When we think of the greatest villains in fiction, we often think of the villains with powerful personalities.
But there’s another kind of greatness in antagonists that often flies under the radar when discussing great villain design. This is a villain whose greatness comes from the difficulty of the challenge they pose to the heroes. With these villains, character and thematics are secondary–they are designed to stand out from a plot perspective.
The rule for designing these kinds of villains in the best way possible is simple:
The villain should feel unkillable to the audience–until the moment he or she is killed.
Unkillability is the key quality here. Some of the most iconic villains in movie history convey to the audience from the first moment they appear on the screen that they are completely invulnerable, and the heroes have no chance whatsoever. For example:
What this impression of invincibility accomplishes is conveying a sense of utter helplessness to the audience, which puts them right there with the characters on screen thinking: “What can possibly be done?”
And then, despite all this, the villain is indeed killed in the end.
Up until the moment of defeat, killing the villain seems totally impossible. Then, the moment the deed is done–of course, it could have ended no other way. The death itself makes sense, we just didn’t think of it at the time.
Terminator is the absolute best at executing this changeover.
The Terminator as a villain feels unkillable throughout the entire movie. When it is crushed in the factory, that sense of the Terminator’s weakness is so real for us that it enables that same Terminator to act as the vulnerable hero against a new and even more unkillable villain.
And this villain’s impression of invincibility also lasts right up until its death, at which point it also totally makes sense.
Until now, we’ve dealt with sensible ways of killing the unkillable villain. But as odd as it sounds, making sense isn’t a necessity here.
Remember that this villain poses such a strong threat only from a plot perspective, but plot isn’t the only arc at hand in any given story. What might not make sense in terms of plot can feel justified if it’s a necessary part of a protagonist’s character arc.
Once a character has undergone a change and developed for the better, the audience feels a strong sense that this character should triumph. At this point, the writer can hand-wave up a solution to the unkillable villain, and the audience will be more than willing to cheer on the defeat, whether or not they fully follow how it works.
Agent Smith is a great example of this, where we don’t exactly understand why Neo can now kill him, but it doesn’t bother us. Neo has become the One–defeating Agent Smith is just a matter of destiny.
Eowyn being able to kill the Witch King of Angmar works by the same principle.
While this sense of invincibility isn’t a necessity in villain design, I think it makes a big difference. Mysteries are built on a similar principle: not knowing who the villain even is makes the adversity feel invulnerable, and puts the audience right there with the characters, ignorant and at a loss as to how to move forward.
Great villains make great heroes, and I think villain design is a neglected topic in character discussion. I hope to learn more and write more about it in the future.