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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.