Crafting Memorable Villains

Art by Christof Grobelski

In a previous post I discussed how to make creatures and NPCs your own, narratively and mechanically. Now, I’m going to talk about making memorable villains (If your PCs are Murder-hobos this post probably won’t help much because then they are the villain… at least to the common NPC). Mechanically, adjusting villains is no different from adjusting simple NPC’s. While you may adjust upward their stats or the number of advantageous qualities they receive a little, the process is exactly the same. Memorable villains, however, are real people, not 2D cardboard cutouts for your players to knock down. So let’s take some time and discuss reality.

First, to make a Villain memorable you need two names. Names have power, names define you. If I use the name ‘Karen’ most people would think of the ‘I want to see a manager’ meme floating around the internet. John Doe similarly brings up other thoughts, unidentified bodies in a morgue, or suspects on the loose for instance. The first name is typically the one they are given at birth, showing they had parents, maybe even a family once. The second name, that is the one given by the people, that defines them and what they do. They typically don’t call the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy/Girl), ‘That evil guy/girl’. Vlad Țepeș is a good example of that, or better known as Vlad Dracula (son of Vlad II Dracul) or Vlad the Impaler (based on his demonstrative tendencies in punishment). 

Die Hard is owned by Twentieth Century Fox and they retain all rights.

Second, consider what traits define your villain, their goals, quirks and flaws. What causes them to be evil (or perhaps, what causes this character to seem evil to others)? What is their redeeming quality (it is a very rare person indeed that has none)? We don’t remember Dr. Evil from Austin Powers for what he did or threatened to do, but for his little idiosyncrasies, like the pinky to the mouth and air quotes. Likewise Hans Gruber isn’t remembered for his theft, but the cold, calm, calculating movements, the plans he made. The shift from the German Gentleman to the ‘Bill Clay’ American afraid man. Of course his famous dive off the Plaza was a cause for cheering. Anakin Skywalker or Darth Vader was given redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi when he sacrificed his own life to save Luke, his son. This was certainly a redeeming quality for him.

Selecting the right memorable qualities is both the most difficult and the most rewarding thing about creating a villain. Much like Stephen King recommends in his book On Writing for novelists, the trick is to capture one or two or maybe three things about a person that you can look at those things and say, “Oh. I know everything I need to know about them now.” Your mind makes the connections. Those few details will be what sticks in your mind (much like the previous example of Dr. Evil).

Third, make the villain relatable. What is memorable about the Joker isn’t the fact that he’s an evil murdering psycho, but that as he quotes, ‘All it takes is one bad day to reduce a sane man to lunacy and that’s how far the world is from where I am, one bad day.’ When was the last time you had a bad day? Do you remember how it felt? Was it bad enough that you could see yourself desperate enough to lash out? No, I am not suggesting that you are somehow the Joker, but can you, in your mind’s eye, begin to understand that desperation as an extension or extreme case of your own? The ability to help your players relate to that, in that way, is powerful storytelling.

As another example, Magneto (Max Eisenhardt or Erik Lehnsherr) was relatable not because of his desire to rule the world but because of his fear that what was happening to the Mutants was what had happened to him personally in Germany during World War II. The Holocaust is not a comfortable topic to discuss, but if you consider what he went through, it certainly produces a lot of empathy, particularly when you look at what the government was trying to do to the mutant population. What would you do if those you considered yours were threatened with their freedom being taken away or death? How far would you go to protect them? The truly powerful thing about Magneto is not what he did, but that he felt that he was even protecting the mutants he was fighting against (Charles Xavier’s X-Men). That despite their misunderstanding, that those mutants were his people as well. It makes him a very hard villain to hate.

Finally, tropes can be your friend. Don’t be afraid to imitate, or take a trope and reflavor it to fit your needs. Strahd from Ravenloft was based on Count Dracula, even though Tracy Hickman gave him a tragic backstory of love gone bad that made him more relatable and harder to hate. Everything around you can be used to flavor your Villain. From the zealots in Horizon Zero Dawn, to the Gentlemen from Buffy. If you see it, know it, and love it, don’t be afraid to recycle it and just change it up a bit to fit your theme. When you realize that you do not have to come up with every single idea as original in every one of your games, you will be a lot more relaxed and content being a GM because a lot of the pressure gets taken off.

The best villains, ultimately, should leave you wondering what exactly separates you, and the protagonists, from them. The best villains should make you feel empathy, should make you understand how they got to be where they are, should be a little bit uncomfortably close to home. That is what makes villains interesting. For more ideas about making memorable villains, have a look at this blog post from Scroll for Initiative entitled How to Run a ‘Big Bad’. Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

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