Too many screenwriters focus exclusively on the goals of the hero, but don’t forget about your villain. Your villain isn’t someone who exists solely to cause trouble for the hero. Instead, your villain has goals of his own, and they must conflict and oppose what the hero wants.
A hero can’t exist without a villain. Both define each other and are different aspects of the same person. Just as the hero has a goal, the villain has a goal too, and the villain’s goal progresses throughout the story.
Often times, the villain starts the story off, such as the opening scene in “Star Wars” where Darth Vader captures Princess Leia’s ship. You want to show the villain in Act I to show what the hero is up against. Ideally, the villain needs to be all powerful while the hero generally needs to be weak and defenseless.
Sometimes the villain isn’t necessarily a person but an idea, a group of people, nature, or society as a whole. There really isn’t a single villain in “A Clockwork Orange” except for society where the hero is a gang leader and society is trying to force him to conform. Throughout the movie, various characters play the bad guy but there is no single person, like Darth Vader, trying to oppose the hero.
“Thelma and Louise” doesn’t have a single villain either, but male-dominated society as a whole. “The Poseidon Adventure” doesn’t have a single villain, but just the force of nature.
In Act I, you must introduce the hero, but you must also introduce the villain. The villain often starts the story in motion or lurks in the background, an ever-looming threat that we can see will only get worse until the hero confronts and defeats it. Often times in Act I, the villain is oblivious to the hero’s existence.
In Act IIa, while the hero explores a new world, the villain is putting his plan into action too. In “Die Hard,” the villain is consolidating his power in rounding up the hostages and taking over the skyscraper. At this point in the story, both the villain and hero are making progress, but we can see they’re heading on a collision course. Act IIa ends when the hero achieves a False Victory and the villain gets a temporary defeat. During Act IIa, the hero is taking action and the villain is reacting.
In Act IIb, the villain finally fights back. Now the villain is acting and the hero is reacting. As a result, the villain (who has greater power and resources) slowly backs the hero against a wall until he’s isolated. At this point, the hero either has a near death experience or someone close to the hero dies. Act IIb is where the villain achieves a victory.
In Act III, the villain and the hero are both acting and fighting against one another, getting closer and closer until they meet and battle each other. In most movies, the hero wins and the villain loses.
So this is the progression of the villain’s goals:
- Act I: Villain introduced, power demonstrated, and goal stated.
- Act IIa: Villain oblivious to the hero, taking control of a situation.
- Act IIb: Villain fights back against the hero and wins.
- Act III: Villain and hero battle face to face.
Remember, your hero is only as good as your villain. Having a weak villain is pointless unless you have an even weaker hero. Your hero always needs to be weaker than the villain and may never be as strong as the villain, but can still win out in the end.
But it all begins with knowing your villain and making your villain change, strive, and achieve a goal just like your hero. After all, your hero and villain are really two aspects of the same character pursuing conflicting goals.