Writing compelling characters is absolutely critical to good storytelling. So many brilliant narratives have fallen flat because you don’t feel anything for the characters. For a story to properly flow, your characters need to have clear motivations and development told in a compelling way that the viewer/reader can empathize/relate with, but what about the villains?
When you’re writing a villain, you lose some of the inherent advantages you have when writing a protagonist. It’s much easier to write a “good guy’ because your audience will naturally relate to them or want to relate to them. With a villain, if you make them too dark, they’ll be impossible to relate with, but if you make them too relatable to the darker sides of humanity, even if your audience can relate to them, they’ll be apprehensive about admitting those things in themselves. That’s not to say it’s impossible; it’s just much more difficult.
So when you can’t lean on relatability in a character, you have to find other ways to make them interesting. So what makes a great villain? Well, to answer that, we’re going to be looking at some of the best villains across multiple different types of media and analyzing what makes them so great.
Note: Needless to say, if we’re doing deep dives into characters, there are bound to be spoilers; if you want to avoid those, please avoid the sections with a character from a story you don’t want spoiled! You’ve been warned!
Princess Azula -Avatar the Last Airbender
Azula is introduced in the second season of Avatar as the next in a long line of antagonists ranging from Prince Zuko to Admiral Zhao and any number of fire nation lackeys that the Boomer-Aang squad outwits throughout the show’s first season.
But Azula is different. One look at this scene can tell you exactly why.
Immediately, the writers have not just told you, but shown you, do NOT mess with Azula; she’s not screwing around. Avatar introduces a more compelling villain in this scene in only a minute and a half than some franchises have done across a half dozen books, but what about how Azula is shown here makes her so great?
The first and key reason is that she’s introduced in the second season. Why does this matter? Azula represents competence and control that we had not yet seen out of a villain in ATLA. Zuko and Iroh are about a step above Pokemon’s Team Rocket in terms of competency. Zhao is shown repeatedly to be underwhelming. Remember, he loses to Zuko in the Agni Kai, and we know Zuko to be merely a solid if unspectacular fire bender at that point. Establishing those characters and their role in the story functions as a plot device to set up Azula as the main Villain of the final two seasons, or at least the one we interact with.
We’ve seen how much the existing crop of villains has struggled to take down Team Avatar across the first season, then Azula shows up. We know almost nothing about her, and it only takes one episode of establishing her character for the viewer to go “uh-oh” every time she shows up the rest of the series. Quite honestly, there are times when she seems to be a bigger threat than Fire Lord Ozai.
Additionally, one of her most iconic character elements plays a big role in establishing that competence, her blue fire. She’s the only character in the show that produces blue flame when fire bending. This communicates so much to the viewer. They don’t do a deep dive into the lore of fire bending or give some exposition to show what the blue flame means; they don’t explain it at all. They use it to show one thing. Azula is different. Different from Zuko, different from Iroh, different than Zhao, different from Ozai. She’s special. Not a word is spoken about it, yet we know it instinctively as the audience; it’s brilliant writing and one of the things that makes Avatar such a timelessly brilliant show.
Killmonger – Black Panther
For this example, I’m only going to be talking about Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of the character in the MCU movie. I know there are plenty of people who don’t like the MCU, but Killmonger is one of the best-written villains I’ve ever seen. I would even go as far as to say that he’s so well written I have a hard time even labeling him as a villain; I’d almost classify him as more of an antagonist (big difference).
Remember when I said that it’s hard to write a villain that is both relatable and compelling? Killmonger is one of the rare exceptions to that rule. His motivations are crystal clear from the beginning of the movie, and for the most part, your opposition to him comes far more from methodology than motivation. Yet, as you learn more about his character, you can almost understand his motivations. Though he does some horrible things throughout the movie, you can’t help but feel for him and empathize with him as a tragic character.
When he’s in the climactic fight with T’Challa, you’re forced to wonder how things would have gone had T’Challa’s father hadn’t betrayed Killmongers. They come across as two sides of the same coin, with the only difference between them being their own life experience, and you can empathize with both of them.
Is he shown to be powerful? Sure. He’s certainly a match for Black Panther in a one-on-one fight, but he’s a great example that a villain does not have to be a huge threat to be compelling. To that point, every marvel villain had been about raising the stakes on the axis of increasing the threat, whereas Black Panther raises the stakes by increasing the amount of angst and turmoil in the characters. This is a fine line to be walked, but it’s one that, when done well, creates a phenomenal character.
Sephiroth – Final Fantasy VII
Before I breakdown Sephiroth and what makes him such an iconic villain, I want to call your attention to a video made by Mike Brown from Resonant Arc on YouTube. He describes what makes Sephiroth so compelling far better than I could ever hope to and I highly recommend you watch his video, but much of what I’m going to say here is very similar to his perspective, and I want to give him credit for his ideas.
Sephiroth is incredibly powerful, but what separates him from Azula or any other immensely powerful villain? With Sephiroth, it’s all about set-up and payoff. The plot device they use to make that payoff so spectacular is the mystery of his character. He’s the perfect example of how to both combine showing the audience what makes a villain great and telling them. Hironobu Sakaguchi and the rest of the team at Squaresoft utilized this technique masterfully as they were writing Sephiroth’s character.
For much of the early part of the game, you keep hearing about this guy Sephiroth, you don’t learn much about him but you do learn the following:
1: He’s a badass war hero that everybody in Midgar either admires, or aspires to become
2: He’s the inspiration for the main character, Cloud, to join SOLDIER
3: He’s presumed dead
So filing that information away for later, you continue through the game and towards your primary goal, stopping the Shinra corporation from profiting off of draining the lifeblood of the planet. As Mike alludes to in the video, you take the fight to Shinra repeatedly, and they always seem to be one step ahead of you. You feel like rats in a maze; every time you feel like you’re about to get a leg up on them, they not only stop you but show you that they were the ones pulling the strings to allow you to get there in the first place. Are their rank-and-file soldiers pitiful? Sure. Are their secret police force, The Turks, shown to be incompetent at times? Absolutely. Yet somehow, Shinra always seems to get the upper hand.
Then, as you raid the Shinra headquarters, you stumble upon something as you approach the top floors. Dead bodies litter the floor of the upper levels, blood is smeared everywhere, and as you get to the top, you see Sephiroth’s sword planted in the back of the Shinra President.
This scene is the payoff for what the game spends hours setting up. They create a mystery surrounding this man, Sephiroth, while establishing Shinra as a force to be reckoned with, possessing seemingly endless resources as they attempt to crush you.
Then, all at once, you see that this man, believed to be dead, singlehandedly kills dozens of Shinra agents and their leader without breaking a sweat. This isn’t even to mention the fact that Shinra was already prepared to defend their headquarters from you, so it’s not like he caught them with their pants down.
When you see this as the player, it communicates something in no uncertain terms. You are out of your league; this guy is better than you, he singlehandedly did something (armed with nothing but a sword) that you were unable to do with the resources of a large terrorist cell at your disposal. Oh, and he’s now the threat you’re tasked with stopping. What is he trying to do that you need to stop, you might ask? Oh, you know, become a literal God. Good luck, have fun, nice knowin’ ya.
They establish all of this in a compelling way before you have even encountered Sephiroth face to face, you don’t know him, you only know about him.
This somewhat proves that using exposition or “telling” as a story device can be incredibly effective if you back it up by “showing” the audience that what you’ve been telling them can be trusted. In Sephiroth’s case, what they’ve been telling you proves to be an understatement.
Compelling villains make compelling stories. I can tolerate heroes that I can’t relate to or that are poorly written. When a villain is written poorly, however, a story falls flat on its face. Writing a villain truly is an art form, and when done well, it can result in stories that stand the test of time as all time classics.