Creating Villains and Heroes with Killer Chemistry
There are villains, and then there are villains. You know the ones I’m talking about. They’re not necessarily the most ineffable, most powerful, or most evil. They don’t have an extra-hellish, spine-tingling cackle. And they don’t even always get their own theme music. But they are the villains you just love—and love to hate. The ones that make you abandon all reason. The ones you sometimes just want to hit in the face, even if you are not the least bit martial or particularly violent--usually anyway. But these villains have a way of inspiring passionate responses.
I call these villains nemeses, and they are in many ways a twisted reflection of the hero to whom they’re matched. A hero’s nemesis encompasses the hero’s dark side—a harsh reminder as to what could happen if the hero fails to solve his problems. As to what could happen if they gave into the temptation that rests within all heroes’ hearts. And it is the hero seeing their own darkness reflected in the villain—and the villain seeing the remnants of their virtue in the hero—that causes such killer chemistry.
It’s so easy, these days, for a well-intentioned hero to fall. Heroes work so very hard to do things the right way, to be good, to keep to the path of the (self-)righteous. But heroes are often plagued by doubts, worrying whether their refusal to consider questionable methods is holding them back. After all, what good is being “good” if it means evil will win and eliminate all goodness anyway? At least you could be the lesser of two evils, by using evil’s tactics against it. Right guys? Right? Guys?
What a slippery slope! But it is the foundation of some of the best, most long-running conflicts in villain-vs-hero history. Harnessing that energy for your own story can make it compelling in a way little else can. So, to help you create nemesis villains of your very own, I’ve broken out a few tips and tidbits for thought here.
What Makes Them Compelling
We tend to hate most in others the flaws we ourselves have—those we strive against, have overcome, or yet battle internally. For example, as I’m sure you’ve experienced: hell hath no fury like the reformed adverb addict when confronted with the blatant and unapologetic use of adverbs. (May the editor gods have mercy on those adverbs used in moderation—for she has none!) Just so, our hate for the nemesis villain is fierce because they reflect our own flaws back at us--and we fear becoming them. Our hate is simply a rejection of that same darkness inside ourselves, directed outward.
This is also why villains are so obsessed with the hero’s fall—or with proving that going darkside has made them stronger than the hero. They need validation that their sacrifices were worth it. I mean think about it. Say you sacrificed everything you’ve ever loved in the pursuit of power, turning from hero into villain just to get stronger, only to find out that it didn’t work. That the very things you did you make yourself stronger actually made you weaker. That the heroes you derided for not being tough enough to rid themselves of weakness are actually stronger than you now—and that they got to keep their friends and families and chocolate and puppy dogs and whatever else you were forced to sacrifice in the pursuit of power to boot. How much would that suck? With so many chips in the pot, would you really just fold your hand just because the hero puts in a bid? Or would you double-down on villainy and work to prove that your sacrifices did indeed make you stronger—that it was worth it?
This terrible, driving need—from both the hero and the villain—to validate their life choices, and, on the hero’s part, to resist the temptation the villain represents, creates an amazing chemistry. The fact that they are such similar characters—that accidents of chance and fate could be all that separates them—is powerful. It gives heroes a mirror of their own inner demons, and a villain a mirror of their lost virtue. And both sides—hero and villain alike—will be quick to fight to prove the value of their path, and to deny the temptation or the regret within themselves.
Villains as Fallen Heroes
You would think that something so symbolic and philosophical would be hidden within layers of prose. But many of the strongest nemesis relationships actually address that central conflict directly. Artemis Entreri says that Drizzt’s friends are what make him weak. Garra says the same of Naruto, and Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter. And in return, each hero has a different rebuttal. Drizzt is sure his friends make him stronger, and fights with tremendous passion to prove it—making for some of the most pulse-pounding fight scenes R. A. Salvatore has ever written. Naruto, on the other hand, is secure in the knowledge that his friends have given him tremendous inner strength. He sees in Garra what he could have become without friends, and feels sorry for him. And Harry Potter actually fights that battle within himself--asking specifically if he’s really that different from Voldemort, and at one point, almost giving up his friends so as not to endanger them. But he eventually realizes his friends are both his strength and what separates him from Voldemort, and that proves the difference between victory and defeat.
In each of these three cases, the villain is like the hero—minus friends. And the philosophical message is that friends--while they can sometimes hurt you, slow you down, or be used against you--ultimately make you a stronger and better person. And in each case, it is the hero’s rejection of the temptations of the darker road that makes them stronger than the villain and allows them to prevail--the winning of the philosophical war reflected in the subsequent winning of the physical war.
Of course, it’s not just about friends. It can be about anything. The Joker is often considered Batman’s truest nemesis—a reflection of his psychotic dark side. Red John tries to convince Patrick Jane that they are really just alike—something that hits a little too close to home for Patrick Jane. And Professor Moriarte and Sherlock Holmes are devilishly similar in all but the most important ways.
What Is the Meaning of Your Villain?
Of the vast rainbow of varied villains, nemesis villains have the greatest impact on a story’s message. The conflict between hero and nemesis is essentially a philosophical battle—one embodied physically in the hero’s conflict with the villain. It’s a perfect union of a hero’s inner and outer arcs in that the hero’s journey as a person is perfectly reflected in the plot. And you, as an author, are saying a lot with how you handle that battle. Does reaching a good goal by employing evil means—against evil creatures—make you evil? Or is that sacrifice—that of your methods—the sacrifice you must make to save the world from a greater evil? Do friends make you stronger, and is that why it is the right choice? Or does it actually make you weaker—but a better person? Can nemesis villains find redemption by embracing that which they originally rejected? Friendship is a fairly safe avenue to explore, but morality is a tangled, tricky issue.
Luckily, you don’t have to know the answer to the questions you tackle so long as you’re aware you’re tackling the question—you can actually explore it yourself with different characters, heroic and villainous both. Which is a great exercise in empathy, and can, with its flexible, unjudgmental approach, create amazingly complex and compelling characters that defy labels and mesmerize readers.