal.
The simple and yet ingenious deception conjured by Verbal, who was Keyser Söze – the Devil’s incarnate (as described by himself) – baffled the mind of his interrogator, Kujan. Who in his right mind would invent a story with all of its elements taken from the very room he is arrested, convince everyone his dubious lie is the truth, prove his innocence, and walk a free man? One mega mastermind.
Movie – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Played By- Anthony Hopkins
We can’t talk about masterminds and evil geniuses without mentioning Hannibal Lecter, perhaps the most famed ‘perfectly polite monster’ created.
The unique serial killer character who eats his victims was first imagined by Thomas Harris in his classic novel, “Red Dragon” in 1981. Inspired by Dr. Salazar; often deducted to be Alfredo Ballí Treviño – an affluent physician who lived in Monterrey and a serial killer.
Harris thought it to be surprisingly quirky that a cold-blooded murderer could have impeccable mannerism and be a complete gentleman at first sight. Our infamous cannibal killer shares this eccentric personality. He may eat humans, but he has refined taste, is an intellectual who used to be a forensic psychiatrist, and likes to amuse and be amused by others.
What he doesn’t like are bad-mannered, rude humans. He is deeply bothered by rudeness and turns pretentious people into his victims – “he prefers to eat the rude.”
In the movie, he is described as “they don’t have a name for what he is,” and yet the audience can’t help but be drawn to the enigmatic character.
Movie – Watchmen (2009)
Played By – Matthew Goode
The smartest man in the world who drags the Earth towards utopia is the last entry on our list of the cinematic universe’s best masterminds.
Alan Moore created Ozymandias in his renowned graphic novel miniseries ‘Watchmen.’ He was knowledgeable but hid the fact from everyone that surrounded him. Born as Adrian Veidt, he gave up all his inherited wealth to make something of himself. Pledging to help the world’s people, he became a vigilante and took on the name ‘Ozymandias’- the Greek name for Ramesses II, a figurehead he admired.
Unfortunately, in an alternate reality that the movie is set in, the superhero vigilantes started getting a bad reputation. This lead Veidt to give up his title as Ozymandias and become a billionaire philanthropist. However, unbeknownst to everyone, he secretly planned to blow up New York city and frame Dr. Manhattan for it, ensuring a semblance of peace and unity in the face of a common enemy.
For our misguided vigilante-turned-billionaire, ends justify the means, whatever they may be. But, in the future, his plan worked, at least for a while.
Learn to write better characters in your next screenplay
- Improve Your Characters, Plots & Themes
- Write Stronger Character Arcs
- Create More Engaging Conflict
- And More…