Creating a villain
3 Keys to building an effective villain for your brand and story
I’ve gone deep on Christopher Nolan recently. While he does everything well, two aspects of his storytelling stand out:
Today, we’re talking about building an effective villain. Next week we’ll hit on hooks, but if you want to get a headstart, I baited twitter to get the best movie hooks posted under this thread.
A lot of you reading this are founders and probably thinking, “why do I care about creating a villain?”
Well, you also know the famous positioning advice: make your product “a painkiller not a vitamin.” If you’re going to do that (which you should), then you need something that’s causing pain. Often, that something comes in the form of a villain.
3 keys to creating an effective villain
1. 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
Privacy vs Tracking
2. 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.
As a brand, your customer is the Hero. So you make the villain amplify your customer’s biggest pain points. Then you position yourself as the painkiller.
3. Use the villain to pressure the Hero into difficult choices
Robert McKee has another awesome 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.”
When someone mentions ‘raising the stakes’ in a story, this is a great way to leverage your villain to do just that.
Remember: The best villains serve one purpose – to push the Hero to become better than they would be otherwise.
Brands and Creatives that do this well
Apple turned “privacy invasion” into the sin of big tech, making Facebook, Snap, and others into villains while positioning itself as the protector of consumer privacy.
Whether this is true or not can be debated (you know where I stand), but what’s certain is Apple deliberately spun this narrative. It took years to play out, but the results are pretty shocking.
Compete for the same thing: Apple positioned itself as for consumer data privacy while positioning its competition as against it (think through how the ad and copy below accomplish this).
Attack the Hero’s weaknesses: Consumers (the Heros) cannot protect their data privacy by themselves, meaning they need someone else to do it (why not Apple?).
Pressure the Hero: Apple spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its "Privacy. That's iPhone" campaign to hammer home the point to consumers.
The result? For the most part, consumers and Congress let Apple roll out privacy features affecting data tracking for almost all big tech companies except for itself. Like it or not, it's brilliant brand storytelling on a macro scale.
Apple’s ad network is on pace to pull in over $4B this year. If you want to go deeper, I wrote about “Apple’s Diabolical Plan to Control the Ads” here.
Christopher Nolan – The Joker
In The Dark Knight, the Joker and Batman are two sides of the same coin. This is very much intentional. Remember the Joker's line, “You… you complete me.” That’s not an accident.
Nolan actually has the Joker say each of these points directly to Batman:
Compete for the same thing: At the end of the movie, The Joker says, “You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?” The Joker wants to turn Gotham into chaos, while Batman wants to restore order.
Attack the Hero’s weaknesses: The Joker knows he has no chance of beating Batman on physical strength. So that’s not what he tests. Instead, The Joker creates situations where physical strength doesn’t matter. He tells Batman, “You have nothing to frighten me with, nothing to do with all your strength.”
Pressure the Hero: The Joker forces Batman into a series of more and more difficult decisions. “If you want order in Gotham, Batman must take off his mask and turn himself in. Every day he doesn’t… people will die.”
The result? The Joker is the ultimate villain, specifically for Batman. Heath Ledger won tons of awards, and his portrayal is remembered as one of the most iconic acting performances ever.
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
I don’t have room for more than two marketing newsletters in my inbox, but this one just forced itself in. The Marketing Millennials is great. Try it here.
Don Valentine is a legendary investor and founder at Sequoia Capital. At minute 22 he does a deep dive on storytelling. Watch it here.
One of the best ads I've seen recently. Talk about knowing your audience:
Very few companies understand their true fans and make them feel seen as well as New Balance.
— Bri Kimmel (@briannekimmel)
Sep 13, 2022