Want To Create A Supervillian? Try This

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5 Ways To Improve Your Villain Game

Everyone knows a compelling hero is central to a good script. Writers spend hours thinking through our hero’s back stories. We grace them with inspiring goals and bedevil them with fascinating flaws. But the real secret to a good hero is a good villain.

Every hero has to face down a challenge. If that challenge isn’t significant, the story goes soft. Your villain needs be smarter, sexier and more successful than your hero. The threat needs to be real — otherwise audiences won’t be drawn in. So, let’s dissect a few favorite on-screen villains and see what makes them so frightening and unforgettable.

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Silence of the Lambs (1991) Photo courtesy: MGM

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Silence of the Lambs (1991) Photo courtesy: MGM

No 1 – Add A Little Seduction

Let’s start at the top with one of the most scary-larry villains every committed to film: Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The most frightening thing about Hannibal is not that he’s a serial killer. We’ve seen that a million times. It’s not even that he’s a cannibal. That’s gross, but that’s not his real power as a villain.

His power lies in his extremely creepy relationship with Clarice (played by Jody Foster). Hannibal helps her find the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Hannibal kills the man in the neighboring cell in Clarice’s honor. After she breaks in to see him, Hannibal says, “People will say we’re in love, Clarice.”

The last words in the movie are from Clarice, claiming he’d never come after her. Hannibal is a supremely seductive villain. We, the audience, are his true target — and it’s terrifying.

Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) in "House of Cards" Photo courtesy: Netflix

Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) in “House of Cards” Photo courtesy: Netflix

No 2 – Get Power Hungry

Who doesn’t love Frank Underwood, the central focus of the Netflix TV series House of Cards? The man is obsessed with rising to the top.

Set in the political world of Washington, D.C., Underwood is fixated on power as the sole motivator for his every move. “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy,” he tells us in the season two opener.

“There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” Underwood embodies every fear we collectively have about the politicians running our country. The audience is both completely captivated – and thoroughly repulsed – by the destructive power of the desires they see in Underwood. One thing’s sure: we can’t stop watching.

"Say 'hello' to my little friend." Scarface (1983) Photo courtesy: Universal

“Say ‘hello’ to my little friend.” Scarface (1983) Photo courtesy: Universal

No 3 – Go Obsessive

Audiences love obsessed characters. They are tenacious, goal-oriented, stubborn — and thrilling to watch. As obsessive characters go, Tony (played by Al Pacino) in Scarface is one of the best.

In this haunting portrayal of raw ambition, Tony takes over his boss’s drug business as well as his boss’s girlfriend, Elvira. He ruthlessly murders one gangster after the next to reach his goal.

At the climax, a betrayed supplier comes calling, but Tony refuses to go down easy. In a coke-fuelled frenzy, Tony races out into the crossfire with his M16 assault rifle, uttering his famous lines: “Say, ‘hello’ to my little friend.” The extreme crazy in this movie is off the charts, making Scarface a cult classic and a fan favorite.

Misery (1990) Photo courtesy: Castle Rock

Misery (1990) Photo courtesy: Castle Rock

No 4 – Do The Unthinkable

Audiences love being shocked by villains who do the unthinkable.

They love being stunned by their intense cruelty and sickening perversions. Consider the depiction of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in the movie Misery (1990).

Who can forget the scene where she straps him to the bed and takes a sledgehammer to his ankle? The chilling act, in all its demented audacity, is as terrifying as it is unforgettable.

She is, and will always be, the “number one fan.” But not the kind of fan anyone in his or her right mind wants.

The Dark Knight (2008) Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

The Dark Knight (2008) Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

No 5 – Bring The Chaos

The Joker (played by Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight has no discernible motive. He’s not like Frank Underwood in House of Cards or Tony in Scarface.

The Joker isn’t after wealth or sex. He blows up hospitals and ferries as a “social experiment.” He’s a symbol of chaos and random cruelty. The only thing he hopes to accomplish is evil.

The more Batman tries to figure out what makes the Joker tick, the further Batman gets from the truth. As Batman’s trusted advisor Alfred puts it, “Some men just want to see the world burn.” He’s the villain we can never truly understand — and it’s bloodcurdling.

Who are your favorite on-screen villains? What makes them frightening/fascinating, in your opinion?

We’d love to hear from you.

 

author-avatar

Jennie Evenson is the author of “Shakespeare for Screenwriters” (Michael Wiese, 2013) and the forthcoming “Storytelling Secrets of the Masters.” As a writer in LA, Evenson worked as a consultant for Netflix and developed ideas at production houses from DreamWorks to Focus Features. You can follow her on Twitter: @JM_Evenson

12 Replies to "Want To Create A Supervillian? Try This"

  • comment-avatar
    Renee Lishka July 5, 2016 (7:35 pm)

    My favorite television villain has to be Ramsey Bolton (Game of Thrones) and Black Jack Randall (Outlander). They don’t even have to do anything to make your blood curdle whenever they appear on screen. They just simply exist to have the opportunity to do something horrific. That’s the kind of villain I would like to create so viewers have that reaction. A character who doesn’t even have to do anything, they just exist and you just want them to die!

  • comment-avatar
    Richard Long July 5, 2016 (8:34 pm)

    A topic near and dear to my dark heart. I’d add this to the advice column: if you want to create a supervillian, dig deeper into your own fears and desires. What type of person is the most threatening to you? Chances are, the villain that scares you the most will probably scare a lot of other people too. The more specific you get, the more successfully you’ll flesh out the character. Then raise the bar by shifting from fear to desire. Imagine your most desperate cravings coupled with a total lack of inhibition, guilt or remorse. Mix it all together and revel in the evil.

  • comment-avatar
    Luke hay July 5, 2016 (9:19 pm)

    I wouldn’t go as far as to call him a ‘villain’, but Jackie Aprile in The Sopranos was an awesome antagonist. Stubborn, twisted and those evil eyes added real terror to his character. Not to mention how difficult he made Tony’s life. It would’ve been nice to see it dragged out a little more and seen where Richie would’ve taken things.

  • comment-avatar
    AlCielo July 6, 2016 (4:52 am)

    The observations are helpful, bhis is a very incomplete analysis. The hero is almost always the protagonist, but the antagonist is not always a villain.
    Scarface (in both versions) is a protagonist, and so is Frank Underwood.
    Hannibal Lecter is a helper / mentor.
    Annie Wilkes and the Joker are antagonists.

    The way an audience responds to a villain is conditioned largely by the role the villain plays.

  • comment-avatar
    AlCielo July 6, 2016 (5:20 am)

    Normally if the protagonist is villainous or seriously flawed, the audience doesn’t want the protagonist to succeed, but wants to know if the protagonist WILL succeed (Scarface, Frank Underwood, even more so in a movie like American Psycho).

    Otherwise, the audience will tend to want the protagonist to overcome the villain (Batman, Misery).

    In Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is monstrous but ultimately helpful and thus sympathetic (in contrast to Dr. Chilton, who us actually an antagonist to Clarice). The final scene (Lecter stalks Chilton)provides viewers with a sense of relief / justice.

  • comment-avatar
    Gary Jeanty July 6, 2016 (9:27 am)

    I think Denzel Washington in training day was a good corrupted villian he was absolutely smooth and canny with his ways and manipulating the character of Ethan Hawke.

  • comment-avatar
    John Connell July 6, 2016 (3:51 pm)

    I hope everyone has a chance to see the 1971 “10 Rillington Place.” Richard Attenborough’s protagonist/villain is chilling. Features some brilliant acting from a marvelous cast including a young John Hurt as a doomed innocent. Moreover, it’s a true story.

  • comment-avatar
    Tony July 8, 2016 (1:06 pm)

    I think the villian in no country for old men is right up there, as is the villian in up

  • comment-avatar
    Christopher Powell July 11, 2016 (7:15 am)

    Love you Renee… I can’t wait to read your greatness.

  • comment-avatar
    T.D. July 19, 2016 (8:27 am)

    I liked J.K. Simmons in Whiplash as the villain. Not only was his performance Oscar worthy(I havent seen him in another role as meaty as this one) his character was beyond ruthless – which would’ve been enough. But he was arrogant, mischievous a meta-bully and just ethically wrong. He didnt care about anything but being the best, and he crushed his students to get it. Frankly I think thats what made the ending so great for me. (No spoilers for those who havent seen it) I’m surprised this guy wasnt in the article about villains. He was SO bad. Great stuff none-the-less.

  • comment-avatar
    Michael July 27, 2016 (4:35 pm)

    My screenwriting improved ten fold because of…Adolph Hitler. 😮😖

    Yup, you guessed it. For General Raimi in my optioned Sci Fi thriller Roswell: the Beginning I pondered who was the most viablu evil person in recent modern history. I watched all the History Channel shows I could about him and it suddenly became so clear….

    Uncle Adolph was as bat sh!t crazy as they come, but that was to us, the outside viewer.

    To himself, I realized with EVERY FIBER OF HIS BEING, he did not think he was crazy. 😮😧😦
    Yup, the nutso Nazi was a true believer in what He was doing, genocidal and sociopathic as it was.

    So my villains now MUST have a method to their madness that even us SANE people will at least think, “well, in his place, maybe I’d do the same thing….NAAHH!”

    So that’s my $0.02, take it for what it’s worth. And fyi, the option has run out on RTB due to funding issues so any interested parties hit me uP, vetb882@ aol.com
    Skype,: Easywriter882

  • comment-avatar
    Michael July 27, 2016 (4:39 pm)

    My screenwriting improved ten fold because of…Adolph Hitler. 😮😖

    Yup, you guessed it. For General Raimi in my optioned Sci Fi thriller Roswell: the Beginning I pondered who was the most viably evil person in recent modern history. I watched all the History Channel shows I could about him and it suddenly became so clear….
    Uncle Adolph was as bat sh!t crazy as they come, but that was to us, the outside viewer.

    To himself, I realized with EVERY FIBER OF HIS BEING, he did not think he was crazy. 😮😧😦

    Yup, the nutso Nazi was a true believer in what he was doing, genocidal and sociopathic as it was.
    So my villains now MUST have a method to their madness that even us SANE people will at least think, “well, in his place, maybe I’d do the same thing….NAAHH!”

    So that’s my $0.02, take it for what it’s worth. And fyi, the option has run out on RTB due to funding issues so any interested parties hit me uP, vetb882@ aol.com
    Skype: Easywriter882

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