Not every story needs a set villain or classic “Big Bad”, but every story needs conflict. If you’re writing a classic fantasy or sci-fi novel this is probably going to take the form of an antagonist with serious flair. When you google search ‘how to write a villain’ you’ll find a few great posts, but a hell of a lot more which give vague, though technically correct, advice like;
“make your villain well-rounded and plausible” (well thanks for that Captain Obvious, but how?).
I’m not going to give you that kind of advice; this is about what makes a villain really frightening. You need to know what you’re aiming for before you can implement it well, after all, but this poses a real issue; fear is as subjective as arousal or morality. There are a few constants, for example most people would find an axe murderer frightening, but the minutiae comes in many shades of grey.
This is why I’m going to use aides; I’m going to breakdown two Disney villains that many people have found frightening, and one extra villain that I personally find scary;
Judge Claude Frollo
Frollo is quote very often, most often by women in my experience, as being one of the most genuinely frightening Disney villains of all time. Let’s face it, this is a man willing, nay eager, to burn Esmeralda at the stake as a witch because she won’t fuck him (what? I hear you cry; rewatch it, the subtext will smack you in the face when you know it’s there). That’s frightening, but that’s an example of why he’s a fear-inducing villain, not what it is that makes him up, so to speak.
- Has power
- Has Authority
- Is a zealot (religious in this case)
- Is seen to be respectable and has status
- Displays a strong, but skewed, moral conviction
- Is the kind of person you might meet in real life (bear with me on this one)
I don’t mean to say you’ll run across Frollo in the supermarket. I mean that Frollo is a petty, entitled, misogynistic bogit, but these are not what make him a villain (they make him a dick-head, for sure). A villain is someone who can and will do serious damage to your antagonist so they need the willingness and the means as well as the bad moral compass to match. Frollo frightens women, I feel, because he represents the worst case scenario that occurs when men like him have huge amounts of power over the people in their vicinity. He can hurt Esmeralda almost without impunity; he is the law, and so she has no recourse against him.
Cruella De Vil
Cruella De Vil, in my experience, rates most highly with children when it comes to the fear-factor, and I think this is probably for many of the same reasons that Frollo frightens so many women; De Vil targets the people and lives that are least able to fight back. Unlike Frollo, however, she gives no moral justifications; she does not seem to care, or does not rate the lives of the dogs she murders/plans to murder as worthy of rationalisation. De Vil is probably a psychopath as she lacks all empathy, and yet remains charming to those she needs to keep on side.
- Is also seen as respectable by the wider world due to her status in business
- has power (through money)
- Lacks all empathy
- Also has a quality of “normality”
Devil and Frollo are both textbook bullies; they target the people least able to deal with their antics.
Bane (2012 TDKR)
This is the personal one; I picked Bane, and this iteration of him, for two reasons. Firstly, I find him frightening, and secondly, I feel he is frightening for different reasons than Cruella De Vil and Judge Claude Frollo. Unlike previous iterations of this character which saw Bane portrayed as, in turns, a harmful stereotype of a Mexican, a dumbed down ‘roid monkey, and a semi-competent minor villain, I reckon Nolans Bane was a great villain, and I reckon they ruined it completely. That’s why I’ve chosen him.
- Has a level of physical presence which the others do not (though does fall afoul of ableist issues, which is a discussion for another day)
- Does not rely entirely on his physical presence or strength
- Is Intelligent (where as I would argue the other two are cunning) in a way that warrants that capitalisation
- Is charismatic
- Is also a zealot
Unlike the others, however, we would not expect to meet anyone like this in real life. This should detract, even just a little, from the fear he inspires in the audience (though lets be honest his voice does that more than adequately), but I’m not sure it does. Despite being very close to caricature, Nolan’s Bane plays on a media figure so often erected that it is almost real; the guerrilla terrorist working for a larger enterprise. Bane is media paranoia come to life; he’s Machiavellian and physically capable.
So how did Nolan ruin it, you ask?
A good villain in her own right, but by reducing Bane to a lovesick puppy(puppet) being worked by a younger woman who is obviously willing to sacrifice him on a whim they undermine everything they built the character to be over the course of the film. The lack of consistency is the issue, and it was created by a desire to shock the audience, but the fact that Talia comes almost literally out of left field (without even a hint that Bane was working for anyone other than himself) frustrated the hell out of me. It was lazy, it was poorly executed, and it needed some damn good foreshadowing.
If you’re thinking about your own villain you should probably keep that in mind, and definitely think about the fact that villains tend to fall into two categories;
The Corrupt Power or The Trojan Virus
Basically, the scariest villains are either powerful, respected, morally driven individuals who use their status to victimise, or they’re renegades who utilise intelligent, connections, and iron-clad willpower to bring down a system, country, or person.
More than this, however, a good villain is personal, surprising, and original; know the tropes and conventions, but don’t get too tied up in them.