“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hero in possession of reasonable talents and good looks must be in want of an arch nemesis.”
Although the above statement is nothing more than a bad Jane Austen paraphrase, every writer knows that a story is vapid without a villain. Without darkness, how will the light shine through? No one can test, provoke, or push the hero to reach his full potential the way a villain can. In all likelihood, without the villain, the hero would still be a poor moisture farmer in a planetary backwoods.
But even though we recognize that a villain is essential to the success of a story, we tend to focus our efforts on fleshing out our protagonist’s motivation and personality. We may create the most unique and compelling character of the century, but if our main villain is a lazy, dark-lord-Sauron imitation, the story’s overall quality will be reduced.
A stagnant villain is a boring villain. With that in mind, let’s examine three dynamic character arcs villains can follow.
This first arc is perfectly typified by Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars saga. He is an earnest but troubled youth who abruptly falls to the dark side, serves as the terrifying face of the Empire, and finally undergoes a dramatic redemption several decades later. Regardless of the prequel movies’ faults, Anakin’s arc makes an excellent story, and it’s no wonder Darth Vader remains one of the most iconic film characters of the twentieth century.
Other characters that model this arc are Murtagh of The Inheritance Cycle and Regina Mills, the former Evil Queen in the TV series Once Upon a Time. The latter takes this arc to an even deeper level, as she survives her redemption process (unlike Darth Vader) and continues on to help the protagonists she was formerly devoted to exterminating.
This arc offers plenty of possibilities to further develop your story’s theme. What draws your villain back to the light? Friendship? Loneliness? Love? Is your villain even able to redeem himself on his own? As Christian authors, we have the incredible privilege of retelling God’s own redemption story and emphasizing what an undeserved gift it is.
Most flat and undeveloped villains fall into this category. These antagonists are often evil from their first appearance and are obsessed with eradicating all joy and freedom from the face of the earth. The examples are numerous: Sauron, Morgoth, Morgarath (as much as I admire John Flanagan, he could have at least tried to pick a more unique name).
These villains can work for your story, but your audience will never relate to them. They will need to be supported by fleshed-out henchmen. For example, The Force Awakens gets away with revealing almost nothing about Supreme Leader Snoke, but only because the audience has the more prominent faces of Kylo Ren and General Hux to despise.
But this arc does not have to be entirely inert, nor is it limited to evil overlords. Consider Javert, the primary antagonist of Les Misérables who never broke the law. He was, as his author described him, “A compound of two sentiments, simple and good in themselves, but he made them almost evil by his exaggeration of them: respect for authority and hatred of rebellion.”
This fanatical, unrelenting devotion to the letter of French law caused Javert to continually pursue a reformed convict and prevent him from doing good. In a thrilling climax that forced him to confront his own flawed pharisaical worldview, he ultimately chose suicide over redemption.
Until that point, Javert illustrates that a villain can be a hero in his own mind, while also embodying the Christian struggle of balancing justice with mercy. Despite his unredeemed death, his final, intense struggle shakes up his otherwise unvarying arc, which inspires interest and suspense.
Rarely in life do we meet villains who practice evil for evil’s sake. Usually they are convinced their actions are right, or are the best they can do in a situation. Force your hero to combat your villain’s ideology and not just his army, and you will increase conflict and depth.
Now we come to one of the most fascinating villain arcs: an honorable character who slowly embraces evil and never escapes it. While the Redemptive Arc beautifully symbolizes our salvation through Christ (e.g. Edmund from The Chronicles of Narnia), the Downward Spiral portrays the very real alternative. Without God’s direct intervention, each one of us will remain trapped in our sin and die in that state.
Lady Morgana from the BBC series Merlin is a prime example of this arc. She begins the story as an independent young woman who is kind to her servants and challenges her father’s harshness. “And [you think] killing things will mend your broken heart?” she says. But in the end she is reduced to a hate-consumed sorceress determined to murder her half-brother Arthur and seize the throne. “I want to put his head on a spike and watch as the crows feast on his eyes!” Honestly, it’s fantastic stuff.
The key to writing this arc well is carrying it out gradually. Morgana’s moral decline happened over the course of five seasons, which made it believable to the audience, as opposed to an overnight corruption. Furthermore, her close relationship with Arthur amplified the heinousness of her later deeds. Just imagine the creative possibilities (and, more importantly, the emotional havoc the writers caused the audience) that scenario provided.
Other examples of this arc include Saruman (Lord of the Rings), Massala (Ben-Hur), and even Saul of the Old Testament. The latter’s Downward Spiral contrasts against the Hero’s Journey of the shepherd boy David, which spans two full books of the Bible.
Which Arc to Choose?
Obviously all villains can’t be sorted into three tidy boxes, but these arcs can help you start fleshing out your villain’s story. A strong villain with his own arc gives the audience something to focus on in addition to the protagonists. Many viewers are just as interested in seeing the continuing story of antagonists Kylo Ren and Loki as they are about the heroes in upcoming movies. As long as the villain’s story doesn’t overshadow the protagonist, make it as dramatic and vivid as your pen will allow.
Infographic creation credit: Sierra Ret