The Purpose of a Villain

I recently read a screenwriting book that said the villain needs to keep presenting obstacles in the way of the hero. On the surface, that is true, but that’s not the whole purpose of the villain. If you think the villain should only exist to throw obstacles in the way of the hero, you’ll risk creating a one-dimension villain who exists solely to make the hero’s life miserable.

The real purpose of the villain is to have a goal of his (or her) own. Would “Star Wars” be a story if Darth Vader wasn’t out pursuing his goal of wiping out the rebel alliance? Would “Die Hard” be a story if Hans and the terrorists weren’t trying to take hostages and escape with millions of dollars?

The villain’s goal is what sets the whole story in motion. The villain’s purpose isn’t just to provide obstacles to the villain, but to pursue a goal oblivious to the hero. The villain’s goal is to achieve something that’s diametrically opposite of the hero’s goal. If the villain wins, the hero loses. If the hero wins, the villain loses. That’s the purpose of the villain to provide a clash of goals where only one can be the winner.

That’s what makes sports movies so easy to understand. At the end of the story, we know there can only be one winner. War movies work the same way. We know who the bad guys are and we know only one can be the winner.

The villain’s purpose is to pursue a goal that will eventually lead into direct conflict with the hero’s goal. In “Terminator”, the terminator is trying to kill Linda Hamilton and the hero is trying to save her. One wins and the other loses.

The villain provides obstacles to the hero simply because the villain is already pursuing a goal and the hero keeps getting in the way. Bruce Willis keeps fighting the terrorists because they’re trying to kill him because he keeps getting in the way. If Bruce Willis sat around and did nothing, the terrorists wouldn’t bother throwing obstacles in his way because he’s not interfering with their own goals.

The villain drives your story and your hero interferes with your villain. Keep that in mind and you won’t randomly throw obstacles in the hero’s path in a meaningless parade of bigger and badder obstacles like a bad movie does such as “Clash of the Titans.”

Remember, don’t believe everything you read in screenwriting books, and don’t believe everything you read here either. Understand why someone is giving you advice and then try to verify if it’s true or not. Don’t be afraid to challenge such long-held beliefs like the villain exists to put obstacles in the way of the hero. By learning to think for yourself and understand story structure, you’ll avoid creating a cookie-cutter story.

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