Think of any story’s villain and you think of someone frightening like Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the Lambs” or Darth Vader from “Star Wars.” But the secret to making a frightening villain isn’t necessarily sheer power or insanity, but by mirroring the hero.
What’s the most frightening villain you can think of? It might be a monster like Godzilla or a robotic killing machine like the Terminator. However, what really makes a villain terrifying is how close that villain is really like the hero.
The hero’s biggest challenge isn’t fighting some outside creature, but fighting himself. Ultimately, there’s nothing more frightening to anyone than facing up to their own flaws. Most people would rather battle a wild grizzly bear than sit on a couch and examine their own lives, and that’s what makes the best villain for your story.
Your hero is someone with a flaw. Your villain is someone nearly identical to your hero, but without that flaw that’s holding the hero back. What’s more frightening? A total stranger breaking into your house, trying to kill you, or your ex-spouse breaking into your house, trying to kill you?
Obviously it’s the ex-spouse because it’s someone you know. Therefore, the more you make your villain like your hero, the more terrifying the problem for your hero. Your hero isn’t facing a monster, but himself.
First, picture what your hero’s goal might be. Now multiply that picture a million times, pus a selfish twist to it, and that’s the goal your villain wants.
In “Ironman,” Tony Stark is a callous weapon designer. Only later do we realize that Tony’s enemy is actually a friend of his father and someone Tony trusts who wants to take over Stark Industries and push Tony out of the company by having him killed by militants. That’s the villain’s goal that sets the story off, but we don’t know it at the beginning.
In every story, the villain’s quest starts the story off, but we don’t have all the pieces at the time to fully understand what’s going on.
In “Witness,” the corrupt cops are already pursuing their plan of killing other people to hide their own corruption. In “The Terminator,” the robots have already tried wiping out most of humanity and sent a robot from the future to kill the mother of humanity’s resistance leader. In “The Incredibles,” the villain is already a super powerful character who tries to be Mr. Incredible’s sidekick before later turning into a super villain.
In all three of these examples, the hero and the villain are nearly the same type of person. In “Witness,” the villains are ruthless cops who will use violence to solve their problems. Harrison Ford is exactly like that, but he learns the peaceful ways of the Amish, which helps him defeat the villains.
In “The Terminator,” the villain is a ruthless killing machine, but the hero is a ruthless human who will never stop either. The difference is that the hero finds love, which the Terminator doesn’t.
In “The Incredibles,” the villain is a super villain while Mr. Incredible is a superhero. Unlike the super villain, Mr. Incredible learns humility and the importance of working together, not as a loner all the time.
Your hero is basically fighting a twisted, darker version of himself, and that’s what makes your villain so terrifying. Your villain loses because he never changes. Your hero wins because he does learn to change.
Every story demands conflict and nothing creates conflict better than someone fighting against himself. Your hero is fighting his character flaw which is an internal conflict. Then your hero is fighting against your villain, which is an external conflict.
The external conflict is easy to spot because it’s something we can all see, but the internal conflict is more interesting because it’s not so obvious. Whenever you’re stuck for what your villain might do next, think of what your hero would do next if he were totally selfish and evil. That automatically tells you what your villain would do.
Audiences might not realize that your hero is fighting against a darker version of himself, but that’s what provides the missing power behind most stories. If your hero isn’t fighting against an evil version of himself, your conflict might not seem unified and whole. Make your hero fight against an evil version of himself, and suddenly your conflict seems sharper, although you may not know why, but it’s because of this subtle internal struggle made visible through your villain.
Your villain is your hero’s greatest nemesis because your villain essentially is your hero. Make sure your hero and villain are nearly identical and your story will seem stronger as a result.