12 Villains That Every Screenwriter Should Study
July 7, 2023
Villains come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they are hidden behind masks and wielding knives, other times they are conniving and cause destruction. And then, sometimes they’re just mean.
What makes a good villain is that they complement the hero of the story. They are intriguing and have a reason for their sense of evil. The list of villains is endless. While this list is too short to include every amazing heel, here are some that writers can emulate in their own stories.
1. The Joker from The Dark Knight
You can’t take your eyes off the Clown Prince of Gotham whenever he comes onto the screen. The Joker in The Dark Knight broke the mold of Batman villains when he brought chaos to Gotham City. Played by Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for his role, the Joker is a polar opposite of Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) who seeks law and order in a city overrun by bad guys.
The Joker’s reasoning for being evil is never clear, although Alfred (Michael Caine) states, “Some people want to watch the world burn.” And that seems to be reason enough. The Joker seemingly comes out of nowhere and he has no character arc. He’s an outstanding villain because he’s intelligent, cunning, always one step ahead of Batman and, like the joker in a deck of cards, a wild card. Maybe he’s a great bad guy because if we could be a villain, we would want to be the Joker.
2. The Terminator from The Terminator
With only 58 words in the entire film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Terminator leads a lasting impression as a villain who strikes fear about the future. The Terminator represents the worst-case scenario if machines become self-aware and decide to enslave and destroy humanity. Even in 1984, the idea of a dystopian future seemed to haunt popular culture.
The Terminator is another villain without an arc and one single mission: kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is the human sent back to protect her. What he tells Sarah, is one of the reasons The Terminator is an amazing villain: “It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop... ever, until you are dead!”
How do you stop an unstoppable villain?
3. Biff Tannen from Back to the Future
If there ever was a thorn in Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) side, it would be Biff Tannen (Tom Wilson). In fact, this multi-generational villain is constantly the bully thwarting the plans of the protagonist. But what makes him a villain that writers should pay attention to?
At the basic level, Biff is the high school bully that everyone wants to see have their comeuppance. Most importantly, he’s the antagonist that George McFly (Crispin Glover) needs to become a strong and successful person in the future.
4. Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction
She’s not a robot from the future, a high school bully or a comic book villain. Alex (Glenn Close) is epitome of a mistake coming back to haunt you. After a steamy weekend affair, Dan (Michael Douglas) had the understanding that this was nothing more than a fling, one he wanted to keep quiet from his family. Unfortunately for Dan, Alex has fallen deeply in love and will stop at nothing to make him her own.
Alex brings panic, worry and misery to Dan’s life in which he has no recourse because he doesn’t want those in his personal and professional life to find out about his infidelity. How do you fight a relentless villain ruining your life but can’t tell anyone about?
5. John Doe from Se7en
What makes John Doe (Kevin Spacey) an exceptional villain is his lack of presence. For most of Se7en, John Doe is anonymous to the audience as well as the two detectives tasked with tracking down the serial killer using the seven deadly sins as his motivation.
John Doe has been planning his murders patiently and methodically, spending months establishing and plotting his slayings. He’s terrifying for his crimes and methods but also memorable for making the most of his on-screen presence.
When it comes to writing villains, there is a clear pattern of truly incredible and memorable villains like John Doe: they’re highly intelligent. (Ex: Hannibal Lecter, The Joker, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl are all fantastic, smart villains, to name a few).
Read More: 5 Plot Point Breakdown: Se7en
6. Annie from Misery
Misplaced obsessions are often a motivation for a villain. They care so deeply about something but the means to their end is dark and frightening. Annie (Kathy Bates) from Misery is obsessed about a character in a book and its author. When author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) gets into a car accident, Annie brings him to her home to help him recover.
After Annie reads a draft of Paul’s new novel featuring the death of her favorite character, she holds him hostage until he writes the book she thinks the character deserves. This obsession manifests itself through rage, violence and threats. What makes her such a great villain is her ability to be both a caretaker and a threat at the same time.
Read More: 5 Plot Point Breakdown: Misery
7. Col. William Tavington from The Patriot
Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) is an officer who will do whatever it takes to win the Revolutionary War for the British Empire. His sadistic behavior and willingness to literally do anything to bring them one step closer to victory makes him a villain worth watching. The man is pure evil, the type of person you don’t want to cross but would prefer to have on your side of the fight.
When you can make someone on the enemy’s side a figure who the enemy themselves fear, you know you have a good villain.
8. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is considered one of the meanest people in cinema. It has to do with the way she wields her power over the patients at the institution she supervises. She is manipulative, controlling and dominant. When R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is admitted, he becomes a pain in Nurse Ratched’s side by questioning her authority and getting his fellow patients to go along with his antics.
Nurse Ratched’s wickedness is in the subtlety in which she operates. She appears quite caring until Murphy reveals her tyrannical ways and how she manipulates the scared patients to remain under her control. Then she uses her power to show the ward who’s boss.
9. Carl from Ghost
Spoiler if you haven’t seen it but the main character’s best friend is the villain who literally takes everything away for personal gain. Carl (Tony Goldwyn) played this character so well he would get dirty looks in restaurants.
It’s bad enough that the charming Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) is murdered in a robbery but the romantic-drama/crime story takes a compelling turn when Sam realizes Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), a con artist/psychic, can talk to ghosts. With the help of his widow, Molly (Demi Moore), they uncover his best friend set up the murder. On top of that, the guy’s making moves on Molly. Carl’s doesn’t appear to be evil or has grand plans for world domination, in fact from the first scene of the movie, the audience sees he’s a good friend, someone we would want to be pals with. That is until we discover he’s a psychopath who will murder his best friend for money.
Read More: The Script Lab: Download Ghost
10. Scar from The Lion King
It’s one thing to want power but it’s a whole other thing to want to wipe out your family to get it. Scar (Jeremy Irons) lives in his powerful brother’s shadow. Mustafa (James Earl Jones) is the well-respected king of the land with a son poised to take the throne in the future. Scar is not a fan of this outcome so he puts his nephew in danger, uses his hyena goons to cause a stampede and kills Mustafa – and this is a Disney movie!
Villains often lust for power but what makes their arc compelling to audiences is what they’re willing to do to accomplish it and how Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas/Matthew Broderick) will avenge his father and reclaim his rightful throne.
Read More: The Lion King: Shakespeare on the Savannah
11. Max Cady from Cape Fear
As a parent, there’s nothing scarier than being helpless when trying to keep your family safe. Cape Fear plays on that angst via Max Cady (Robert DeNiro) is a recent parolee who terrorizes the defense attorney who withheld evidence that could have possibly acquitted him.
Max Cady isn’t just some mean guy looking for vengeance, he’s a cunning, scary villain who excels on wits, strength and determination over his former lawyer, Sam (Nick Nolte). As the audience, we see the extent of his psychotic tendencies when he’s not near Sam which shows us what he’s capable of doing to his former lawyer’s family.
What makes him frightening is that this character is a father’s worst nightmare making us wonder how we would react in such a situation.
Read More: Top 10 Psycho Killer Movies
12. Just About Everyone from Get Out
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) thinks he’s going to his girlfriend’s family for the weekend. While it initially doesn’t seem to matter that Chris is African-American and Rose (Allison Williams) is white, Chris grows increasingly suspicious of the way Rose’s parents and guests act around him. The few other African-Americans act strange around him, including one who seemingly slips out of a trance and tells Chris to “get out.”
Everyone Chris encounters is a villain, including his girlfriend who faked the relationship so he would come to her family’s home. Their goal is to transfer the brain from one of their white friends into Chris’s body (as they have done previously). This psychological horror film pits a single protagonist against a group of villains he can’t seem to escape.
Read More: Writing Three-Dimensional Villains
The protagonist must confront the villain in order to become the hero of their story. These villains place characters in terrifying situations and near impossible obstacles they must overcome. What makes a good villain is their ability to constantly outsmart their victims and the scary things they’re willing to do to succeed.
Great villains help make great heroes, so make sure you dive deep into who this character is what their end goal is that will justify the means.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.