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Show your villain is powerful without killing your hero: 4 options

Hero vs villain. Good vs evil. Protagonist vs antagonist. Friend vs foe.

How can we make our villains big and bad and dangerous without wiping out our main character in the first scene? That’d make for a rather short and unsatisfying story. Where’s the drama, the tension, the stakes?! It hardly gives us time to get invested in our hero’s triumph…

A writer-friend recently shared this video with me. I’ve never had writing advice like this summarised as succinctly as author Bryn Smith does in this TikTok video (embedded below). I’ve jotted down some notes after the video too.

Big baddies: 4 options

These four options and many of the examples are summarised from Bryn Smith’s excellent TikTok video above. It’s all great advice that I think is much more widely applicable than just a typical hero/villain story.

I can see myself incorporating it into my own writing, whether the ‘villain’ is the murderer or local busybody in a cosy mystery, the romantic antagonist or nosy neighbour in a romantic comedy, or something else entirely!

Option 1: keep calm

Show they’re calm in dangerous situations, suggests that they too are dangerous. Being blasé about violence says a lot about your villain.

  • Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope walks into a passageway full of corpses, briefly looks down at them, then carries on (scene clip).
  • The Joker in The Dark Knight is about to be shot by an accomplice during a bank robbery, then calmly steps aside so the robber gets taken out by the getaway bus crashing through the front of the bank (scene clip).

Option 2: brain power

A show of intellectual power and cunning can be just as effective at highlighting a villain’s power as physical strength, or perhaps even more so…

  • Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs psychologically profiles a serial killer he’s never met while simultaneously playing mind games with his interviewer, Clarice Starling (scene clip).
  • Raoul Silva in Skyfall, an intelligent and strategic Bond villain who creates meticulous plans but also has strong improvisational skills (scene clip).

Option 3: behind the scenes

Don’t show the villain at all. If your main character is causing trouble, but is only faced with henchmen for much of the story, this suggests the protagonist is merely a inconvenience to the villain.

Ignoring the hero is a major power move. The villain is much too busy with more important things, and will deal with the hero when the time is right.

  • Fire Lord Ozai in Avatar: The Last Airbender is only seen in flashbacks or silhouette for the first two seasons. It’s not until the third season that we see his face for the first time (video clip).

Alternatively, the villain could be an oppressive presence who harasses the protagonist without being seen for a long time, if at all. Though, I think this might be more common in horror stories?

  • The hunter in Bambi is never seen, despite his presence being referred to throughout the story (video clip).
  • The Xenomorph in Alien doesn’t make its first appearance until about an hour into the movie (video clip).

Option 4: kill everybody else

Have the villain kill everyone, except your hero. Doing this shows that the villain is a real threat. This approach is far from subtle, but it still leaves your protagonist alive to push the story along, possibly now with a burning desire for vengeance…

What other options and examples are there?

If you’re a writer, how do you do it? Any other options for showing off how bad your villain is without killing your hero? Or do Bryn Smith’s four options capture them all?

And we’re all consumers of stories, so can you think of any other examples that fit these four options? Or examples that fall outside these options?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Find me on social media or drop me a message here.

And if you’re keen to hear about other writerly advice I stumble upon, or keep up to date with my own writing, jump on my mailing list!

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