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Your villain plays the most important role in your story.

Yes, even more important than your hero.

That means you must go beyond the clichés when developing your villain—because platitudes like maniacal laughter, minions, and monologues are standard issue.

But don’t panic if your villain possesses these stock traits.

Even the most celebrated villains are filled with clichés. Look no further than Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series and the Joker from The Dark Knight.

So how did J.K. Rowling and the Nolan brothers propel their villains past the stereotypes?

Better yet, how do you craft your villain to become exceptional?

Here are 3 keys to developing an incredible villain.

1. The villain functions as a reflection of the hero.

Picture your hero looking into a mirror. The image reflected is that of your villain.

At first you only see their obvious differences. But upon closer inspection, you see how the two characters contrast each other in all their disturbing glory. These dark reflections equip your villain with layers of character that match your hero’s depth.

Lord Voldemort is a reflection of Harry Potter.

  • Both are orphans:

    • Voldemort became an orphan due to misery and lack of love when his mother died from heartbreak.
    • Harry became an orphan founded in love when his parents sacrifice their lives to save him.
  • Both view Hogwarts as their first home:

    • Voldemort (Tom Riddle) allowed Hogwarts to become another broken home as he emerged into the Dark Lord.
    • Harry made Hogwarts a happy home where he found his best friends and true family.
  • Both open the Chamber of Secrets:

    • Voldemort embraced the power of the Baselisk to wreak havoc on Hogwarts.
    • Harry destroyed the Serpent of Slytherin.
  • Both lead crews toward their story goals:

    • Voldemort rules the Death Eaters with self-serving fear to vanquish half-bloods.
    • Harry inspires good-hearted friends and wizards while doing almost everything for others to protect the world.
  • Both are half-blood wizards whose emotions fuel their great strength:

    • Voldemort uses hate to dominate without regard for anyone’s safety.
    • Harry is driven by love and despises putting anyone else in danger.

The Joker is a reflection of Batman.

  • Both wear costumes:

    • The Joker dresses like a carnival freak show to confuse and disturb.
    • Batman shields his identity and body to protect and safeguard.
  • Both instill fear in Gotham:

    • The Joker coerces criminals to join his insane mission.
    • Batman drives criminals to look over their shoulders.
  • Both inspire Gotham:

    • The Joker breeds chaos which motivates lunatics to help topple the city.
    • Batman serves justice which compels citizens to help protect the city.
  • Both subscribe to ideological views:

    • The Joker believes the world offers no redeemable value and mayhem should govern.
    • Batman aspires to support the world long enough to fix itself so it can flourish.

2. The villain exposes truths the hero does not want to admit.

Your hero has fears they don’t want to believe or admit.

These fears are dark truths.

Your villain must preach these dark truths like gospel to the hero. Such revelations will cast your villain as a memorable conductor of conflict.

Voldemort vows to Harry Potter that he’s destined to die by the Dark Lord’s hand.

  • Voldemort tried to kill Harry Potter as a baby but failed. The Dark Lord reminds Harry of his murderous intentions throughout the series. And Harry can only escape Voldemort’s proclamation for so long.
  • Because in the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it’s revealed to Harry that Voldemort’s repeated death sentence was actually a dark truth. Harry learns the only way to defeat the Dark Lord is if he, himself, dies by Voldemort’s hand.

The Joker pledges Gotham will turn on itself.

  • The Joker tells Batman in the Police interrogation room that Gotham’s morals and code are a farce. The Joker declares the citizens will eat each other alive and cross Batman when faced with real trouble.
  • The Joker’s words are fulfilled after his plan transforms Harvey Dent (a secondary hero) into Two-Face (a secondary villain). Dent was supposed to be Gotham’s White Knight, the best of them. But the Joker turns him, so in turn, Two-Face seeks revenge against the corrupt cops and citizens that failed him (killing five people).

3. The villain forces the hero to evolve into a savior.

Your villain must push your hero to confront the exposed truth. This confrontation permits your hero to emerge as the savior they’re intended to be.

Harry Potter faces Voldemort’s death sentence.

  • After Harry learns he must die by Voldemort’s hand to destroy a protective link they share, Harry decides to surrender in the Forbidden Forest.
  • Harry allows Voldemort to cast the Killing Curse but finds himself go to a place between life and death. In this strange place, Harry learns that by facing death and not running from it, he’s become the true master of the Deathly Hallows (a trio of powerful, magical objects).
  • Harry is then reborn and conquers Voldemort, an impossibility had Harry refused to brave the uninviting truth that Voldemort forced him to reconcile.

Batman faces the Joker’s self-destruction prophecy.

  • After Two-Face dies trying to kill Batman and Lieutenant Gordon’s family, Batman recognizes that Gotham will implode if it discovers the Joker’s revelation that he, himself, did not want to believe.
  • Batman decides to make Gotham think he killed the five people, not Dent (Gotham’s White Knight). The Joker’s “chess game” forces Batman to accept all the blame and sacrifice his reputation, an act that propels him to become The Dark Knight which Gotham needs to survive.

Why it Works

Villains produce major obstacles that heroes must overcome.

It’s this cause and effect process that empowers heroes to save the day and shine at the climax.

As storytellers, we dream of creating unforgettable monsters that impact audiences. The kind they secretly root for – or openly rave about.

Thankfully, every storyteller can prepare a villain that leaves a remarkable impression.

But it can’t start until you permit your villain to be more than the “Lord of Cliches.”

Create a villain that mirrors the hero and has a deep story. By revealing hidden truths and challenging the hero to face fears, you’re doing more than just attacking what the hero already believes.

Orchestrating this song of conflict elevates your villain beyond the cliches. And it should move readers to gush about your villain, maybe even more than your hero.

Using AI to Develop Your Villain

Now that we’ve explored the keys to crafting an unforgettable villain, it’s time to apply these insights to your own storytelling.

Here’s a ChatGPT prompt to guide you in molding your villain.

ChatGPT Prompt:

Edit bold text between [brackets]

“Imagine you are a master storyteller with 20 years crafting villain for bestselling novels and blockbuster films in the genre of [Insert Your Genre Here] story, and you’ll be working with two central characters:

• Antagonist (Villain): [Insert Antagonist’s Name], characterized by [Insert Key Traits, Backstory, Motives, etc.].

• Protagonist (Hero): [Insert Hero’s Name], characterized by [Insert Hero’s Key Traits, Backstory, Motives, etc.].

The antagonist is intended to be a dark reflection of the hero, mirroring and contrasting their attributes and actions. With these characters and following insights in mind, craft a complex villain considering:

• Reflection: How does the villain mirror the hero’s attributes or actions? Consider their virtues, flaws, or aspirations. How can these reflections deepen the conflict and theme of the story?

• Exposure: What unsettling truth does the villain reveal to the hero? How does this truth shatter or disrupt the hero’s worldview or belief system? Think about how this revelation can resonate with readers and lead to more profound character growth.

• Evolution: How does the villain’s existence, decisions, or confrontations push the hero to evolve into their eventual role as the story’s savior? Explore the complex dynamics between the two characters and how their interactions drive the hero’s transformation.

• Contrast: How can you avoid clichés and make your villain a contrast to typical antagonists? What unique qualities or contradictions will make them stand out? Examine how they deviate from stereotypical villain traits and how this can enhance their complexity.

• Impact: How does this crafted villain make your story more memorable and engaging for the reader? What lasting impression or emotion will they leave? How does the villain’s influence permeate the entire narrative, enhancing themes and character arcs?

Now, create an antagonist that enriches the overall narrative by:

• Creating a compelling dynamic between Reflection and Contrast.

• Shaping the hero’s journey, beliefs, and transformation through Exposure and Evolution.

• Ensuring the villain’s influence pervades the story, resonating with readers.

• Thinking of the villain as a puzzle piece that elevates, reveals, and resonates.

Craft your antagonist with care, adding depth, intrigue, and dimension to your story’s intricate design.”

That’s it for this Saturday.

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See ya next week!

— Dave