Your villain plays the most important role in your story. Yep, more important than your hero.
That means you must go beyond the cliches when developing your villain, because generic platitudes such as maniacal laughter, minions and monologues are standard issue.
But don’t panic if your villain possesses these stock traits. Even the most celebrated villains are littered with cliches. Look no further than Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series and The Joker from The Dark Knight.
So how did J.K. Rowling and the Nolan brothers propel their villains past the stereotypes? Better yet, how do you craft your villain to become exceptional? Here are 3 factors to craft an exceptional villain.
1. The villain functions as a reflection of the hero.
Picture your hero looking into a mirror. The reflecting image is that of your villain. At first you only see their obvious similarities. But upon closer inspection, you see how the two characters contrast each other in all their disturbing glory. These dark reflections equip your villain with layers of character that match your hero’s depth.
Lord Voldemort is a reflection of Harry Potter.
- Both are orphans:
- Voldemort became an orphan due to misery and lack of love when his mother died from heartbreak.
- Harry became an orphan founded in love when his parents sacrifice their lives to save him.
- Both view Hogwarts as their first home:
- Voldemort (Tom Riddle) allowed Hogwarts to become another broken home as he emerged into the Dark Lord.
- Harry made Hogwarts a happy home where he finds his best friends and true family.
- Both open the Chamber of Secrets:
- Voldemort embraced the power of the Baselisk to wreak havoc on Hogwarts.
- Harry destroyed the Serpent of Slytherin.
- Both lead crews toward their story goals:
- Voldemort rules the Death Eaters with self-serving fear to vanquish half-bloods.
- Harry inspires good-hearted friends and wizards while doing almost everything for others to protect the world.
- Both are half-blood wizards whose emotions fuel their great strength:
- Voldemort uses hate to dominate without regard for anyone’s safety.
- Harry is driven by love and despises putting anyone else in danger.
The Joker is a reflection of Batman.
- Both wear costumes:
- The Joker dresses like a carnival freak show to confuse and disturb.
- Batman shields his identity and body to protect and safeguard.
- Both instill fear in Gotham:
- The Joker forces criminals to accept and join his insane mission.
- Batman drives criminals to look over their shoulders.
- Both inspire Gotham:
- The Joker breeds chaos which motivates lunatics to help topple the city.
- Batman serves justice which drives citizens to help protect the city.
- Both subscribe to ideological views:
- The Joker believes the world offers no redeemable value and mayhem should govern.
- Batman aspires to support the world long enough to fix itself so it can flourish.
2. The villain exposes truths the hero does not want to admit.
Your hero has fears they don’t want to believe or admit. These fears are dark truths. Your villain must preach these dark truths like gospel to the hero. These revelations will cast your villain as a memorable conductor of conflict.
Voldemort vows to Harry Potter that he’s destined to die by the Dark Lord’s hand.
- Voldemort tried to kill Harry Potter as a baby but failed. The Dark Lord reminds Harry of his murderous intentions throughout the series. And Harry can only escape Voldemort’s proclamation for so long.
- Because in the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it’s revealed to Harry that Voldemort’s repeated death sentence was actually a dark truth. Harry learns the only way to defeat the Dark Lord is if he, himself, dies by Voldemort’s hand.
The Joker pledges Gotham will turn on itself.
- The Joker tells Batman in the Police interrogation room that Gotham’s morals and code are a farce. The Joker declares the citizens will eat each other alive and cross Batman at the first sign of trouble.
- The Joker’s words are fulfilled after his plan transforms Harvey Dent (a secondary hero) into Two-Face (a secondary villain). Dent was supposed to be Gotham’s White Knight, the best of them. But The Joker turns him. So in turn, Two-Face seeks revenge against the corrupt cops and citizens that failed him (killing five people).
3. The villain forces the hero to evolve into a savior.
Your villain must push your hero to confront the exposed truth. This confrontation permits your hero to emerge as the savior they’re intended to be.
Harry Potter faces Voldemort’s death sentence.
- After Harry learns he must die by Voldemort’s hand to destroy a protective link they share, Harry decides to surrender in the Forbidden Forest.
- Harry allows Voldemort to cast the Killing Curse but finds himself go to a place between life and death. In this strange place, Harry learns that by facing death and not running from it, he’s become the true master of the Deathly Hallows (a trio of powerful, magical objects).
- Harry is then reborn and conquers Voldemort, an impossibility had Harry refused to brave the uninviting truth that Voldemort forced him to reconcile.
Batman faces The Joker’s self-destruction prophecy.
- After Two-Face dies trying to kill Batman and Lieutenant Gordon’s family, Batman recognizes that Gotham will implode if it discovers the Joker’s revelation that he, himself, did not want to believe.
- Batman decides to make Gotham think he killed the five people, not Dent (Gotham’s White Knight). The joker’s “chess game” forces Batman to accept all the blame and sacrifice his reputation, an act that propels him to become The Dark Knight which Gotham needs to survive.
Why it Works
It’s no secret that villains generate the primary conflict in stories. They produce major obstacles that heroes must overcome. It’s this cause and effect process that empowers heroes to save the day and shine at the climax.
Except we want our villains to shine, too! As storytellers, we dream of creating unforgettable monsters that impact readers. The kind they secretly root for. Or openly rave about. Thankfully, every storyteller can prepare a villain that leaves a remarkable impression.
But it can’t start until you permit your villain to be more than the “Lord of Cliches.”
When you position your villain as a dark reflection of the hero, you guarantee that the villain has a backstory just as deep as your hero.
By having the villain reveal dark truths to the hero, the reader sees legitimacy in the villain’s evil plans. Finally, the act of challenging the hero to overcome what he did not want to behold is more effective than the act of attacking the hero’s current beliefs.
Orchestrating this blend of conflict elevates your villain beyond the cliches. And it should move readers to gush about your villain, maybe even more than your hero.
Thank you so much to David for stopping by! Don’t forget to download a free copy of his e-book, The Storytelling Blueprint at StoryAndCraft.net. Below is a doodle by Christine to illustrate David’s post. 🙂