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Lessons Thanos and Ultron Teach about Creating Sympathetic Villains

September 16, 2021

What’s the difference between Infinity War and Age of Ultron? Why is one shocking and fantastic while the other is shallow entertainment? The producers didn’t recast half the Avengers or cross more fingers when Infinity War hit theaters. But where Age of Ultron is predictable, Infinity War is riveting. Where Age of Ultron is funny, Infinity War is impactful and humorous (props to the writers).

 

So, why is Infinity War a winner? I could list several reasons, but probably the most pivotal is the villain. Thanos coheres a ridiculously large movie, whereas Ultron seems more like a ploy to assemble the Avengers than any conflict worth watching. A three-dimensional villain will pull your novel together and act as a centering antithesis for your hero, but a poor one will simply devour a reader’s time at the library.

 

Authors tend to assume that crafting epic villains hinges upon the powers they possess. Give Thanos the Infinity Stones and you’re off to the races. But the Infinity Stones don’t shape Thanos as a person. Developing a great villain is a task that requires delicate balance. Hopefully these tips will steer you down the path to meet someone ready to kidnap you.

 

1. Write from the Villain’s POV

Many people will tell you that a villain is supposed to be the hero of his own story and believe he’s acting rightly. That’s not necessarily bad advice, but it’s not exactly helpful either. What does that look like? How do you apply it?

 

The easiest strategy is to spend time writing from your villain’s perspective. Even if you won’t use the material in your novel, you’ll start to process the world through your villain’s eyes and learn all the details about him that you need—his thoughts, his favorite phrases, his food preferences. You might discover he has a sense of humor or encounter his best friend. You’ll come to recognize his motivations, and if you linger in his POV long enough, you might observe how those motivations change. He’ll become a person in your mind, not just a villain. Once that happens, you’ll depict him more compellingly, whether you’re in his POV or not.

 

In Infinity War, we get glimpses of Thanos’s perspective—Titan prior to its destruction, tears for Gamora before Thanos claims the soul stone, and his horrendous, enraging smile as the sun sets. These POV-like scenes establish who the villain is. In some situations, like a first-person novel, delving into the villain’s POV won’t work, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise, if only to understand your villain more deeply before you write tense or action-packed scenes.

 

2. Give the Villain Relatable Flaws

Villains are expected to be evil, conniving, and occasionally straight-up sadistic. Nobody can deny that Thanos is sinister. But real, compelling villains have real, compelling issues. For a villain to grab your reader’s attention, you need to show him wrestling with a relatable, high-stakes issue.

 

Ultron has to protect the humans from themselves, so he tries to kill everybody. But none of us have ever been tasked with safeguarding the entire human population, so we can’t empathize. We might be able to imagine the stress of such a job, but we don’t truly know what it feels like.

 

Thanos has the same goal, you argue. He wants to save the universe from itself. But that isn’t his only problem. He wars with regret that he didn’t save Titan. He struggles with the decision to abandon something he loves to earn something he needs to accomplish his mission. That’s relatable and compelling.

 

How can you find compelling issues for your villain to grapple with? Start with your own faults. Have you struggled with depression, anger, or crippling doubt? Snapped at someone because life was rubbing on you that day? Forgotten an important occasion or hurt a friend? These are the types of flaws your villain should embody.

 

3. Let the Villain Rescue the Cat

A villain who is evil for the sake of evil will be boring. He needs an incentive, and readers need to see him being the good guy in another realm before they believe his rationale is more than an outpouring of his clichéd, wicked heart.

 

“Saving the cat” refers to the idea that a character should do an unnecessary and kind deed to earn the reader’s trust early in the story. This tactic is usually applied to antiheroes and grumpy characters, but it can extend to villains as well.

 

Ultron doesn’t rescue the cat. He and his Iron Legion could have helped humanity by escorting elderly couples across the road or filtering water for orphans in Africa. Instead, he immediately tries to annihilate everything because that’s what evil people (robots?) do.

 

In contrast, Thanos’s motivation is punctuated by cat-saving moments. He witnesses overpopulation toppling Titan, and that drives him to keep the rest of the universe from that fate. While he pursues his grisly goal, he adopts an orphan and raises her as his own daughter. Though he’s a terrible father, he at least makes an effort, and in the end he cries. Gamora is his cat, and his sorrow reveals that, at some point, he must have had a soul.

 

The Power of a Compelling Villain

I can’t pronounce doom on your story if it lacks a compelling villain, but that wouldn’t be far from the truth. Without an imposing villain, your hero will seem weak and won’t have a foil to clash against. If your villain is flat, your hero will seem flat too. If your villain is a plot device instead of a character, your book will seem stilted and contrived. Your story might be good like Age of Ultron but not magnificent like Infinity War.

 

Write a captivating villain, and readers will be more than willing to root against (or secretly for) him.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on December 17, 2018. Updated September 16, 2021.

16 Comments

  1. Serenity

    OH MY GOODNESS. Brandon, this is amazing. I didn’t realize until now the difference between the villains in those two movies, but it had been bugging me that they were so different and I couldn’t figure out why. Way to go! This was a SUPER informative article, and I cant wait to see more!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      I’m glad it helped so much! Hopefully I got it sorted out and you can use it in your stories now. (Hopefully MARVEL swings over here and learns from their past mistakes and Endgame is everything I need it to be.)
      Anyway, thanks so much for reading!

  2. Evelyn

    So true!
    Thanks for this wonderful article Brandon.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Sandrina

    I like this article. I haven’t watched any of those movies since my parents prefer us not to, but you still made some great points!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Thank you! I was hoping it would be helpful whether you’d seen the movies or not.

  4. Sarah

    Good job on your article Brandon *thumbs up* nice tips. I haven’t watched Infinity War (can’t bring myself to watch the beloved characters, that I know probably die, do so) but I personally really enjoyed Ultron, I’m not talking about his actions or what he did to try to achieve his goals, but rather him as a character. I understood what he was trying to accomplish in his twisted sense of duty and moral compass (that is until he moved past his original mission and decided to kill humanity). Like Vicki from I-Robot, he had been given this idea of what he was supposed to do as the protector of mankind and had taken it to his own logical conclusion. Both Viki and Ultron knew that eventually humankind would destroy itself and so they each did what they thought was necessary. Ultron realized that humanity would not except him as their leader so he decided that the only course of action left to him was to destroy them and start anew.

    Moving on to him as a being…I liked that he wasn’t only this cruel evil machine/intelligence; but that he truly seemed to care about the twins who had endured so much pain and loss at the (unintentional) hands of their common enemy. Ultron was evil, no doubt about it, but he did have moments of humanity. He felt anger, irritation, hate, loss, loneliness, sorrow, he was scary smart, and had a twisted sense of humor. I may not have been able to empathize with his positions on things but I still could empathize with his emotions and understand why he had the emotions he did.
    And I found the end of Ultron scene between Vision and Ultron sad. The truth behind what Ultron and Vision were saying, pertaining to the “fate” of humanity, struck true and hard like an arrow straight into my heart.

    And as always, like The Avengers Age of Ultron and I-robot demonstrate, the moral of the story is the dangers of artificial intelligence. We are made by an amazing, perfect, creator; but if artificial intelligence is pursued the world will have to come to terms with the fact that we are faulty, immoral, and corrupt by nature (as we all are without God’s mercy, grace, and sanctification) therefore any intelligence we make could only reflect that inner corruption. Robots do not have souls. We do. We are beautifully and wonderfully made. Robots, A.I, like so many other things, could be used to do so much wrong and evil; especially if they were made with the ability to adapt and “evolve”. Look to Age of Ultron! I am 100% with the Avengers on this one. The Ultrons of this world have to go.

    Yeah, I know, I sound really preachy; but I feel it’s an important issue.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Oh hey, that’s a really good point about the twins. I guess I kind of forgot that they existed. Hm… Excuse me while I ponder the validity of my entire article.

      On the other hand, I think that the actual (unintended) lesson of movies like i,Robot and Ultron isn’t about AI so much as it is about humanism. The truth is, humans will never create fully autonomous machines with their own complete souls. We can build dangerous machines for sure, but we can’t create more beings. What we see when we write sci-fi about autonomous robots isn’t so much a reflection of realistic AI, as it is a reflection of humanism. Things go wrong in most AI stories when the AI starts to act immorally. Things go with humanism when humans start to ignore the law of the God they don’t believe in.
      And now maybe I want to write an article about this……

    • Sarah

      Good point Brandon. You are right. You can find the humanity of both Sonny and Ultron. I did like Sonny’s character.

      (I still believe AI is dangerous though)

  5. Savannah Grace

    So I think I finally realized what’s wrong with my current manuscript by reading this post! Wow, I have a lot of work to do now xD. Thanks for this epic article, Brandon!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      YES.
      WORK TO DO.
      MUCH HAPPY.
      Go you, Savannah!

  6. Coralie

    I love this article! I love getting inside the villain’s head. I’ve never been very good with them, but I feel like I’m growing. The one I currently have is already sympathetic. I mean, I’ve developed my MC and have an avenue for readers to empathize, like you’ve suggested, but I guess I have a bit of a different predicament since the story isn’t exactly told from a “hero’s” perspective.

    So what if your MC is the villain? What if the (traditional) villain is your “hero”? Or, what if your villain’s villain isn’t developed entirely? Okay, for example, cause that was confusing, I’m sure. I’m writing the story from the stepsister’s pov in Cinderella. She’s my MC, not Cinderella, but she’s still Cinderella’s villain. And the stepmother is my stepsister’s villain of sorts, but the plot is more revolved around Cinderella than it is the stepmother. Do I need to explain why the stepmother is a villain, even though everyone already knows that she is? I realize a backstory would only give her depth, but at this point, it doesn’t seem critical to my plot and I’ve still only got half an idea for her besides. Should I stop and focus on that until she’s developed or go back to it when I get around to it and focus on center stage, so to speak?

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      You shouldn’t have to explain to your audience why your villain is a villain. That should be shown through your villains (current) actions and motivations. Your villain isn’t a villain because once upon a time they did something evil, just like you hero isn’t a hero because she gave up desert for a less-fortunate sibling when she was six. You shouldn’t have to give any backstory to determine story roles.
      That being said, I would advice that you know exactly why your villain is a villain before moving forward. If you don’t your end result will probably be a wishy-washy stereotypical villain, which isn’t what anybody wants.

    • Coralie

      That makes sense. So, I need to focus more on her motivation and less on her backstory. Figure out *why* she’s the villain and use that to drive her actions throughout the story?

    • Brandon Miller

      Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Good luck!

    • Coralie

      Thanks!

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