What makes the best stories?
I would wager that the best stories have the best villains. Sure you need a good hero/protagonist — or at least an adequate one. But without the threat of a convincing villain, how can the conflict truly escalate?
With this in mind I wonder if the approach I’ve been using to create story lines has been wrong. I typically come up with a situation that needs fixing or a problem that needs a repair or dissolution and then build a character who could accomplish this. Or I create a character bent on some journey and some wrong they feel compelled to right. I would then have to fabricate the antagonist as a counter agent to the hero.
But what if we dreamed up a villain first and then contrived how to fight, defeat or fail against this anti-hero. Invert the creation process. Most likely I’m just late to the party on this concept. But, as a mental exercise, how about a list of villains to spur thoughts of stories in which we create heroes to take-them-down. I’ll call these “root” villainous foundations. Individual villains can be derived from each of these.
- Time (age, senility, ability, heirs)
- Environment (volcanoes, floods, global warming, asteroids, drought, earthquakes, tsunamis, plague)
- Mental health (psychosis, sociopathy, psychopathy)
- Injustice / Government (slavery, working conditions, oppression by the system, totalitarianism, protectionism)
- Jealousy (of or by siblings, parents, friends, the public)
- Ignorance / Stupidity (suppression of knowledge or learning, genetic bottlenecks, inbreeding, coercion of the mentally frail)
- Indifference (aliens, society, parents)
From such a list we could mix-and-match to create a bad dude which we could then impose upon the world. From the situation created by such a villain we would then have automatically created the need of the protagonist. We would have a compelling force which would drive our hero forward. The villain must be confronted, challenged and battled. Perhaps if we start with the bad and derive the good based on the opposing force we’ll always have the protagonist’s motives in mind.
For instance let’s pick mental health and indifference: There’s a young man who believes he’s invisible (psychosis). He lives in a town where people are very private and standoffish. When he interacts (or tries to) with the townsfolk, they ignore him. No one ever looks his way, says hi, stops their cars as he crosses the street. The villain here is the town in combination with his mental illness. From such a loose but evocative situation, we can now build a story. The character would have to face both of these villains to fulfill the plot’s premise.
Let’s do another. Two brother’s are separated at birth. One gets raised in luxury in high government. The other gets raised by a sensei. Sounds formulaic — the first sounds like he will become the villain. But what if we introduce jealousy in both characters. The second, though disciplined, has always been jealous of the first’s life of leisure. The first, covetous of the second’s dedicated teacher. But let’s not stop there. Separated at birth? Why? Ah, part of an evil experiment done by a third entity — the true villain.
Now that we have the villains defined, we can build a story around the protagonist and their struggle to defeat their foe.
Here is a villain list pulled (and condensed) from the net:
- Anti-Villain – Evil written as the protagonist.
- The Authority Figure – Opposition to a character’s free will.
- The Beast – The Beast has intent – beyond Mother Nature.
- The Bully – Opposition to the protagonist for psychological reasons.
- The Corrupted – Those that were once good but have fallen.
- The Criminal – Villains in it for money, power, and prestige.
- The Disturbed – Those with evident psychological problems.
- The Equal – Share skills and knowledge but the ethics between protagonist and antagonist are different.
- Femme Fatale – Attractive and seductive woman to clash with the protagonist.
- The Henchman – One that works for major villain.
- The Machine – Lifeless, without emotion, pain or fear, cold and calculating.
- The Mastermind – Brilliant and ruthless character that oversees the plan that is in opposition to the protagonist’s.
- Mother Nature – The environment.
- The Personification of Evil – Pure evil, with little to no backstory.
- The Supernatural/Extraterrestrial – Faceless foes in horror, science fiction, and suspense thrillers.