Creating a villain

3 non-obvious keys to building an effective Villain

This week, I sat down with GPT-4 to write a book. A heist set in Ancient Egypt.

The story’s terrifyingly good. But my robot writing companion struggled in a way I didn’t expect. It’s horrible at creating villains.

The first character list didn’t include a villain. Then, when I prompted it to create one, it spit out the lamest, most boring bad guy you could imagine.

With that in mind, I want to show you 3 non-obvious keys to creating an effective villain.

Hope you enjoy — Nathan.

PS: Back to Saturdays from here on out. If you missed the Tuesday editions, these were three of the most popular:

| 1 Storytelling Tip |

One of my favorite YouTube channels, Lessons from the Screenplay, has a brilliant video on “The Ultimate Antagonist.” In it, they give 3 non-obvious traits that make The Joker an exceptional villain.

  • Good at attacking the Hero's greatest weakness

  • Pressuring the Hero into difficult choices

  • Competing for the same goal as the Hero

These apply to all villains. Let’s walk through them so you can create great villains, too.

3 keys to creating an effective villain

1. Make the villain attack the Hero’s greatest weaknesses

Stories are about the transformation the Hero goes through from beginning to end. But how do you make a Hero transform?

You don’t heighten her strengths. You force her to overcome her weaknesses.

Batman cannot handle chaos. Meanwhile, it’s all The Joker wants. As Alfred explains:

“Perhaps this is a man you don’t fully understand… Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

2. Use the villain to pressure the Hero into difficult choices

Robert McKee has a gem of a quote:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

The villain’s actions should put the Hero under constant stress. Force the Hero to respond, make decisions, and get better.

In this way, the villain drives the hero's development.

3. Make the villain and Hero compete for the same goal

If your Hero and villain fight for the same goal, bringing them into conflict within your story becomes quite natural.

They should be fighting for two sides of the same goal:

  • Order vs Chaos

  • Logic vs Madness

  • Privacy vs Tracking

In The Dark Knight, The Joker says: “You… you complete me.”

My favorite heuristic: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” If you want to create an exceptional Hero, the Villain needs to be at least as compelling.

Creating a villain is incredibly fun and a helluva way to add much needed conflict to your story. Let’s look at some examples…

| 2 Quick Examples |


Apple’s marketing — make your competitors the villain (Facebook walked right into this one)

The ad below raises a few questions:

  • Who’s selling my data?

  • How can I stop my data being sold?

  • Why is Apple the only company focused on this issue?

Apple = Hero; the rest of big tech = Villains


Bring the Villain into the Hero’s safe space

Here’s a passage from the second Hunger Games, Catching Fire, when President Snow makes a surprise trip to Katniss’ home:

“In my mind, President Snow should be viewed in front of marble pillars hung with oversized flags. It's jarring to see him surrounded by the ordinary objects in the room. Like taking the lid off a pot and finding a fanged viper instead of stew.

If he's made the journey all the way from his city, it can only mean one thing. I'm in serious trouble. And if I am, so is my family. A shiver goes through me when I think of the proximity of my mother and sister to this man who despises me.”

If Katniss and her family aren’t safe at home, they’re not safe anywhere. The tension is instantly ratcheted up a few notches.

| 3 Resources or Ideas on Story, Writing, and Creativity |

📜 Where The Liberal Arts Went Wrong. This piece from David Perell struck home for someone who majored in engineering despite wanting to become a writer and author.

  • “That we belittle such a worthy endeavor as a ‘useless major’ and a ‘colossal waste of time’ should make us wonder what’s gone wrong.”

🗞️ The Average Joe. A short, simple and concise investing newsletter filled with market trends, insights and ideas. A rare finance newsletter that makes me laugh. Try it.

⚒️ How I Remember Everything I Read. Ali Abdaal explains his note-taking system for books. He mainly uses Notion, but I found his thought process insightful.

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Who's the best villain ever (movie or books)?

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I’ll take… The Joker.