In this post and in the following ones I’ll try to give my personal opinion on what makes a story compelling. I’ll divide it into three parts because I think there are three factors that impact a story. In case you have read my previous article, I want to point out that the choice of number three has nothing to do with that.
But let’s cut the chase and get started: what is the first element influencing the success of a story? Something that captures the audience into the story world and leaves them craving for more?
I know it might sound counterintuitive, but for me it’s the villain. I can’t help but be fascinated by the big baddies and by the reasons why they get in the way of the protagonist. But I’m also demanding when it comes to villains (who am I trying to fool, I’m demanding when it comes to a lot of things, but there’s not enough space to discuss it all here) because I think that they’re the most important part in a story, or at least a close runner-up.
The reason for that is plain and simple: the most compelling stories are the ones where the stakes are high for the protagonist and there is something challenging in their way. Nobody wants to read/watch/play a story where nothing happens or nothing gets in the way of the protagonist.
Conflict is the fuel of fiction: someone wants something, but someone or something stands in the way. This someone/something in the way is usually the villain.
The stakes have to be high for us to get involved in the story, and this means that the villain must pose a real challenge. We all want to see them conspiring and coming up with the best clockwork-plan which at some point seems unbeatable. A villain who just throws an inconsistent set of single challenges is way less interesting than a villain who orchestrates a twisted master plan.
And here comes the million-dollar question: why does the villain behave like one? To me, it’s the most important question to answer when crafting a villain, because it’s what makes them relatable and believable.
Nothing breaks the feeling of the believability of a story like a super bad villain who gets in the way for no reason: the explanation “They’re bad because they are”, sounds like “Well, someone has to be the bad guy”. There must be something they long for, in the same way as the protagonist is driven by their own desire.
The best way I can find to explain it to use a Star Wars reference. I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge Star Wars fan. The real villain of the story is the Emperor, but when people think about the big bad guy they picture Darth Vader. I think there’s a reason for it (besides the fact that in the original trilogy he has a lot more screen time): the Emperor is plain evil, Darth Vader is conflicted. And he ended up making all the wrong decisions almost until the end.
Think again about the protagonist wanting something and “reverse” it: if you look at it from the perspective of the villain, they have their own desires, and the protagonist is the one preventing them from getting it. The difference between protagonist and villain, the one that makes us root for the “good guys”, is in what they want to do in order to get what they want.
This point of view about villains is pretty much standard, at least in recent years, and it can be found in the majority of masterclasses and books about storytelling. I want to take a step further and add a personal note on the matter. As much as I agree with viewing the villain as someone who wants something and is willing to do anything to get it, I’m beginning to feel a bit tired of how much they try to have us feel empathy for the villain. Like if they wanted us to believe the villains didn’t have a choice but to become what they are.
While this might be the case sometimes, it’s quickly becoming an overused trope, and I dare to take the movie Joker as a clear example (but it’s not the only movie that stirred such feelings in me): to me, that was too much justification. Anyone going through what Arthur Fleck went through would have snapped as he did, but they probably wouldn’t have waited so long. Again, maybe it’s just me being too picky, but I prefer a villain who needs a tad less input to become evil.
What I like to see is someone who actually has a choice, maybe because this is what really makes them villains: seeing two paths in front of themselves, and freely choosing the path to evil. I don’t want to empathize with the villain, I want to admire and despise them at the same time.
What about you? Do you agree that a well-crafted villain is crucial for a compelling story? What do you usually look for in a villain? Please let me know, I can’t wait to read your comments.