Writing Great Villains — 3 Archetypes of Villainy from Nolan, Fincher, and PT Anderson

How to write a villain — an exploration of 3 villain archetypes and how they are crafted in films by Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and PT Anderson.

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00:00 Intro — What Makes a Great Villain?
00:54 The Mirror Villain
04:05 The Looming Threat
08:50 The Villain Protagonist
15:46 Iconic Villains


Heroes are easy but knowing how to write a great villain takes special consideration. While some villains can just exist as pure evil, many villain archetypes require more dimension. This video essay is all about writing good villains but it is by no means comprehensive nor the only way to do so. Villain writing is a complex and nuanced topic — here, we’re just scratching the surface. So, let’s talk about how to write a bad guy using examples from Christopher Nolan & The Dark Knight, Andrew Kevin Walker & Se7en, and Paul Thomas Anderson & There Will Be Blood.

First up, “the Mirror Villain,” that dastardly antagonist who is almost a reflection of our hero. These types of villains exhibit similar traits, goals, or perspectives as the hero but often diverge on the necessary means. For our example, we look into how Jonathan and Christopher Nolan write a great villain like The Joker. Batman and The Joker are both outsiders, to the people of Gotham but even to their respective sides of the law. They share the same goal of how to shape life in Gotham but their methods couldn’t be more different.

Now, let’s look at Andrew Kevin Walker’s script for Se7en and the “Looming Threat Villain.” Sometimes, the threat posed to the protagonist(s) is basically absent from the story but that doesn’t make them any less effective or powerful. In Se7en, other than two brief glimpses, we don’t actually meet John Doe until the final act. And yet, we’ve seen what he is capable of and we know from eyewitness accounts that this is a psychopath of the highest order. Therein lies the key of how to write a villain like John Doe — keep them absent but make sure we know what we’re up against.

Finally, we have “The Villain Protagonist” who would be the antagonist in any other story. Think of Alex in A Clockwork Orange or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. For our example of how to write a villain protagonist, we look to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The key to writing villains like Daniel Plainview is to balance their villainy with a little bit of sympathy. We have to care just enough to be invested in this character’s plight…but they should also be evil enough to remind us that they are still the villain.

No matter which of the villain archetypes fit your story best, each has its own unique attributes that make them the perfect villain. As they say, a story’s only as good as its villain.

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"Outsider" - Alistair Sung
"Exit Strategy" - Alternate Endings
"Plains" - Alistair Sung
"Solving Puzzles" - Alistair Sung
"And I Thought My Jokes Were Bad" - The Dark Knight OST
"Agent of Chaos" - The Dark Knight OST
"Why So Serious" - The Dark Knight OST
"Heels" - Disasterpeace
"Closer (Precursor)" - Nine Inch Nails
"March to the Gallows" - Hill
"If This Anticipation Doesn't Kill Me, That Monster Will" - Hill
"The Wire" - Se7en OST
"The Garden" - Makeup and Vanity Set
"Future Markets" - Jonny Greenwood
"Proven Lands" - Jonny Greenwood
"Hope of New Fields" - Jonny Greenwood
"Henry Plainview" - Jonny Greenwood
"Open Spaces" - Jonny Greenwood
"Violin Concerto in D Major Op.77: 3. Vivace Non Tropp" - Johannes Brahms

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