Portrait of a Villain

Today I’d like to talk about Evil. Actually, let’s not forget some other important qualities our villains have… Hatred. Corruption. That dark and fetid poison of the soul that leads one to the lowest levels of depravity. The hallmarks of a good villain.

But those aren’t all.  Let’s also talk about other traits. Obsession. Desperation. Inability to Compromise. Those also are classic characteristics, yet some of these also make outstanding heroes.

Not every story has a fantastic villain (and indeed depending on the type of story it’s possible that not every story needs one).  But a lot of strong stories do.  However, even when there are villains, not all villains look and feel the same.  They aren’t all “bad guys.” Some are like everybody else, but they just happen to be at odds with our hero.

So what makes a fantastic villain?

1) Depth.

There aren’t really a whole lot of strong villains that we remember years later that are lacking in depth. Your audience needs to know that your villain has a reason to do what he does. This is so important, that a lot of stories start giving us backstories of the villain to help us see how they went from being “good” to “bad.”

I’d argue for the most part we don’t even remember villains without depth… The only exception I’d say are villains that have some great dialog… And then the reality is that we remember the lines but not necessarily which villain they came from, or what that villain’s motive is.

2) A goal, and preferably the same one the hero has

I think great villains want something. It doesn’t have to be world domination or even for the world to recognize how awesome they are. It could be as simple as keeping “them” from bulldozing your house or even to cleanse the corruption that has seized the city. Most villains want it, and are typically unwilling to stop at anything in the name of achieving.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby tells us that this goes a level deeper. Stories where the villains are truly epic have the villain and hero wanting the same thing. That may be deciding on a version of the truth (who should everybody think killed this guy?) or it could be whether or not Captain Kill should rule the galaxy. Either way, the hero is aggressively pursuing one side and the villain is aggressively pursuing the other. Even extremely likable people suddenly become villains when they are determined to achieve their goal… And the hero can’t allow that.

More than just sharing the goal, the villain should be really, really good at hitting wherever the hero is weak. Hero have self-esteem problems? The villain should know how to really make the hero feel like crap. Hero mechanically inept? Villain should be in a technological mecca stronghold.

Let’s look at a few villains.

Tangled – Mother Gothel


Rapunzel is locked in a tower and has absolutely no experience with the outside world. Our primary villain of the story is Mother Gothel. Gothel is the only link Rapunzel has to the outside world, a world that Rapunzel is pining to go to. Gothel isn’t trying to destroy Rapunzel, or even hurt her (initially), but they both share a goal: They want to control what happens to Rapunzel. We catch some backstory to see that Gothel’s hundreds of years old and more or less obsessed with not dying, and all of her actions stem from this root. As time goes on, we also see how she is a skilled manipulator, tricking bandits to aiding her and appealing to their greed.

She’s adept at attacking Rapunzel’s weakness. Rapunzel is ignorant of the world, and Gothel knows how to twist that knife at every opportunity. Each word spoke is an attack to belittle Rapunzel and make her feel unworthy and needing of Gothel’s protection.

Star Wars – Darth Vader


I almost didn’t include Vader here, since he’s a really easy target. But let’s look at him anyways… He’s worth it.  (;

He’s a supreme dictator and enforcer in the galaxy. Our hero, Luke Skywalker, is a bumpkin who knows nothing of this Force thing that Vader happens to be a master of, has no combat skills, and is essentially a farmer with a good heart. They conflict over a single goal: Who should rule the galaxy? Vader is going with the Empire… Luke not so much. However, Vader is a beast at slashing Luke. He knows Luke inside and out… He’s his father! What a trump card. On top of that, Luke is trying to challenge Vader in vader’s strength zone: Combat, both martial as well as in a ship. To top that off, Vader immediately kills Luke’s mentor, and then proceeds to capture luke’s friends. He knows exactly which buttons will get Luke to respond to him and merciless presses them.

He’s also deeper than he looks. We find out that he’s actually a servant of a greater power, and we recognize “the good in [him].”

X-Men/Marvel Comics – Magneto

Magneto has a very simple goal: He wants to preserve and promote the way of life for his people (homo superior, the mutants). He approaches this from a multitude of angles over decades of comics, but in doing so, he ends up coming to heads with lots of people and groups, including our heroes (the X-Men) and his friend (Charles Xavier). He’s not “a bad guy” but people definitely see him that way when he is driving hard to get what he wants.

And how did he get this way? He was a boy when the Nazi’s screw up his life and family. He’s seen persecution and holocausts… And he won’t let them happen again. In another setting, he might even be a hero (and was in alternate settings that comics are so famous for).

What do you guys think? Are there other traits that make villains truly villainous? Did I miss anything big?


3 thoughts on “Portrait of a Villain

  1. Well written. I would also say that a good villain needs to be memorable. This can stretch from iconic quotes to the extreme measures he would commit to to get rid of the hero.

    Liked by 2 people

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