For better or for worse, villains are fascinating. The best ones challenge the protagonist’s worldview and ethics, pushing him closer to pivotal decisions than the smoke and mirrors of plot.
Most villains in mainstream media are relatively static. Past events have shaped them into who they are. The Marvel supervillain Thanos is a perfect example of this. His backstory, which happens off-screen, contains his character arc. By the time he clashes with the heroes, he’s committed to his beliefs and goals.
But not every villain is ready-made. While a static villain may act like a brick wall, forcing your protagonist to grow, a dynamic villain with a clear character arc can have a far more complex relationship with your themes and protagonist(s).
When you encounter this type of villain in your own stories, how can you be sure to thoroughly develop him? First you need to break down his deterioration through what I’m calling the negative transformation arc.
Traditional Transformation Arcs
Negative transformation arcs are a subset of positive transformation arcs, so establishing the three major features of the latter may be beneficial before continuing.
- Transformation of mindset. The lie the protagonist clings to is dismantled over the course of the story.
- Transformation of ability. The protagonist can’t meet the plot objective at the outset, but gradually he masters the necessary skill. In fantasy, this is usually magic. In a mystery/thriller, it’s knowledge. In a romance, it’s empathy/love.
- Transformation of success. In the beginning, the protagonist fails again and again, usually because of inaptitude and/or improper mindset. However, as he shifts his mindset and increases in ability, success follows. Setbacks balance early achievements and underscore the need for growth until he reaches the climax and final victory.
Reversing the Image
Devolution takes a different path than revolution. That’s why this article exists. I can’t simply instruct you to write the opposite of a positive transformation arc, because the transition from good to bad is more complicated than that. Though all three elements can be negative, that’s more unusual than two other arcs where the villain progresses in ability and/or success.
Arc #1: The Villain Who Becomes Stronger and Triumphs
This arc is best for a plot line that unpacks the villain’s backstory and the decline of his belief system. Star Wars episodes 7 and 8 trace Kylo Ren’s journey deeper into the dark side—and greater levels of success and power—as he wrestles with and ultimately embraces an evil mindset. Darth Vader, Ren’s predecessor in this multi-generational saga, is another case in point.
Arc #2: The Villain Who Becomes Stronger but Loses
This arc is effective for villains who rise and fall within the scope of one book or movie. Hal Steward/Titan in Megamind fits this mold. Groomed by the title character Megamind (himself a supervillain) to be a superhero, Hal rapidly degenerates into a villain bent on revenge and destruction. He doesn’t return to normal until Megamind manages to extract the serum that gave him superpowers.
For villains who appear in multiple books of a series, they may start with Arc #1, but by the conclusion, they generally suffer defeat, reinforcing the narrative that evil never wins in the end.
Arc #3: The Villain Who Self-Destructs
A villain who shrivels in mindset, ability, and success sounds like the exact opposite of an intriguing (or intimidating) character. But when these villains are richly crafted, their arcs can be some of the most impactful and memorable.
The clearest example is Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Once upon a time, he wasn’t a sniveling sneak. He was hobbit-like, walking under the sun and living by the banks of the Anduin. But when the Ring comes to him and upends his moral center, he continuously weakens. By the end of the story, he’s reduced to a shadow of his former self, and his desires remain entirely unfulfilled.
This kind of arc evokes pity because the villain destroys himself from the inside while the results of his choices destroy him from the outside. Yet, with a measure of alarm, readers also recognize the potential for similar mistakes within themselves. The tunnel of harmful mindsets and tendencies unfolds before them, warning them to avoid it in their own lives.
Two Forms of Character Devolution
Regardless of which arc you apply to your villain, his mindset will always worsen. Out of the heart the mouth speaks. We all know that. And it proves true for characters too. You need to realistically portray the internal heart-steps that carry your villain toward wicked motivations. But that task is a difficult one.
Negative arcs delve into a subconscious part of the human experience. For the first two decades of our lives, we undergo dramatic growth in every dimension of our identity. If we’re observant, we can pinpoint how, why, and when we’ve matured.
But decay—the abandonment of an ideal and its replacement with a falsehood—is another matter. We don’t track how corruption consumes an individual by degrees, and that can be a hindrance when trying to flesh out a villain. So let’s look at the two major pathways of devolution:
Active devolution is distinct and conscious. It often begins with a foundation of family, love, or basic security that, for any number of reasons, is faulty or incomplete. Then tragedy strikes. The foundation can’t withstand the pressure and crumbles, leading the character to adopt a false or morally wrong worldview.
This devolution is clear-cut, easy to transfer to a story, and common for villains (or heroes in the first stages of their journeys). However, it isn’t the most relatable. When we start to backslide in our own lives, we’re rarely aware of it.
Passive devolution is slow and subtle. Though the character has a virtuous foundation, a prolonged period of apathy and/or immoral actions corrode it. He still professes to believe the same, even in his thoughts, but his habits reflect otherwise. Eventually, he realizes he’s strayed and must decide whether to regain his original foundation, or fully embrace the new mindset.
Judas’s apostasy began with small sins, such as pilfering money from ministry funds, but culminated in him selling the Messiah’s life for thirty pieces of silver. Too late, he saw the insanity of his own greed and attempted to give the money back to the high priests. This wasn’t a true turnaround, however, for his life had become worthless to him, and he killed himself.
Sometimes, however, a crisis is enough to kickstart a new pattern of life. After fleeing Egypt, Moses abandoned the calling to free his people and built an unobtrusive life far, far away. Years passed before God reawakened him through the burning bush. With some initial resistance, he returned to Egypt, except this time he had a divine commission.
For both Judas and Moses, degradation happened over several years. Without ongoing tension or conflict, their stories might seem insipid. A few sentences describe Moses’ shepherd status as he slipped into complacency. And Judas is only mentioned negatively once or twice before his betrayal. But a character’s downfall can be told in a riveting way. The key is to combine passive and active devolution.
If a son loses his mother and turns to gambling as a coping method, that’s active devolution. But, after months of that lifestyle, he forgets how to grieve—and no longer cares. Passive devolution is a by-product of active devolution, and together they drive home a poignant moment, inspiring deep introspection in readers. All of us intrinsically understand devolution, even if we’re oblivious to it until after it has occurred. Drawing readers’ attention to such patterns in their own lives can trigger immense positive change.
The Big Picture
Villains are much like sensitive houseplants. They need special care during the writing process or they’ll wither before your eyes, becoming dry, boring husks of what they could have been.
Dynamic negative arcs will help you craft vibrant villains who seize readers’ interest, challenge and engage the protagonist, and bolster the themes your stories wrestle with. Spend time figuring out which negative arc your villain will follow, and play into its strengths as much as possible. During his scene-by-scene transformation, strive to blend active and passive devolution to increase emotional resonance. He’s forsaking what is right, so it should be painful to read, even if he remains unfazed or welcomes the change.
The better your villain, the better your conflict, and the more room for light to shine through as a contrast to evil. Be sure to undergird the truth as you construct its opposition.
After all, we create villains to prove them wrong.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives in Ohio, and his hopes and dreams are nestled in the stars.