Thinking of a hero without his/her villain is like pondering Romulus without considering Remus or Phil Everly without Don. The Yin and Yang of the hero-villain dynamic must be given careful consideration on both sides to fully make your stories come alive for the reader.
When mentoring other writers, I tell them to ponder the protagonist carefully. Once you have your challenge in mind, create an adventurer who would be compelled to solve the mystery while simultaneously having to overcome their own limitations in the process.
In turn, who might be the correct villain to combat your hero? With serialized fiction, you could pull someone from the hero’s rogues gallery to front the menace of the day. But what if there’s no one to call upon to do the wrong thing?
Then you must create your own bad guy, which is part of your job as a writer.
First of all, is there a logical connection from the antagonist to the challenge? For instance, there’s any number of sci-fi stories where a crazed inventor “just happens” to create something dire for the protagonist to deal with. Or the menace could be the result of the scientist dabbling in knowledge beyond his ken, such as in Frankenstein or D.F. Jones’ Colossus.
A magic-user should utilize something sorcerous, just as a physician might use drugs on innocents to achieve his nefarious goals. Create or locate that link between menace and menacer.
Next, figure out the degree of immorality the villain possesses. How willing are they to cast their morality aside to achieve success? Will they kill? Will they harm an innocent? Lots of innocents? Do they possess any remorse for their misdeeds at all? Do they even consider their actions to be unacceptable in any way?
Just as the hero might have a fatal flaw that proves an impediment to reaching his/her goal, what positive qualities might a villain possess that softens them and thus makes them more complex and possibly relateable?
One of the best examples is Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom. He is a master of both western science and sorcery, he hates Reed Richards with a fiery passion but would do anything to save his late mother from Mephisto, he would conquer the world in a heartbeat but is a benevolent despot to his Latverian constituency, and as in Fantastic Four #87, he’d kill his right-hand man for trying to burn the FF alive in the middle of Doom’s private art gallery.
Once he had the drop on the Fantastic Four, Doom then let the foursome go, claiming he could kill them at any time … despite the evidence of his eight dozen failures before and since. Maybe he’s not as smart as he claims.
One neat thing to do with villains is to give them a chance for redemption during the course of the story. Their decision to take it or not can really define the level of your antagonist’s villainy.
Towards the climax of the film The Rocketeer, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) has Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) at his mercy. Having been seduced earlier by the actor, Jenny accuses Sinclair of using her heart against her. “Everything about you is a lie.”
Giving her his most hurt expression, Sinclair says, “I wasn’t lying …” He then adds with an evil leer, “I was acting.” And with a final “Sieg Heil,” he goes to receive his big reward.
Not to spoil one of the best action films ever made, but when he does that to Jenny, you cheer when he gets his richly-earned just desserts. That’s because creator Dave Stevens, along with scriptwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, crafted a villain with care and forethought. You can do the same.
Next, decide if your villain mirrors or contrasts your protagonist. For instance, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, as well as Doc Savage and John Sunlight, are each basically a reflection of their opponent. The main difference is that one devotes his attentions to helping mankind while the other merely helps himself. On the other hand, Batman and The Joker are almost polar opposites. The Joker is madness and mayhem personified while Batman could be the sanest man in Gotham City.
Also, don’t be afraid to allow your villain to be superior to the hero. For instance, it’s been long established that The Master’s (from Doctor Who, not Buffy, The Vampire Slayer) grades were superior to the Doctor’s at the Time Lord Academy. While Superman is not a slouch in the mental department, he is bested intellectually by Lex Luthor.
Is taking this much time on your villain worth the investment? If you want to create a genuine challenge for your hero/heroine, then your answer should be YES!
Remember, Professor Moriarty directly appears in only one Sherlock Holmes story, but was referred to in half a dozen more tales to say nothing of almost a hundred years worth of pastiches. John Sunlight only shows up twice to bedevil Doc Savage in sixteen years worth of pulp adventures. How many of James Bond‘s adversaries only appear once in the books, although Ernst Stavro Blofeld doesn’t just live twice, he shows up in three stories?
So give your villain all the attention that you give your hero, if not more. If you do it right, and you will, you might just create the next character that people love to hate again and again and again.
* * *
BRIAN K. MORRIS is an “award winning” playwright, a prolific novelist, publisher and short story writer, as well as a writer/editor for Silver Phoenix Entertainment, a Chicago-based comic book publisher. His newest novel will be coming out later this summer. Brian lives in Central Indiana with his wife, no children, no pets, and too many comic books.