Peggy Bechko: Creating a Flat, Two-Dimensional Villain

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by Peggy Bechko

Seriously. Here’s how to do it. Because there may be times when you actually want to create a ‘cardboard’ villain, one who is ‘hilariously’ even one-dimensional. There are times…

On the other hand you might want to go 180 degree turn and actually create a villain who has some moxie, some real reasons for villainous behavior.

Either way, read on.

Now some writers create antagonists who are cool as a cucumber all the time. In victory or defeat (at least the minor ones that come before the big crash) he or she is basically emotionless. The most the movie watcher or novel reader might see is a slight smile with a victory.

So, how real is this? How much does it draw in the watcher or reader? Really, no reactions? Us humans aren’t like that. Rarely, to the point of non-existent, do we do something just because we want to do it. I mean, even in the animated world the characters do things because some emotion drives them. The good writer will show that driving force and the emotion behind it. Just because a character sports flaws, actually because a character sports flaws, is reason enough to fill out his driving forces.

One of my favorite examples is Despicable Me. We get glimpses of Gru’s childhood and what motivates his desire to be a ‘super-villain’. He ends up becoming the hero of the piece, but let’s move on.

Come on, if cartoon characters have personalities and a past, then so do the others in our created worlds on paper or on screen. So talk to your characters, find out what makes them happy, sad, desperate, hopeful, frustrated. Find out what passion lies in his background and how that character utilizes it to move his plots forward.

What if your villain wants power just for the sake of power? He’s never satisfied and attacks the hero just because the hero won’t bend before him. Without passion and deep-seated motivation the villain becomes boring. Give him that passion, the psychological need that drives his actions. Maybe he had a moral compass once upon a time, but he’s been wounded and finds himself at odds with the rich and vital moral compass of the hero. Go deeper. Make the villain complex. Find the seed that grew within him to make him what he is and drives his desires.

Another antagonist that can be disturbing is one with big goals and a minion horde that helps him feed his thirst for power. We watch and we wonder WHY that minion horde would remain loyal to him as he treats them terribly, perhaps having some killed, perhaps threatening their families, perhaps throwing them as cannon fodder into a skirmish that can’t be won. This villain does a series of things that show his poor judgment, exhibits continual strategic mistakes and we all wonder why the heck anyone would be following him anymore.

The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t, and neither would his minion horde. So what to do about that character who’s weakening the story, if not destroying it altogether?

The solution is to make the villain stronger, better, more competent. Yes, give your hero reason to rise to a real challenge. Give the hero a villain worthy of him. Make the reader and the watcher gasp, slip to the edge of his or her seat in anticipation of how the hero is going to get out of this, or fix it, or even come out on top at all.

Come on, guys, let’s have a strong villain against whom the hero can really shine. Save the cardboard for humor and parody. In a “real” story we want real motivating forces. If you have a flat villain on your hands, time to revise and edit and give your readers and watchers something real.


Peggy Bechko is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.