Any good drama needs conflict. And more often than not, a villain is responsible. Whether on a rampage or pulling strings from the shadows, the antagonist’s actions serve as catalysts for the decisions made by the lead. By this logic, the villain is the second most important character in any story. So, let’s look at how to do one right.
The most important thing to remember about any character also applies to antagonists: he or she is a human being. Gone are the days of mustache-twirling villains doing evil for evil’s sake. The truth is that most people, no matter how awful, believe their behavior is justified. This can be by way of a nihilistic world view or rage over some personal tragedy. And even if something as basic as greed is the driving force, it’s of great benefit to express how this lust for money has twisted the character. All of this is key in elevating an antagonist beyond a cardboard stereotype.
The second most important thing is presence. Just as a story’s protagonist needs to stand out from the rest of the cast, so does a good villain. Physical appearance is a good place to start. Does the antagonist tower over the other characters? Is he of small stature yet deferred to by his underlings? Does he dress like a mortician or a Wall Street lawyer? Is a chrome-plated pistol conspicuously riding on his hip at all times? The character’s body and clothing are great tools to suggest the otherness between him and ordinary people.
And just as the physical can be applied to this sense of difference, so can behavior. Villains can run hot, cold, or anywhere between. If angry with another character, an antagonist could calmly shoot him between the eyes or savagely beat him to a pulp. Either course of action does a great deal to demonstrate the mindset of the villain. Even less dramatic acts such as hobbies can work to this end by implying personality traits. What would a reader make of a criminal mastermind who loved videogames? How about one who had a full-equipped private gym and boxed?
Great villains are often the spice that makes a good story great. What would Star Wars be without Darth Vader or Harry Potter without Voldemort? Fun, maybe, but lacking the grand level of tension that served as the true climax of each story. The darkness needs a face, so choose its wearer well.