Every story is about a hero and a villain. If the hero wins, the villain loses. If the villain wins, the hero loses. This winner-take-all conflict makes any story exciting because we want to know who wins and we’re rooting for the hero to win and for the villain to lose.
The three types of villains in a story are:
- A single, dominant villain with an army of henchmen.
- Multiple, unrelated villains who work to stop the hero from achieving a goal.
- Physical obstacles that forces the hero to overcome internal flaws.
When a story has a single, dominant villain, the villain pursues a goal of his or her own. Then the pursuit of this goal clashes with the hero’s own goal, leading to the final battle where only one can win.
When a story contains multiple, unrelated villains, the hero is often traveling towards a goal and keeps running into obstacles that threaten to stop the hero. With multiple villains, each villain’s goal is simply to stop the hero from continuing towards his or her goal.
When a story contains physical obstacles, the physical obstacles are the villain. While physical obstacles don’t have a goal like a person, their goal in a story is to force the hero to face and overcome internal flaws to become a better person.
If your hero doesn’t have a definite goal from the very beginning, chances are good your hero will need a single, dominant villain to fight against. This villain will be pursuing an evil goal and somehow introduce a goal for the hero to follow. A single villain often gives a hero a concrete goal to achieve.
In “Alien,” the crew has no goal at the beginning of the story but once the alien appears, they suddenly have a strong goal to survive and escape.
Think of any villain in a James Bond movie (Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld) who has a goal that’s gradually revealed to the audience. In “Goldfinger,” we gradually learn that the villain plans to steal all the gold from Fort Knox. In “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the villain’s goal is to start a nuclear war so he can rebuild an underwater civilization.
If a hero already has a strong goal to pursue at the beginning of the story, then a story will likely have multiple, unrelated villains trying to stop the hero. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero is a little girl whose family wants to help her get to a beauty pageant. There’s no single, dominant villain who is trying to stop her. Instead, there are multiple, unrelated villains who threaten to stop her.
In one scene, the family van nearly breaks down, but the family discovers they can push start the van to keep moving forward. In another scene, a nurse wants the family to stay with their grandfather’s body, but the family steals the dead body and keeps driving to the beauty pageant anyway. In another scene, the woman running the pageant refuses to let the girl register because she’s late, but another person helps the family register instead.
Most romantic comedies have multiple, unrelated villains that threaten to keep the hero from his or her true love. Such villains may not have any evil intent, but if they get their wish, they’ll stop the hero from finding true love. In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hero is a lonely man who starts dating a woman who really likes him. Unfortunately, if the hero falls in love with this woman, he’ll miss finding and meeting his true love.
Sometimes the villain isn’t a person at all but physical obstacles. In “127 Hours,” a man is trapped in a canyon by a rock and must cut his own arm off to escape. The physical obstacle may be tough, but what makes physical obstacles more emotionally interesting is how it forces the hero to overcome internal conflicts within him or herself. In “127 Hours,” the hero realizes the mistakes he’s made and how important life can be.
In “Wild,” a woman goes hiking by herself even though she’s never been hiking before. Some of her obstacles include not being able to cook her food because she bought the wrong type of gas canister and wearing the wrong boots that hurt her feet. By overcoming these physical obstacles, the hero eventually learns to overcome her past and grow as a person.
When writing your own screenplay, ask yourself what type of villain will work best for your story? A single, dominant villain? A collection of unrelated villains? Physical obstacles?
If your hero lacks a specific goal and a path to achieving it, you’ll likely need a single, dominant villain.
If your hero has a clear goal and a plan for achieving it, you’ll likely have multiple, unrelated villains opposing the hero.
If your hero needs to deal with internal problems from his or her past, you’ll likely need physical obstacles.