Villain Tropes: What to Avoid in Your Screenplay

October 13, 2021
Screenwriting
Credit: Orion Pictures

The Villain spares a Hero needlessly when the opportunity presents itself. The Villain mouths his plan to the character for no reason causing the Hero to turn the tide. The Villain obsesses over the Hero and throws caution to the wind. In all cases, this is what causes the end of that villain.


Do any of these look familiar?


A lot of writers have become too seduced with clichéd ideas that they got from their favorite movies that they do not realize when their villains are thrown into familiar yet well-worn tropes.  These tropes cause audiences to roll their eyeballs and cause the story to look really silly and predictable.


No one wants a silly script so let us deal with some of the common villain tropes out there. However, before we get into that.

What Is A Trope? 

A Trope is a thematic storytelling device that alludes to something beyond the conventional meaning that a character, object, or location presents. Basically, tropes try to pass across a figurative meaning to an audience.


Now, tropes often get bad press but the truth is not all tropes are bad.


When it comes to Villainy, there are more than enough tropes to go around. We are familiar with the climactic duel between the villain and the hero. How many times have we had the most iconic monologues come from a villain's final speech?


These are tropes we love, some of which we even look forward to. However, tropes become bad when they become clichés, when they make the villain look incompetent or plain stupid and when they are used shamelessly to push the plot forward.


Let's consider some of the villain tropes you should avoid when writing your screenplay.

1.  When The Villain Lets the Hero Live

You might have seen this before. The writer obeys the rules. The Villain is positioned in such a way that they are stronger than the hero. The Hero will have to struggle before they can even pose a threat to the Villain.


Then suddenly, it happens. The audience could see it coming from a mile away. The weak Hero and the obviously stronger Villain meet. Instead of finishing the job as any self-respecting villain would, they spare their lives and let them go.


Oftentimes, there are a wealth of reasons the writer provides for this travesty. It could be a false sense of pride or it could be because the Villain thinks death is too good for the weakling hero. They theorize that rather than killing this hero, they would let them live in suffering.


Well, what does the audience think of this? A load of crap.


When the opportunity presents itself and the Villain refuses to pull the trigger for no tangible reason, it makes that villain look negligent and makes the writer seem lazy.


ANGEL TV SERIES (1999 - 2004)

Credit: The WB

The TV series Angel is a perfect example of this crime against villains. The show centers around the titular character Angel who is a Vampire with a cursed soul who helps people with supernatural problems in order to gain his own humanity.


Now, while the show had a big bad villain in the evil character Angelus, the true villain was not a supernatural individual. It was a supernatural (demonic) law firm named Wolfram and Hart who did the exact opposite thing that Angel was doing. They were helping evil and demonic clients.


So far so good, right? Right!


Well, this is where things begin to get suspiciously convenient. Angel, our hero, decides to actively disrupt Wolfram and Hart's plans. He murders their clients, sabotages their assets, and ultimately destroys their plans in every episode. Needless to say, he becomes one dangerous pest.


Realistically, a company of Wolfram and Hart's caliber should have no problems eliminating someone like Angel. They are aware of his location and have more than enough powerful foot soldiers that could do their bidding on a whim. There are moments when Angel even makes it ridiculously easy for them but what does this Law firm do? 


Yes, you guessed it. Absolutely nothing.


Maybe it worked for the first few episodes and confrontations but after a while, people became aware of the plot armor on the character. This diluted the stakes and watered down any tension that consequent confrontations could have provided.


Why? Well, we all know that nothing will ever happen to Angel.


The Flip Side


Now, I admit that if the Villain killed the hero from the first moment they met, most screenplays would end in the first act.


So, the question becomes; how do you justify a villain sparing a hero?


A quick answer presents itself; "oh, maybe the villain needs the hero alive for something very important"


That is not enough. Let's go back to the Angel Tv Show. The demonic corporation, Wolfram and Hart claimed that the reason they needed Angel alive was so they could bring about an apocalypse. While that seems like a solid reason in writing, when you consider just how much havoc he was causing in every episode, this reason falls through the floor.


Why couldn't they just lock him up in a cell till they could use him for the apocalypse? This kind of question reveals a plothole the size of Alaska in the story. That reason does not justify sparing Angel. 


So how can you make a Trope like this work? Let's take a note from the popular series; Teen Wolf.

TEEN WOLF TV SERIES (2011 - 2017)

Credit: MTV

The show centers around a normal high school student, Scott McCall, who finds his life turned upside down when he turns into a werewolf.


In the first season of the show, we see this Villain trope explored properly. The villain of the season is an Alpha Werewolf named Peter Hale. He was the one who bit and turned Scott into a werewolf.


Now, we have a clear Protagonist and an Antagonist. The basics are obeyed. Scott is a young and inexperienced werewolf; a weak Hero. Peter on the other hand is a strong and experienced leader of his werewolf pack; a powerful antagonist.


Every time there is a face-off between Scott and Peter, Peter spares him. The reason Peter wants Scott alive is so that Scott can join his pack. However, the stakes are heightened further by a time-bound proposal; Scott has to make up his mind before the next full moon or else he would be killed.


This makes an abundance of sense because now, it feels like a countdown. Every face-off between protagonist and antagonist feels more intense than the last as time runs out.


While you employ this trope, you need to be very careful. Don't make your Hero completely powerless. Give them a fighting chance. Foreshadow it from the very beginning so that after the Villain has delayed the Hero's execution and the Hero eventually succeeds, it will feel earned. The way Teen Wolf does this is through collaboration. The Hero teams up with allies that eventually defeat the Villain.

2. When the Villain Obsesses over the Hero

A toast to the countless jobless villains out there that have nothing better to do than to fixate on a Hero to the point that they lose guard and meet their downfall. We have seen it happen too many times, may we never see it again.


On a more serious note, how do Villains who often have plans of world domination or something equally as devastating bother themselves over one individual? Too often, we see them place so much importance on the heroes that it becomes nauseating to the audience and detrimental to the plans of the Villains themselves. The villain becomes more of a fan than an antagonist. When this happens, a lot of the story begins to get distorted resulting in a bad screenplay and a bad movie.

GLASS (Movie: 2019)

Credit: Universal

This movie centers around three characters; David Dunn, a man with unbreakable bones, Elijah Price, a man with brittle bones but Genius IQ, and, Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with 24 personalities including a superhuman figure named the beast.


While this dynamic trio has enough 'beef' between them to engage us in a captivating and entertaining story. It is their rivalry with the mysterious organization called the Black Clover Society that the Director M. Night Shaylaman decides to use. Spoiler Alert; It fails terribly.


These three characters are thrown into a series of story gymnastics by the organization that doesn't make any sense from the beginning up to its final moments. First of all, there is no reason why the Black Clover society couldn't have killed them from the start. 


Instead, they send a therapist of some sort, Dr. Ellie Staple, to convince them that they are not Superheroes. She reveals that she is part of an organization that specializes in subduing superheroes. When her plans don't work, she resorts to killing them. The question on the table is why did she have to go through all that trouble when she could have ended this in the first 20 minutes of the film?


The amount of effort the Black Clover Society put into trying to convince the Super three that they aren't super seems like the fruits of an obsession that wasn't thought through. In the end, the movie creates more plot holes than it can fill.

The Flip Side

An obsessed Villain is not a bad thing. To make it work, there has to be a strong drive borne out of a deep-seated obsession within the character. It could be that the Villain has a vendetta against the superhero that he or she wants to avenge. Maybe Villain thinks the hero killed their family or something. There are many ways to make this work as long as you align the goals of the Villain with their obsession.

IRON MAN 3 (Movie: 2013)

Iron Man 3 starts with the man behind the mask, Tony Stark. He is a Vigilante-billionaire whose world is torn into pieces by a terrorist organization called the Mandarin. When he sets out for revenge, he finds that he was the architect of his own misfortune.


The villain of this film is Aldrich Killian, a genius scientist who starts out as a disabled kind-hearted man who just wants a chance at something big. When Tony Stark promises to give him that chance and instructs him to wait for him on a rooftop, he does just that. However, Tony Stark never meets him on the roof and he waits there feeling humiliated.


After that day, Aldrich is filled with nothing but spite and venom for Stark. So he obsesses over the billionaire. He heals himself with a virus he created. He turns himself into a Super-powered being and builds a billion-dollar empire around himself all in a bid to have his revenge on Iron Man.


Aldrich is a perfect example of a villain whose obsession and goals are aligned. In his bid to revenge Iron Man, he becomes a mirrored duplicate of him with enough resources to almost completely destroy the life of the billionaire.

3. When the Villain Explains Their Plans to the Hero

If I had a dollar for every time a villain would find the time to explain their plans to a hero they were about to kill, I might just be on a Forbes List.


This trope became a cliché during the whole Spy-Bond Era. The silliness of it is never lost on us and yet, a lot of writers still engage in it. If you want to see this in action, watch almost any movie from the Bond series or almost any  Doctor Who episode. 


It's not that Villains aren't allowed to be themselves if their personality borders on being chatty. The problem is the timing and how much they chose to reveal. If a villain finds it convenient to announce his plans from the jump, the element of surprise could be lost for both the Villain and the Hero. If the villain also decides to say every part of their plan, the movie could end before it even begins.

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (Movie: 1967)

Credit: MGM

In this Connery-led Bond Classic, James Bond discovers that SPECTRE, a shadowy terrorist organization, is trying to pit America against Russia by using an American Space capsule to swallow a Russian space ship all in a bid to cause a full-scale war.


While this plan is as silly as it is conniving, it doesn't help that it is the main villain, Ernst Starvo Blofeld, that spills all of the beans to a Bond that he has captured and should rightfully kill. A lot of things happen in the movie that would make the most unhinged filmmaker blush but it is the time Blofeld takes to explain and interrogate Bond that ultimately leads to his defeat.

THE FLIP SIDE

There is a way to justify your chatty Villain's tendency for spilling Top secret plans. First, the villain needs to feel safe. I can't think of a scenario where it makes any sense for a villain to expose their plans to a hero. Instead, let the tea be spilled to someone who the Villain trusts. A person that could be betraying the Villain or whom the Hero might coerce the plan from later.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (Movie: 2012)

Credit: Warner Bros

In the final installment of Christopher Nolan's iconic Batman Trilogy, Bane is the central antagonist of the film and the one Bruce Wayne has to contend with. He has plans of destroying all of Gotham and he reveals it when he is confident that Batman is not a threat to his plans. Bane breaks the Bat and leaves him paralyzed in a pit cell where Batman has to heal and climb out of before he can have a chance to stop him. From the viewers' perspective, the stakes are incredibly high and the knowledge of Bane's plan is as good as useless to our hero.


Bane might have been loud, he might have been a charismatic talkative but he was also a smart villain who understood the place of timing. Batman has to heal physically and mentally before he can save his city. This is one of the most perfect examples of a Villain revealing his plans to a hero that he rightfully does not consider a threat.


Villain Tropes Summary  

Villain Tropes are not inherently bad and you shouldn't be afraid of them as a writer. While they present a challenge, it is one that you should invite. Taking something familiar and using it in such a way that it feels refreshing and justified is the kind of problem-solving that is prevalent across Filmmaking.


The major takeaway from everything we have treated in this article is ensuring that your villain's goals align with their 'flaws'. Do not plant convenient tropes that would aid a hero's struggle against their antagonist. That is cheating. Instead, foreshadow, justify and take a logical approach. 


Your audience will thank you and your script will be better for it.