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What makes a compelling villain?

Some movie villains have sympathetic motivations, whether its devotion to saving the planet ala Poison Ivy, drive to right a systemic wrong ala Black Panther’s Killmonger or Magneto, or desire for personal vengeance ala the Wicked Witch of the West or Clytemnestra. Some villains "just want to watch the world burn." Some are just hellbent on causing murder, destruction, and pain. Sometimes it seems the motivation doesn’t matter nearly as much as the character’s screen presence. Many movies try to add depth to their villains, only to leave lasting questions and plot holes over their villain’s arc. Are there any essential elements necessary for a great movie villain? Do we see any mistakes in creating villains that could be avoided by following certain rules of thumb? Sometimes it seems that the only difference between the hero and villain are a)who the narrative viewpoint sympathizes with and b) who’s destined to cross unforgivable lines. Is it okay that this is commonplace, or does it indicate a flaw in modern storytelling?

  • Thanks for the very helpful feedback T Palomino, I think there are two different directions I could take the question in, and I'm not sure which makes for a better prompt. The first is comparing various types of villains and the way they fundamentally shape the story and the hero, and how important the depth of their motivation affects the story. For instance, The Dark Knight has Joker, a villain with no deep motivation, but it also has Harvey Dent, and his arc is fundamental to creating a compelling finale. Other movies seem actually hamstrung by having a complicated and somewhat sympathetic villain, as they try to tell a good vs evil story. Perhaps the question could be comparing villains with complex vs simple motivations, how compelling they still can be, and how they shape the hero. Although perhaps this still too broad? The second direction I was considering was pointing out that many heroes have the same motivations as I listed, saving the world, righting systemic wrongs, and even obtaining vengeance. What does a narrative require to distinguish between its heroes and villains, and how often does an audience's viewpoint play more of a role in making the distinction, than the actual story and character choices? Infamously we have seen authors revamp stories to center the villains, such as Wicked recreating Elphaba, or the recent Joker film. Is the difference between a hero an a villain the amount of time the narrative spends focused on the aspects of the character that are sympathetic? Is it simply the lines each character crosses and refuses to cross? How important is the idea of morality in telling stories of heroes and villains? – ronannar 3 weeks ago
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