Start With the Villain
There’s an axiom among screenwriters:
Start at the end.
What they mean is, “Figure out your climax first (Ripley blasts the Alien into outer space; Moby Dick takes Ahab down to the depths), then work backwards to figure out what you need to make this climax work.
I’m a big believer in this way of working—and its corollary:
Start with the villain.
Once we’ve got Anton Chighur (Javier Bardem in the movie), we’ve got No Country for Old Men licked. Once we’ve got Hannibal Lecter, we’re halfway home in The Silence of the Lambs.
It’s natural to want to start at the beginning and start with the hero. Let’s introduce Raskolnikov, we tell ourselves. Let’s intro Huck Finn. But all too often, this way of working runs out of gas halfway into Act Two. We find ourselves asking, “What did I think this story was about? Where were we going with this?”
Answer: identify the villain, then regroup around this axis.
In The Hunger Games, the villain is the corrupt, soulless “system,” embodied by Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), the commander of Panem.
Let’s start with him.
Pin his picture to the wall.
Place his index card above all our scenes and sequences.
Bad Guy Snow tells us what our heroes (even if we haven’t conceived them yet) must believe in, how they must act, what temptations they must face, and by what means they must fight him and overcome.
Whoever Snow is, our Good Guys are the opposite.
Whatever Snow stands for, our heroes stand for its antithesis.
When we start with the villain, we have a leg up on our climax as well (again, even if—especially if—we don’t know yet what that climax is.)
How does knowing our villain help? Because
- We know that the hero must duel the villain in the climax.
- We know that the climax must revolve around the story’s theme.
- We know that the villain embodies the counter-theme.
In the climax, our hero has to face Doc Ock, Immortan Joe, Bane, the Alien, the Predator, the Terminator.
- Hero and villain duel in the climax over the issue of the theme.
When we get our villain straight in our mind—when we know who he is, what he wants, what his powers and vulnerabilities are—we are working from firm, solid ground when he attack every other part of the story.
Start with the villain.
Steven, when your emails pop into my inbox every week, I expect them to fit into my work, like a customized puzzle piece on autoship. And they usually do, and this one most defintely did. I squirmed all the way through this post. I’ll read it again and again for just that reason!
This one is going to be pinned to the wall next to my computer!
Same here Mary.
This is freaking brilliant! It makes absolute sense and I will immediately begin doing this! Paraphrasing, the “hero juice” can take anyone through the first act (I’m a playwright) but that is only a watered-down version of the real theme, which is why the hero had to act in the first place – because the villain has created the inciting incident. So keep the villain front and center from the beginning and the hero falls into place. BRILLIANT and THANK YOU!
Steven,’s use of Donald Sutherland’s photo here just hyped my day. Sutherland has been my favourite bad seed from the first time I saw him in Eye of The Needle. I never enjoyed the Hunger Games, but Sutherland kept me watching to the end.
Steven, this brilliant article galvanizes my belief in the choices I’ve made…
Been writing a spec for a while. After tripping on the directives of “Pros and established writers,” I determined my unique structure must follow my voice.
I’m crafting two specs of the same story, one of which starts with the Antagonist and his bastardly deeds. I reintroduce him thirty years later at the same time the audience meets the Protagonist.
This process delivers the backstory subtly.
I paused reading the article, took your tip by notating the Antagonist above every scene, after all audiences love to hate the bad guy.
Nice segway from the Trenches to the Field Manual. Very helpful. Thanks, Steve.
Wow, this idea is so perfect.
And just to offer some perspective on gender, villans can be villanesses. Bitches. Cruella. Nurse Ratched. Mommie Dearest. Miranda Priestly. Either gender or neither gender, I heartily support Steve’s advice—start there.
This was a really helpful post in the nick of time, thank you!