Superheroes and the Villains Who Make Them
(In honor of Salt Lake Comic Con)
By Amy Maida Wadsworth
I’ve always related to Spider-Man—not because I’m particularly brilliant
or fascinated with arachnids, but because there is a side of me that
often feels socially awkward, and it takes a mask (fiction, maybe?) to
make me feel like I understand people and have some control over my
environment. I also relate with underdogs. In fact, most of my favorite
fictional characters are underdogs—the underestimated Katniss
Everdeen (The Hunger Games ), the overlooked Julian Delphiki (Ender’s
Shadow ), and the pushed-aside Connor Lassiter (Unwind ).
Superhero stories have stood the test of time because all of the
characters are relatable—they represent an accelerated, concentrated
version of the everyday good guy. Iron Man is a wealthy playboy who
seems cool and collected—but, deep down, he’s scared of vulnerability
and loss. Superman wants to save the world—but realizes that in the
end, he can’t save everyone. Batman is a vigilante who wants to use his
fortune to end crime—but he’s constantly being hunted by police. These
heroes struggle with their faults, flaws, and shortcomings while they try
to make the world a better place. Sound familiar?
Inevitably, a pesky villain rises to the occasion. As Mr. Incredible says, “I
feel like the maid. I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for
ten minutes?” Despite the constant mess, there would be no hero
without a villain. The villain forces the hero to rise from obscurity as he
provides the moment of change that essentially creates the hero. The
villain makes the story. Or breaks it.
So What Makes a Good Villain?
1. Your villain should have a heartbreaking past. Dr. Otto Octavius (Spider-
Man’s Doctor Octopus) killed his own wife in a lab experiment. Magneto (X-
Men) was a holocaust victim as a boy. The Joker (Batman) has such a
troubled past that he only wears it on his sadistic face—a pale, smiling
mystery. When we learn about a villain’s past, we can’t help but understand
his craziness. It’s almost as if he touches the crazy in all of us and thus
2. Your villain should be as strong as your hero. Here, we’ll bring up Red Skull.
His nemesis, Captain America, was treated with super-soldier serum and
vita-rays, which basically bulked him up and gave him incredible endurance
and an extremely high metabolism. Red Skull was treated with a similar
serum. But this treatment accentuates the traits that already exist in the
man—so Red Skull becomes a totalitarian super-bully while Captain
America becomes the ultimate soldier, built to defend American ideals of
freedom. The two are created in similar ways, and their abilities are similar.
The greatest differences between them are their values and ideals.
3. Your villain should be sympathetic, smart, and strong, but misdirected. Here,
we have to bring up Lex Luthor. Superman’s infamous nemesis, Lex sees
himself as the hero and Superman as the intruding, alien villain with the
power to rule the world. Lex’s determination to rid the world of Superman
makes him maniacal, and he doesn’t hesitate to sink to diabolical levels to
accomplish his goals. And, let’s face it—Lex is severely outgunned (maybe
even an underdog?). If Superman wanted to put an end to Lex, it wouldn’t
take much effort from his laser-eyed, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet, man-of-
steel self. Deep down, Lex is afraid of what his nemesis could do. (In a
psychological tangent here, Lex is probably projecting on to Superman—
deep down, Lex knows that if hewere all-powerful the way Superman is, Lex
would rule the world with an iron fist.) One could argue that if Lex truly
understood Superman’s nature, he might not fight in the first place. He might
be able to trust the stranger from Krypton. A villain’s misdirection of energy
and ability is what makes his plight almost sad to witness. We can’t help but
wonder what would happen if he would only use his abilities to accomplish
Action Steps: 3 Things to Do Now!
Here are some tricks to improve your villain.
1. During your character development phase, create the hero and the villain
together. You can even give them the same goals—but twist your villain’s
approach to or motivation for accomplishing that goal.
2. List your hero’s weaknesses and create a villain who can take advantage of
those weaknesses. Likewise, your hero’s strengths should counteract your
villain’s weaknesses. The two characters fit together like puzzle pieces and
thus become evenly matched. If this feels like too obvious a method for
character creation, assign a numerical value to abilities that you see in your
characters and make sure those numbers match—give them the same
amount of advantage.
3. Awaken your inner geek and spend some time online looking at comic book
villains. The great thing about comic books is that they’ve been around for
years. The characters are established, explored, and debated by fans of the
graphic novels and the movies. These conversations explore characters on
deep, psychological levels, and much can be learned about audience
expectation, character progression, story arc, and the psychology behind
being a villain. There are tons of fan websites, but I particularly enjoy
this site by IGN Comics.