Writing a Great Villain

The easiest villain to write is the external villain. The Alien. The shark in Jaws. The Terminator. Doc Ock, Bane, Immortan Joe. Or force-of-nature villains—the volcano in Volcano, the oncoming Ice Age in The Day After Tomorrow, the Mayan-prophecy-end-of-the-world in 2012.

The villain in "ALIEN: Covenant." Can we do better?

The villain in “ALIEN: Covenant.” Can we do better?

External villains present existential threats to our physical existence. These sonsofbitches will kill you, eat you, freeze you, boil you.

The problem with external villains, though they may occasionally deliver bestseller sales and boffo box office, is they don’t often bring out the best in the stars who must confront them.

Why? Because the stars only have to duel these villains on one level (and the most superficial level, at that): the physical.

Much higher on the Villain Food Chain are

  1. Societal villains.
  2. Interior villains.

The villain in Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night and many, many others down to The Hurricane, Precious, and The Help, is racism.

Racism is a societal villain.

An individual character or characters may personify this antagonist in our narrative, as the jury or the mob or Bob Ewell did in Mockingbird. But the real villain is all-pervasive. It’s that cruel, ignorant, evil belief—”I have a right to dominate you because my skin is a different color than yours”—that exists only in men’s minds and hearts.

Societal villains are great villains, and they have produced great stars/heroes to confront them.

Do you remember The Way We Were? The Way We Were was a vehicle for two superstars in their prime, Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, and it provided both of them with roles worthy of their peak power.

Who was the villain?

The villain, again, was societal. It was the ethno-racist belief that “Park Avenue” was different from “Brooklyn” and that people whose characters were formed in such environments—WASPy, athletic, born-golden Hubbell Gardiner and Jewish, striving, up-from-the-streets Katie Morosky—could never truly come together.

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in "The Way We Were"

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in “The Way We Were”

The chasm between them because of their ethnicities and the different worlds they grew up in was so vast that it could not be bridged even by a great love.

The villain wins in the end of The Way We Were.

But the battle against this antagonist—the passionate, complex, tragic struggle by Katie and Hubbell to maintain their love—is an epic, world-class throwdown, with layer upon layer of emotional and psychological depth. The clash with this villain was worthy of two superstars.

The stars made the roles, but the villain made the stars.

The third type of villain, and the most satisfying dramatically, is the interior villain.

The interior villain is inside the star herself.

Karen Blixen’s need to “possess” the things she loves.

Hamlet’s inability to make up his mind and act.

Gatsby’s dream of recapturing a past that never really existed.

External villains exist as metaphors. The Alien represents … what? Pure evil? Death? Pitiless fate?

But interior villains show us the demons you and I really deal with in our real lives—the crazy shit inside our skulls.

Silver Linings Playbook made stars out of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

One reason: a great villain.

"So think about that dance thing." Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook."

“So think about that dance thing.” Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

The villain in Silver Linings Playbook is interior. It exists inside Bradley Cooper’s head. The villain is his obsession, fueled by his bipolar disorder, with winning back his wife Nikki, whom he has alienated by his extravagant behavior in the past.

This villain is in every scene of the movie, from first to last.



[Nikki and I] have a very unconventional chemistry. It

makes people feel awkward, but not me. Alright? She’s the

most beautiful woman I’ve ever been with. It’s electric between

us! Okay, yeah, we wanna change each other, but that’s normal,

couples wanna do that. I want her to stop dressing like she

dresses, I want her to stop acting so superior to me, okay?

And she wanted me to lose weight and stop my mood swings,

which both I’ve done. I mean, people fight. Couples fight. We

would fight, we wouldn’t talk for a couple of weeks. That’s

normal. She always wanted the best for me.






She wanted me to be passionate and compassionate.

And that’s a good thing. You know? I just, look, I’m my

best self today and I think she’s her best self today, and

our love’s gonna be fucking amazing.



It’s gonna be amazing, and you’re gonna be amazing,

and she’s gonna be amazing, and you’re not gonna be that

guy that’s gonna take advantage of a situation without

offering to do something back. So think about that

dance thing.


See the villain in there? It’s in every word and it’s more terrifying than the Alien and the Predator and the Monsters of the Id from Forbidden Planet. This demon will devour not just Bradley’s soul but Jennifer’s too if it can, and it’s in every cell in Bradley’s body, as invisible to him as water is to a fish swimming in it.

What a hero Bradley will be if he can somehow, either alone or aided by Jennifer, see the real love that’s staring him in the face and recognize this Nikki-self-delusion for the monster it is—and change himself.

Spoiler alert: he does.

That’s a hero.

That’s a star.

(And count Jennifer too, because she’s fighting the same villain.)

What made that star was the scale and depth of the villain he (and she) had to fight.





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  1. Michael Beverly on May 31, 2017 at 6:59 am

    The movie Jaws left out several villains that were in the book.
    One was the mafia who were putting pressure on the mayor (I believe) to not lower property values.
    A second one was the shark expert Hooper who had an affair with Brody’s wife. I always thought Benchley had Hooper eaten as a sort of justice in the book, while the star power of Richard Dreyfus kept him alive in the movie.
    That wasn’t the case, the movie script got changed because Spielberg received a piece of footage with a live shark attacking a cage. That live footage didn’t have a death, so he let the adulterous bastard live in the movie…ha ha..

    • Sean Crawford on May 31, 2017 at 8:14 am

      Ya, that is funny, I can just imagine a guy telling that story in the bar.

      I forgot to tell you last week:
      Thank you for linking to that vintage Robert Heinlein checklist of replies. It was interesting.

    • Tina on May 31, 2017 at 12:20 pm

      I like the change made to Hooper for the movie. The surprise of his survival was something the movie needed, and it didn’t need to make the wife have an affair. Their loving marriage and bond was important for the movie story.

  2. Mary Doyle on May 31, 2017 at 8:44 am

    For me, the internal villain reigns supreme because we can all identify with “the crazy shit inside our skulls.” Thanks for this Steve!

    • Dorothy Seeger on May 31, 2017 at 11:59 am

      Hi, Mary,
      I enjoy reading your posts every week. About this one, the real villain is not the crazy shit we can identify, it is the crazy shit we can’t see that is the villain. Delusion. It does us in because we don’t know it exists.

      • Mary Doyle on May 31, 2017 at 2:40 pm

        You’re absolutely right Dorothy – thanks!

  3. Mitch on May 31, 2017 at 11:57 am

    Steve – gonna watch it now. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Nik on May 31, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Steve, you’re selling the xenomorph (Alien) short! It’s probably the most terrifying monster and “villain” in movie history, but placing it in context shows it’s actually even more terrifying than we often realize.

    The Alien is both monster and internal villain. It’s intentionally designed to trigger anxieties about sex, birth, and even rape. It’s no accident that the production team chose artist H.R. Giger’s nightmarish designs for the original Ridley Scott movie, and it’s no accident that the movie shows cycles of impregnation, gestation, birth and rebirth, twisting those concepts into grotesque forms that audiences are clearly uncomfortable with.

    The original birth cycle is the crew awaking from cryosleep, by an AI they call MOTHER, emerging from womb-like capsules in a clinical white room. When the crew receives the emergency beacon and lands on LV-426, Kane (John Hurt) witnesses a new birth when the “facehugger” emerges from its egg and attaches itself to his face.

    Look at the design of that thing — it’s like a nightmare’s interpretation of a vagina, but it also has a phallic element that literally jams itself down the throat of the victim. This was an intentional decision on the part of the designers, because let’s be honest here — us guys are NOT comfortable with imagery like that. A monster that eats you is frightening. A monster that literally chokes you, smothers your face, forces a phallic appendage down your throat and lays eggs in your body — that is the stuff of the most horrible nightmares.

    All of that, of course, leads up to the iconic “chest burster” scene where the newly-born Alien forces its way out of Kane’s chest in a splash of blood and viscera. Absolutely disgusting. The ante is continually upped throughout the rest of the movie, including the scene where Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is killed by the xenomorph. Again, this isn’t a monster that just kills or eats people — it impregnates them, reproducing itself, and in this case the movie does more than suggest that the Alien rapes Lambert. You can read many interpretations of that scene, and it’s difficult to see it any other way.

    But let’s backtrack for a second and really place this in context. In 1979, NO ONE had ever seen anything like Alien, ever. Audiences had just been primed by 1977’s Star Wars, depicting a bright galaxy filled with unambiguous heroes, mystical powers, maverick space cowboys and candy-colored light swords. It was a galaxy that housed evil, yes, but also genuinely good and heroic people. Good guys win.

    Alien, by contrast, introduces us to a cold, unforgiving galaxy where the dangers of interstellar travel are very real, and our heroes are civilians on a corporate mining ship, pining for their homes. It very much relies on the loneliness and darkness of interstellar space to set the tone for the rest of the movie. Additionally, the Nostromo looks worn, lived-in, used.

    This is not a universe where the good guys always win. This is a universe where the good guys are fortunate not to get entirely exterminated. There is no hope here.

    But most of all, those Giger designs on LV-426 — the derelict alien starship, the egg chamber, the inscrutable “space jockey” — with their biomechanical designs, flesh fused with machine, were like a smack in the face to audiences. The film has been copied so many times by so many science fiction and horror franchises that it’s lost some of its effect, but just imagine seeing that for the first time in 1979, with no frame of reference at all.

    The Alien is an extension of that, incorporating all those design elements along with a highly perverse form of impregnation and “birth” to play on our anxieties. If you really look at those designs, they’re enough to make you uncomfortable even staring at them, let alone incorporating them into a stalking, slithering, disgusting beast that is more interested in using people as receptacles than killing them.

    I’m sorry, I realize I wrote a long post, but Alien is one of my favorite movies of all time for many reasons, and 38 years later it still stands the test of time. In fact, it looks better than most movies today and is masterful at ratcheting up tension to near panic-inducing levels.

    I think, with older movies like that, we tend to take them for granted and forget the context of the time in which they were released. Our views are also skewed, as I mentioned, by all the copycats over the subsequent decades.

    That’s why I think it’s important to point out the many, many ways in which the Alien xenomorph is so much more than a monster or a “villain.”

    Cheers…and if I write another post here, it’s going to be about Commodus in Gladiator and King Joffrey in Game of Thrones, villains extraordinaire 🙂

    • Steven Pressfield on May 31, 2017 at 3:01 pm

      Wow, great, Nik! You have nailed it. Take over!

      • Nik on June 2, 2017 at 7:43 pm

        Hah! I should add, however, that I think Ridley Scott and company are killing the mystique by peeling back more layers of the mystery with each film.

        1979 Alien is an internal/external villain, the more recent ones not so much. More proof that less is more with enigmatic characters and stories.

  5. Berry on June 1, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Why do you think it is that superhero movies do such a terrible utterly laughable job at creating great villains?

    Are they not internal?

  6. anne marina on June 1, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    I think you can have both internal and external. In Alien (amply analyzed above) we have the super scary xenomorph. But within Ripley (badass heroine) you have the internal struggle to standup to the monster against all odds. Life is a fight and she’s alone. Okay, maybe they dont develop that internal storyline too well. But it is in the subtext.

    Actually Alien is the ‘movie of my life’ that has inspired me to face my own internal villlians through my writing.

    So there was something deeper. Pun intended.

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