It seems like movie villains are a dying art. Most mainstream movies are more interested in spectacle and likable leads than giving us an antagonist we can fear, but they tend to forget a cardinal rule of storytelling: your hero is only as good as your villain. If you want a great hero, you’re going to need an opposing force that can bring that greatness out of them.
What makes a great movie villain? There are obviously a ton of factors, but generally it can be broken down into a simple set of four questions:
- Are they interesting?
- Do they tie in thematically with your protagonist’s character arc?
- When they show up onscreen, does it completely derail your heroes’ plans?
- How often do they succeed at accomplishing their goals?
Not every great villain will completely adhere to this questionnaire. If you can’t hit all four questions, it’s not the end of the world. After all, Hans Gruber, one of the greatest on screen villains of all time, doesn’t really tie into John McClane‘s character arc so much as incite the events that allow it to happen… and he completely passes the other criteria with flying colors.
>> Steven E. de Souza, legendary screenwriter of Die Hard and many other iconic action films, is judging the 2016 ScreenCraft Action & Thriller Contest!
Think of these questions as a guideline to help you craft a strong villain for your hero. Here, we’ll go into each question:
Are they interesting?
Obviously, this is subjective. But take the point of the question to heart: make sure you’re avoiding any stereotypes or clichés with your villain.
For example, if your bad guy wants to destroy the world with nuclear weapons so a new, stronger world can arise from the ashes… they better have a very compelling or atypical reason for doing so. Your bad guy may be a silent killing machine, but if that’s the case you need to find an angle that makes it feel new. The Terminator was a cyborg, the Predator was an alien hunter on safari for human skulls, and the Winter Soldier was the hero’s best friend brainwashed and turned into a killing machine.
Execs read a ton of scripts and see a lot of villains, so you want yours to stand out, whether it be through their motivations, backstory, or personality.
Do they tie in thematically with your protagonist’s character arc?
Great antagonists are often a “dark reflection” of the hero. This is extremely useful as a vehicle for character change, because you can show us the moment when the hero realizes if they continue on the same path… they’re gonna become the bad guy.
The bad guy could also represent your hero’s worst fears, which the hero will have to confront before the end of the narrative. An effective antagonist can be the best catalyst for growth.
When they show up on screen, does it completely derail your heroes’ plans?
Your villain needs a sense of menace in order to give the story tension. He can’t be easily defeated or evaded, and his entrance into a scene can’t simply be to start an action sequence that changes nothing or else he’ll seem impotent. When he shows up, any plans or actions your heroes are in the process of carrying out have to be completely upended, which will force them to improvise and try to pull a pyrrhic victory out of the fire.
This should also have a major impact on the plot, like when the Death Star blew up Alderaan in A New Hope. Our heroes were heading there to link up with the Rebellion, so when the planet gets destroyed and the Millennium Falcon gets captured they have to think of an entirely new plan of action to achieve the same goal under more difficult circumstances.
A more recent example would be Nero in the 2009 Star Trek. His introduction in the film leads to the death of Kirk’s father (and sets into motion a new timeline), and the next time he shows up he destroys Vulcan and trashes a huge chunk of Starfleet. That’s a guy to fear.
How often do they succeed at accomplishing their goals?
If your villain keeps getting thwarted by your heroes over the course of the story, he’s not an effective villain. The key to a great bad guy is to have him win constantly until the very end of the story. Every victory the bad guy has is a defeat for your heroes, which means you have constantly rising stakes over the course of the story. Loki in the Avengers destroys a SHIELD facility, brainwashes Hawkeye, breaks apart the Avengers, and calls down an alien army of doom until the good guys finally get their act together and defeat him. That’s a worthy villain right there.
On the other hand, the movie Patriot Games features a villain who fails an assassination attempt in the first scene, fails his next assassination attempt halfway through the movie, and then fails his third at the end. By the time Jack Ryan faces him for the climactic fight, nobody buys that the villain will be much of a problem because he never succeeded at anything.
>> That doesn’t mean the Rule of Three can’t be used to great effect, though. Check out Anatomy of a Scene: Using the “Rule of Three” in Action Sequences.
So, when planning out your story ask yourself these questions. Your villain deserves special attention, because the better you make them the more compelling your hero will become.
This article was written by Ashley Scott Meyers who is a screenwriter and podcaster over at SellingYourScreenplay.com. He has sold and optioned dozens of scripts over the last two decades. Through SYS he runs a screenplay analysis service, provides paid job leads to screenwriters, and helps screenwriters connect with producers who are looking for material.