It’s easy to make a despicable villain. Just have him (or her) kick a puppy, beat up a baby, and push an old lady in front to traffic. In bad movies, the villain is evil for no apparent reason, just to be evil. That makes us cheer for the hero to defeat the villain, but it also makes for a fairly weak story.
The best way to make your villain despicable isn’t to keep making him or her bad. Instead, mix the bad in with the good and make your villain likable and even noble. That makes the villain far more memorable and terrifying all at the same time.
In “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the villain appears to be a nut case who has kidnapped a woman and is holding her prisoner in an underground shelter. The hero thinks this man must be crazy until she escapes from him and nearly gets to the outside door — only to find another woman screaming to be let in. That’s when the hero realizes the villain was telling the truth. Some disaster really did happen outside to make the air unlivable, and he really did save her by keeping her in the shelter.
Because the villain really did save the hero’s life, he becomes much more despicable when she later learns that he also kept another woman prisoner in his underground shelter as well. Now instead of being just someone who only does evil 100% of the time, the villain is both evil and likable at the same time. This conflicting emotion makes him more terrifying as a villain.
In “Avatar,” the villain is the Marine commander who initially befriends the hero. Since both are Marines, it’s only natural for them to work together. Only later when the hero changes and learns to live with the natives that he realizes he was initially wrong to think of the natives as aliens and nuisances to be moved. In this case, the villain is still the evil guy he always was, but the hero realizes he was also much like the villain in thinking the same way. Because the Marine commander villain was initially nice to the hero, it makes his actions against the hero at the end a bit more terrifying by the contrast.
If a villain is evil from start to finish, it’s easy to hate him or her. However if the villain is nice to the hero for legitimate reasons and then later opposes the hero, that contrast makes the climactic battle more interesting because someone nice has turned against the hero.
Another way to make villains scarier is to make them highly intelligent. A physically imposing villain is scary enough but if he or she is also smart, that makes the hero’s task to defeat the villain even harder.
In “Die Hard,” Hans the terrorist leader is vicious by shooting the corporate president in cold blood in front of everyone when he refuses to open the vault. Now we know Hans is physically dangerous, but when he shows his cleverness by changing his voice when he accidentally meets the hero, now he becomes an even scarier villain. How can the hero defeat a physically stronger villain and one who seems so smart as well? That makes the conflict at the end more frightening and more in doubt.
In “Inglorious Basterds,” the Jew Hunter is a powerful but highly intelligent Nazi who relishes finding and killing Jews. Not only does he have the whole Nazi army practically at his disposal, but he’s also clever enough to determine who the hero’s friends really are so he can identify and kill them. His intelligence makes him scarier than all the guns he might have.
So don’t make your villain completely evil. Make your villain good in some way. That can mean making your villain actually do something useful for the hero like saving her life in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” or it could mean making the villain intelligent and clever like in “Die Hard” or “Inglorious Basterds.”
The more intelligent and noble your villain can be, the more terrifying your villain will become for the hero to defeat in the end, and that makes the climactic battle worth watching and waiting for.