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.
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong coauthor, Megan.