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August 7, 2011
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Villains. They're the people we love to hate and hate to love. They're the thieves, lechers, cronies, backstabbers, warmongers, and doom bringers that make our protagonists' lives a living nightmare. But what happens when an antagonist's role in a story (or the antagonist itself) becomes little more than an annoyance? Read on…



 


Names



Your villain's name is often the audience's first impression of him/her (as is the design, but that's a different article), so you want it to be good. There's no foolproof way to determine what "good" is- it might be a simple, regular-sounding name like "James" or "Andrew", or it might be a name composed of random sounds that work well together. Of course, it should depend on what type of world you're creating (you won't find a "Steve" from feudal Japan). More often than not, however, it's easy to tell when a name is painfully unoriginal and doesn't fit the setting. Here are some don'ts:




No generic, tough/scary-sounding words for names (I.e. Blood, Death, Murder, Torn, Hazard, Sin, Storm, Nightmare, Chaos, Shadow, Blade, etc.) or an amalgamation of these, like Deathstorm.


No descriptions of what the villain does. Ex. Killer, Absorber, DESTROYAH


No stupidly misspelled versions of real words. Ex. Havyk, Vampier, Krystell. EXCEPTION: Supervillains for Western comics.


No names ripped from "evil" religious/mythological figures (unless the character is literally that person). Ex. Lucifer, Lillith, Satan, Hades, Cerberus, Medusa. EXCEPTION: The villain's pet (ie Lucifer the cat from Cinderella)


Don't name villains after mental disorders. Seriously. It might gravely offend anyone in your audience who has that disorder that you're cheapening it by using it as a namesake for any one of your characters.


Don't give anyone a name that is not likely to be used in the character's birthplace. If your universe includes real-life countries, research the meanings of common names from those regions. Please- no Japanese names for non-Japanese characters. Unless an American's parents are massive weeaboos, chances are they won't give their child a Japanese name.


For heaven's sake don't name your characters after fandom ones! Make your names creative and meaningful.



 



Character



First of all, no evil/insane laughter, please. Please. It's a tired cliché.


Secondly, do not take villain development as a challenge to make them as appallingly grotesque and brutish as possible. It will backfire, trust me.


"But my guy's the most shockingly twisted villain ever! He stretches out his victims' skin with thousands of fish hooks, gags them with their own spleens, hangs them from trees by their intestines and leaves their bodies for the buzzards!"


Wonderful. But that shock value factor will quickly wear thin over the course of a series. It's perfectly fine if all you want is the standard horror-movie lunatic designed only to frighten people instead of make them care about him. However, the character is so one-dimensional and static that the audience is bound to lose interest over time.


What does the character fear? Who does he care about? What are his positive traits? Does he set a code of conduct for himself? What does he truly stand for? Answering these questions (and many more) will help you get to know him better.


Every action must have some purpose/explanation behind it for your character to be interesting and relatable. If you don't care to pick apart your villain's psyche, no one else will, either.


Which brings us to our next point: if one of your characters has some kind of mental disorder, for God's sake DO YOUR HOMEWORK. It's not enough for someone (usually a villain) to simply possess an unnamed "insanity"- there must be some reason behind it. Research the signs of different disorders and figure out which ones best suit your character. Then, research possible causes for those disorders (or, if not full-fledged illnesses, their mindsets that conflict with those of other characters). It always helps to form a backstory, especially one that dates back to the character's childhood- or even farther.


For instance, a young man with chauvinistic attitudes toward women may have been taught at an early age that women are beneath men, or perhaps the man has a negative perception of women based on how they treated him in his childhood (mother abused him, etc). Similarly, a person from one family might have been taught to hate members of another family due to the decades-long feud between them, or one person might feel angered at the mistreatment of their ancestor and decides to take vengeance on the offending party's descendants. These are just a few examples, of course.


Also think about how a new development will make your character feel. Angry? Confused? Eager? Hysterical? Why?


Bottom line: What's your character's motivation?





 


Plot



Some notes on how plot affects character and vice versa:


First of all, try to avoid your main villain's falling in love with the hero or the other way around. It undermines their personalities (which, if they were once bitter enemies, were probably nowhere near romantically compatible in the first place) and makes the hero look like a Mary Sue or Gary Stu (everyone likes them eventually).


It's one thing if one character is only toying with the other, or trying to trick them so they end up getting hurt. It's quite another if one or both characters suddenly and completely change their stance on someone who has caused them unspeakable pain and frustration. Now if their mutual infractions weren't as serious as, say, murdering one's friend or family member, the characters may develop a respect or even a friendliness toward one another. But romance? That's a stretch.


NOTE:


Understand the difference between enemies and rivals.*


Rivals are people working in the same field or toward the same goal who are aggressively competitive with one another, sometimes to the point of using sabotage and other underhanded tactics to achieve an objective. While one of these characters may show great delight at a rival's humiliating defeat, there is always the possibility of rivals teaming up or even becoming friends, if only for a short while (the probability of this occurrence increases when a third rival enters the mix. If History class taught me anything, it's that nothing brings people together like a common antagonist). Despite all the trash talk and dirty tricks, neither party wants to inflict true suffering on the other.


Enemies, on the other hand, deal in far solemner matters. An enemy is someone whose actions have devastated another person (directly or indirectly), evoking that person's anger and hatred. Every act takes a personal and (in the victim's eyes) unforgivable toll. The enemy is not someone to be bested or ribbed on- he is someone to be feared and destroyed.



Also, don't let your antagonists submit to Team Rocket Syndrome. Remember the good ol' days when the first few episodes of Pokemon aired and the Team Rocket trio were ruthless, efficient Pokemon-stealing machines? Hundreds of episodes later, they've been reduced to whiny, bumbling nincompoops who appear (and fail to achieve their goal) so often that they've become a mere annoyance. Same goes for Captain Gantu: in Lilo and Stitch he was huge and intimidating, but in the TV series, he appeared so much that he became a spineless wimp who got ordered around by some rabbit… hamster… thing. I know these are kids' shows, but come on. Even kids know when something's amiss character-wise.


To avoid this, have a lot of dramatic build-up before the hero's first meeting with the villain and space out further meetings at only the most crucial junctures within the series. There may be episodes/issues/chapters in which we see only the villain, not the hero (and vice versa); sometimes we may see neither- only heroes and villains within the supporting cast. These offer an opportunity for the audience to learn a bit more about that character, piquing their interest for further exposition in the future.



As a closing thought, I'd like to share a rule I have followed for years: Never refer to your villains as "evil", for the word is too limited to describe who they truly are. No relatable character will ever be inherently good or evil- everyone has a bit of both. A compelling villain might be shifty, selfish, obnoxious, ill-tempered, hedonistic, vain, deluded, lazy, lustful, etc., but never evil. Brad Bird once said that no one wakes up in the morning thinking, "mmm How will I do eeeviiill today? MOOHAHAHAHA!". Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing. So it goes, even for the scum of the earth.       



 


 


 


 


*Yes, I understand that many characters fall into the middle ground between "rival" and full-fledged "enemy", but for brevity's sake I wanted to illustrate only these two extremes of mutually antagonistic relationships.     



      

For serious writers only. Parody writers and others with comic-relief villains- feel free to give them every negative quality mentioned above. :D

Please note that I'm not an expert and I'm not saying my word is law. This isn't really a legit tutorial per se- mostly these are just my thoughts and opinions on what goes on in DA and irl as far as creating villains. I feel like some of this stuff goes unmentioned in others' writing notes. Hopefully these guidelines will help someone somewhere.

Further reading: [link] [link]
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:icon1auroraangel1:
1AuroraAngel1 Featured By Owner Mar 7, 2013  Student General Artist
Do you have any tips for villain-related plot twists?
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:iconliketheisland:
Liketheisland Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2013  Professional Filmographer
You mean in terms of finding out that the villain wasn't who we expected, or-?
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:icon1auroraangel1:
1AuroraAngel1 Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2013  Student General Artist
Yep, that's what I meant. I want to be able to foreshadow the twist without being blatantly obvious...
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:iconliketheisland:
Liketheisland Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2013  Professional Filmographer
Hmm good question. The first thought that comes to mind regarding what NOT to do is basically that you shouldn't pull a Scooby-Doo where the pool of suspects isn't large enough. Because they only presented two or three suspicious characters in each episode, the audience had a better chance of guessing who the monster was. Few surprises there. I would have maybe five to ten main "suspects" in the story (depending on how long it is and how much you want to develop each character), perhaps even a few of the hero's friends. As the plot grows more complex, the hero may not know who to trust anymore, and it'll keep the audience guessing. I mean, I don't know how your story is structured, but it's just something to keep in mind.

Regarding the true villain (whomever that may be), you may find subtext in his/her words and actions quite useful. It wouldn't be a matter of obviously saying or doing something eeeeviill, but a matter of how they say/do everyday, ordinary things. For instance, there are a million ways to say something like, "Oh, it's you": excited, indifferent, disgusted, frightened, etc. I'd consider emphasizing the villain's tone of voice and body language when talking to someone. Their words may say one thing, but their actions could be saying something totally different. Facial expressions can be helpful here, too. One of my villains is a charismatic social butterfly who loves basking in the limelight. He is well-liked and almost the last person anyone would suspect of foul play, but a good look into his eyes reveals the dark side he hides from the rest of the world. Yeeahh those are my thoughts on the subject. Hope that helps you in some way.
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:icon1auroraangel1:
1AuroraAngel1 Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2013  Student General Artist
thanks
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:iconliketheisland:
Liketheisland Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2013  Professional Filmographer
Sure thing! :boogie: I'm positive that was at least long-winded enough for ya. lol
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:iconliketheisland:
Liketheisland Featured By Owner Sep 22, 2011  Professional Filmographer
Science fiction class?! Man I wish I could have taken that. And yeah, gory villains aren't the best way to go if you're aiming for a long-term series; they're shocking at first but it just gets annoying after a while. Personally I think the scariest villain is one who learns from his mistakes and keeps getting smarter, instead of constantly doing the same old thing. He's much more complex and harder to beat that way.

Ha! Funny coincidence- I actually based my lists of bad names off of names for serious villains I had come across while browsing DA. The results were... heartbreaking... yet mildly hilarious.

hm out of curiosity, do you really need four co-founders? Just wondering since I've never created a group and don't really know how that stuff works.
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:icongrimsisters:
Grimsisters Featured By Owner Sep 18, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Your actually very right about referring your Villains as evil because in real life people who are evil like um.. Hitler for example don't count themselves as evil, yes they know their doing the wrong thing, but they think in their minds it's for the greater good or their doing the right thing. Interesting huh? I learned that in my science fiction class at school. Yes I agree with villains failing because of constant appearances or really gory brutal actions for example I admit that I liked how they were making remakes like Halloween and all the other old classics, but now their making remakes of their sequels prequels? FOLKS THAT'S WHAT KILLED THE CLASSICS IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!!! Nightmare on Elmstreet 1, 2 , 4, 5, freddy verses Jason, oh and who could forget Freddy's dead, no. WAY TO MANY FREDDIES!!!! Oh and if they start making remakes of Child's play like they said they are no sequels or prequels and they better use the same person to do his voice at the very least or at least some guy that could do a perfect imitation of it! Yes, I've made some gory villains before and they ended up being stupid! Now I'm getting better at it at least lol! Oh the thing that made me life was when you use the nicknames examples like (I.e. Blood, Death, Murder, Torn, Hazard, Sin, Storm, Nightmare, Chaos, Shadow, Blade, etc.) when I saw the very last to nicknames I almost died because I made like a fallen hero named Shadow Blade and his brother Night Blade. I like Shadow Blade, but I had to kill his evil brother off because he was starting to be obnoxious in my opinion lol. I have Shadow Blade alive still, but I don't real rp as him anymore lol! I like these Villain notes a lot! I wonder if you would like to join my group: :iconthe-ovc-club: The original Villain club as a Co founder cause I want four co-founders and four contributors and so far I only have two Co-founders and no members sadly lol. Maybe you could help with that?
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:iconakimirrored:
akimirrored Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2011
huh, you know i've never really thought of this? I kind of took my villians for granted. Darn now i'm going to have to go back and look at all of them...but i wouldn't say that i have true "villians" or "rivals". more often than not there is a character who's motivation or goal is opposite of the protagonast...but doesn't necessarily mean the method they use is "bad" or "evil" or "shifty" or whatever lol.
But i would also say this for villian characters: while you may say never call a villian evil, they are an opportunity to explore what is evil? Oh yes, i would say definitly your run of the mill kidnapping, murder, rape, pillage, and plunder is "evil" but what if you're "villian" is the protagonast? think of all our favourite pirates and their stories. In these situation, it almost seems like roles are reversed: the antagonist characters and traits are good and relatable where the protoganist characters and traits are bad and unwanted. Pirating is ok and the law is in the way kind of deal. I always thought this was an interesting conundrum, you know?
ah! but i'm totally rambling! sorry!
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:iconliketheisland:
Liketheisland Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2011  Professional Filmographer
pfft ramble all you want. That's what this is here for. ;)

hm yeah that's a good point about the pirates. It's always interesting when the line between right and wrong is blurred. I think my series will start out with "good" and "evil" being clearly defined, but as the audience learns more about the characters, before too long they won't know who to root for.
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