What makes a strong, fascinating villain?

What makes a strong, fascinating villain?

Every fairy tale needs a good old-fashioned villain, to quote James Moriarty from Sherlock. Our protagonists can shine because of the antagonists in their stories. And likewise, antagonists who are more charismatic than the heroes can sometimes elevate the greatest storylines.

Every story requires discord, and the best way to provide it is to create a compelling villain with a reasonable argument; a person who represents the direct contrast to the hero. This villain or antihero must be defeated before the protagonist can accomplish his or her objective.

Ever since the beginning of time, people have celebrated the goodness in the world. How did the good emerge if there wasn’t any bad to compete with it in the first place? Similarly, a superhero in a movie is useless without a ruthless antagonist. Bruce Wayne would be nothing if it weren’t for the Joker. Without Norman Bates, no one would have remembered “Psycho”.

Norman Bates' Mother - Psycho

On one side, the hero – owing to their temperament, ambitions, fears, and values – most eloquently embodies the theme of the narrative. The villain’s oppositional action, on the other hand, is what enables the hero to showcase his attributes, and as a result, the theme they embody.

Owing to their absolute primacy, we often think of the hero as being the most significant character of the storyline, but the antagonist plays an equally significant role as, without their actions, the possibility that gives meaning to the storyline would not even exist. There would not be a story if the hero desired something and obtained it without resistance. A story develops because the antagonist fights the hero’s passions.

Every story needs a villain, which occasionally gives rise to villains that have weak motivations, just because they need to have one. The story arc is bound to be more compelling if the antagonist’s justifications for working against the protagonist are compelling.

The topic we’re discussing makes me think of a lecture given by a highly respected lecturer and psychologist named Dr. Jordan Peterson. He says, when one person is arguing with another or having an argument in their head, they basically caricature their opponent’s perspective and try to make it as weak as possible and laugh about it, and then come up with their argument and destroy the straw man and feel that they have obtained the victory, but it’s a very poor way of thinking.

Thinking is when you take the opposite position from your suppositions and make your argument as strong as you can, and then you pit your point of view against that strong iron man, not the straw man, and then you battle it out.

This line of thought can also be applied to television, movies, and stories in general. When the antagonist is portrayed as weak and having clear illogical motivations, the protagonist is used to reinforce convictions while making the antagonist a straw man. The antagonists’ perspective is caricatured and everything they stand for is showcased as useless. A strong side or viewpoint is not presented to allow the viewer or reader to consider the opposing side.

The protagonist’s point of view is presented as strong, moral, and without flaws without a strong debate. In this scenario, the antagonist serves no purpose, and the story as a whole suffers as a result.

In the 1980’s, when Superman first appeared, he was an orphan with both celestial and human parents. When Superman first began, all he could do was leap over buildings and stop trains. After a few years, he could ingest hydrogen bombs and juggle celestial bodies. Superman always dealt with dire circumstances without any trouble, easily.

Because he only succeeded, he ultimately rose to become the archetype of the all-powerful deity, or the “Gary Stu” model, which is not intriguing at all. Kryptonite was introduced later on in order to weaken him and give him vulnerabilities which gave his character some substance and depth.

A strong antagonist is one of the main building blocks of a good story. They have the ability to make or break a narrative, and they are frequently responsible for the existence of the plot’s central idea. An admirable baddie requires multidimensional elements, just like many of the components that go into making a fascinating hero.

Since they lack the necessary components, numerous storylines fail to present a captivating villain. Inadequate nemeses are typically just cruel or malevolent and lack motivation and strength. These plots fall short since they don’t allow viewers to go through inner strife that would challenge their viewpoints.

The audience is given nothing to think about when a villain is displayed as being pure evil for no discernible reason, which lowers the caliber of the storyline and causes it to be cliché and overly simplistic. Sticking with the subject of superheroes for a second, there’s a reason why people remember and resonate with Thanos’ idea of eradicating half the universe, rather than a random CGI army marching on our heroes.

Excellent tales don’t paint one aspect of a dispute as evil. The argument is already biased if the antagonist is only understood as the story’s bad side. Strong arguments from engaging nemeses reveal a fatal flaw inside the protagonist’s logic.

Jordan Peterson makes a compelling case in another one of his lectures explaining why people enjoy watching antagonists. He says people watch antiheroes and villains because a part of them yearns for the incorporation of the monster within them, which gives them strength of character and self-respect.

After all, it’s impossible to respect yourself until you grow teeth, and once you grow teeth, you realize you’re somewhat dangerous and/or somewhat seriously dangerous, and you demand respect from yourself and others. That doesn’t mean that being cruel is preferable to not being cruel; rather, being able to be cruel and then choosing not to be cruel is preferable to not being able to be cruel. Because in the first case, you are nothing but weak and naïve, and in the second case, you are dangerous but you have it under control.

Many people enjoy watching films and television shows with compelling antagonists because they hope to draw some of that strength from within themselves. Some people who fall into this category tend to be overly kind, unable to refuse when they ought to, and unable to express their opinions because they don’t want to offend the other person. They observe the antagonist acting courageously, going after what they want, and defending themselves even though it is immoral, which is inspiring to them in a way.

Some antagonists are misfits. Despite being despised by society and by the masses, they are still capable of dominating the world. Outcasts typically have no authority, in reality however, these antagonists challenge that notion. To thrive in a hostile environment, you need to be extremely intelligent which is an intriguing quality.

An antagonist with this element is best exemplified by The Joker. He is the antithesis of everything that Batman is and represents, but he also has a reason for being the way he is, which helps the audience empathize with his character.

Compared to his relationships with the other villains in his rogue gallery, Batman’s association with the Joker is more complicated and intimate.

The Joker is essentially the antithesis of Batman, and just like Batman, he juxtaposes what typically stands for something lighthearted and positive (the clown) and turns it into something evil and devious. This is precisely how Batman transforms a shadowy symbol—something that frightened him as a kid and haunted him throughout his life (the bat)—into something inspiring that the people of Gotham could really turn to for help to and feel hopeful about, while the bad guys cower in fear.

Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, the central protagonist, also has vulnerabilities, one of which is that he is very susceptible to falling for someone. You could even say that it’s his Achille’s heel, almost his Kryptonite. He may possess the best technology and arms and ammunition in the world, and yet his heart lacks a defense. He has a vulnerable heart. Therefore, if Bruce Wayne falls in love with someone, it is very risky for the person he’s involved with since the person he falls in love with might suffer because Batman’s enemies might target her.

In “The Joker”,  featuring Joaquin Phoenix, the audience learns more about the history of the well-known character, leaving them speechless. Before “The Joker” in this movie, viewers were unaware of the character’s background story and what made him the way he is. The movie addressed that question while showcasing many dark undertones, leaving the viewers to question who they should sympathize with towards the end.

Batman’s dad attempted to protect his marriage and seemingly ideal household after learning that Joker’s mother had become pregnant. Many scenes about the backgrounds of the characters can be seen from varying perspectives. Batman and the Joker are far more alike than you might realize in this regard. It’s not far-fetched to say that if Batman had been his stepbrother instead of the other way around, he may have become The Joker.

Some antagonists seek vengeance after having a loved one wrongfully taken from them. In this scenario, their unconditional love takes the form of a never-ending quest for vengeance. Most people are capable of leaving it behind and moving on, but because of their profound love, they are incapable of letting go which makes them stand out.

Killmonger from Black Panther falls under this category. When we first encounter Killmonger, he is assisting Ulysses Klaue in stealing a Wakandan artefact while going by the alias Erik Stevens. We understand that Killmonger seems to be a former Navy SEAL the moment he turns on Klaue, but we don’t understand where he really came from or why he has a deep resentment until he goes to Wakanda to claim his position.

It appears that T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father and later the ruler of Wakanda, was really the brother of Killmonger’s dad, a Wakandan prince. T’Chaka was compelled to murder Killmonger’s dad during a dispute because he was intending to sell Wakandan advanced technologies to militant organizations across the globe. A young Killmonger witnessed everything and had additionally been abandoned by his native land and left behind to live and fend for himself without his father.

Some antagonists are clever. They are proficient at handling the systems necessary to accomplish their goals, and they have a thorough understanding of the people they are trying to manipulate. Savages who rashly break into residences and shoot at random people are less fascinating than schemers who plan every move.

Jim Moriarty is a notable example who falls into this category. He is known as the world’s only “consulting criminal”, which seems to to be a position intended to make fun of his arch nemesis Sherlock Holmes. He starts playing with Holmes to solve pre-written puzzles for his own entertainment; if he fails, the captives will perish.

He was able to continue tormenting and torturing the reputed detective after making his identity known to Sherlock in one of the show’s most memorable moments. He even stole the Crown Jewels to drag the detective further into the streets.

The central protagonist, Sherlock, and his strongest nemesis, Jim Moriarty, engage in a never-ending intellectual duel. Although Moriarty and Sherlock are regarded as being on an intellectual par in the original work, this may not be the case in the television series. The viewpoint of the audience might be a factor that’s in play here.

While some argue that Moriarty was more clever out of the two, adding that Sherlock outplayed him merely because he had the assistance of his brother, Mycroft. The counterargument to this is that Eurus, Sherlock’s sister, might have been the real brains behind a number of Moriarty’s schemes.

Sherlock and Moriarty used their intellect and abilities in completely different ways and its possibly what has kept this debate going for years. While Moriarty was interested in chaos and had the edge of always being one step ahead, Sherlock is more methodical and organized. Because of how similar Sherlock and Moriarty were intellectually, their rivalry was very compelling.

A compelling antagonist is one who is good at what they do, has a motivation for doing what they’re doing, and has a compelling backstory. Generally, villains who are more sympathetic cause the audience to re-evaluate their morals and what they stand for, and stimulates thought. People are drawn to these sort of antagonists because they aspire to embody the monster within them and to possess some of the antagonist’s traits, such as bravery and strength.

What are your thoughts on villains and why we adore them? Who are your favourite villains and why? Do let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!

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