The Supervillain: How to Build a Formidable Foe

“I’ve got you now! Mwahahaha!” *five minutes later* “Mwaha-ha-ha. Do you like my laugh?” asked the supervillain.

If you haven’t guessed already, we’re talking about supervillains today. They are a proud and noble race that battle it out against our superheroes.

Without them causing trouble, we wouldn’t have a story for our heroes and anti-heroes. Because of their direct relationship with our daring heroes, we need to make sure that we spend some time crafting them in our character development process.

And because we don’t spend a lot of time on them, they’re not the round and dynamic characters that your readers demand from you. So we need to define them and figure out which archetype they fall under before we tackle their creation.

Let’s start by defining who these villains are.

What is a Supervillain?

Here’s our definition:

Supervillain: a fictional villain with superhuman powers.

The supervillain is essentially a regular villain but with superpowers or an incredibly deep evil streak. We mostly find these guys hiding between the covers of a comic book.

And they come in different shades of villainy.

The Common 6 Supervillain Archetypes

Supervillains come in all shapes and sizes. They can be seemingly insignificant at first glance, letting their evil show through in small batches, or they burst in on the scene, pronouncing their evilness immediately.

Regardless of what type of villain they are, they will have a path they follow to completion. I found an excellent article by Hunter’s Writings that takes you through 28 types of villains and supervillains you can use in your story.

However, there are six common archetypes used by writers. These are those six supervillain archetypes:

6 Common Supervillain Archetypes Infographic

The Femme Fatale

She’s got the looks, the body, and the brains all in one lethal package. Best of all, she knows how to use all three to get what she wants. However, she may fall in love with the hero, even as she plays him or her like a fiddle. She also has the potential to turn into the protagonist at the end of the story.

(She’s also a bit of a cliche, but we’ll get to that below.)

Catwoman is an excellent example of the femme fatale. She’s a thief that has managed to wrap Batman around her clawed fingers. She gets away with her stealing and sinister plots because she plays with Batman’s affections.

You can also find the femme fatale in every Bond film.

The Corrupted

They were fighting on the side of good and seduced to the dark side. Your villain has found out the truth and is disillusioned to the ways of the world. It makes them angry, and they buck the rules as a form of revenge.

In the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man series, we see Harry Osborne believes that Spider-Man has killed his father, making him hate the beloved superhero. As a result, Harry vows revenge on Spider-Man as the Green Goblin.

The Henchman

They work for the big baddie or the mastermind villain. Their sole purpose is to carry out their boss’s plan to take over the world. The henchman is usually a lot more interesting than the big because they’re more ruthless than their boss.

An excellent example of this would be in the movie Kingsmen: The Secret Service. Gazelle does all of her boss’s dirty work in a way that makes the audience cringe. She is more bad-ass than the villain.

Another example would be Shego from Kim Possible. She’s Dr. Drakken’s henchwoman and is responsible for his losses and successes. She’s also the ones with the skills necessary to battle it out with Kim.

The Machine

Your supervillain doesn’t have to human. Enter The Machine.

The Machine is a terrifying villain because they are lifeless. They have no emotion, and they can’t feel pain or fear. They are cold and calculating.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ultron is the perfect machine villain. He doesn’t feel anything, he’s cold and calculating, and he has no emotion, making it hard for the Avengers to reason with him.

The Personification of Evil

The Personification of Evil is just that — pure evil. The character has little to no backstory. Their motives are nothing more than performing evil doings, without caring about the people they hurt or kill. They need to get your hero out of the way to achieve world domination.

Examples include Darth Vader, Cruella De Vil, and The Joker.

Supernatural or Extraterrestrial

They’re faceless, nameless, and unknown to our human world. They can get at us from multiple places, and fighting them can be difficult because they have abilities or technology that we do not.

Examples include Aliens and Independence Day.

The Female Supervillain

As with superheroes, female supervillains aren’t given a lot of screen time or are allowed to drive the story’s plot. They’re usually a henchman for some male villain or use their sexuality to destroy the hero. Or we’re told they are evil because a man broke her heart.

And I think we can all agree that these character tropes are overdone, and we need to come up with something new. I know we can create these wonderfully complicated female superheroes and supervillains without reverting to men or their sexuality. I’m not saying you can’t use these things, but don’t make it the driving force behind your female characters.

Here are some resources for you to look through on female supervillains:

Things to Keep in Mind While Creating a Villainess

In general, female villains don’t get a lot of attention, but things are hopefully going to change. So what do we as creators need to know about writing rounddynamic villainesses? Let’s start with these tips and go from there:

She’s got more than sexuality in her arsenal.

We get it. Women are sexy, but they’re also smart and manipulative. We can be scrappy fighters when needed. Unlike some of our male counterparts, we can be unassuming and covert – no one would expect the small, quiet woman to be the villain.

*Spoiler Alert*

If you plan on reading Stephanie Laurens’ The Black Cobra series, you may want to skip this part.

In the Black Cobra series’s last book, we find out the mastermind behind the villainous organization looking to overthrow the English empire is a woman, not a man.

Right before the heroes of the story are supposed to capture the villain, she meets with the female protagonist. None of the men think anything of it because it’s a woman – she’s unassuming and not capable of such evils. However, new information tells them otherwise.

Our Black Cobra, in this case, does not use her feminine wiles to seduce the men into giving her information. She is also wise enough to use men to do her bidding in the previous books to hide her identity.

She can fight.

We’re writing fiction and character that have superpowers. So why is she excluded from the fight? It could be because you don’t want to trigger domestic abuse flashbacks, a valid concern. Or she could lack the training to fight.

So give her that training. You can do this by getting her to go to self-defense classes or have her learn from a martial arts master. Heck, there are many women boxers and fighters out there that you can model her after.

And get to know female bodies. Women have different fighting styles that work better for them. Use a fighting style that lets her tap into her core and small stature. It makes things exciting for readers, especially when she bests our male hero.

Hattie isn’t a supervillain, but the fight scene is fantastic and shows that a girl can hold her own in a fight with the right type of training.

She can be evil because she wants to be.

She doesn’t need a reason to be evil. Her reason could be she enjoys it. Being evil isn’t an inherently male thing.

A great example of this is Maleficent from the original Sleeping Beauty. Is she ticked that she didn’t get invited to Aurora’s christening? Yes. Does she need to curse the child and hunt her down for years afterward? No. She’s doing this because she wants to. It makes her feel good to be bad.

Romance is dead.

With rare exceptions, women don’t go killer crazy when men break up with them. We don’t hatch plans to take over and rule the world either. So why is it okay for female supervillains to do this?

In short, it’s not. In Harley Quinn’s case, The Joker did a number on her mentally and is abusive. So it’s understandable for her to want to cause harm to others.

The story’s moral is to give her an excellent reason to go crazy after a break-up. If you can’t come up with that good reason, leave the romance angle out. It’s not flattering for anyone.

How to Write a Blood-Curdling Supervillain

So how do we write a horrifying supervillain? No matter what you do, you need to ensure they have a killer origin story. And don’t forget to pick a superpower that rivals the one your superhero gets.

The Origin Story

Origin stories are essential for superheroes and supervillains alike. They show us how our character went from being an ordinary person to where they are now. I touched on this in my post on superhero origin stories, but I’ll go over the highlights with you here.

The 10 Types of Origin Stories

There are 10 origin story types that writers tend to follow. Often, our hero and villain get their powers and motivation in the same event. I won’t go into each type of origin story in detail, but I’ll leave you with this infographic to sum everything up:

10 Supervillain Origin Stories Infographic

The Blueprint for Your Horrifying Supervillain

Supervillains have characteristics that make them worse than your average villain or antagonist. As Tor puts it, our supervillain has a distinct style of dress, mannerisms, and is fed by their ambition. They belong to no one and are always looking to increase their power and further their goals.

But else do we need to create a supervillain so powerful and formidable that our superhero cowers in fear? Here are some tips on how to do that:

Motive + Goal = Happy Reader

Your supervillain’s motive and goal are closely linked. The goal is something that your character wants (i.e., money, a throne, etc.), and the reason is why they want to achieve that goal (i.e., he wants to be rich, etc.).

And without motives and goals, we have no conflict. We want that conflict, and we want to pit our superhero up against our villain as much as we can.

They choose evil and are active agents.

No matter what happens to your supervillain, they need to choose a path of darkness. They must do evil acts while pursuing their goals. Without those acts, they’re a regular villain or antagonist.

And it’s not just evil acts for someone else. They are committing these atrocities because they’re furthering their own goals.

Let’s say they want to be the ruler of everything. They can do it the good way, which would be by marrying or manipulating their way to the top without causing too much harm to those around them.

Or they can cut down anyone who opposes them and with no thought to the lives of the innocent. And that’s scary. Why would anyone willingly choose to do that?

black and red star wars helmet

Your supervillain needs to be a credible threat.

Your superhero needs to take your villain seriously before your readers will. And if your supervillain is a bubbling mess that spends more time in jail than out, you’ve got a credibility problem.

So you need to craft a villain that is almost guaranteed to win, despite your hero flying in to save the day. Without that guaranteed win for the villain, you have no tension, and that might not keep your readers around for the big finale.

The trick is to give the supervillain a confirmed win and have your villain destroy your hero somehow. It could be legal, emotional, spiritual, etc. Your villain doesn’t have to kill the hero, but thy should decimate them in some way.

You need targeted drama.

Your supervillain may not know it, but their actions have a direct impact on the superhero’s life in some way, shape, or form. Without their impact on our hero’s life, there’s no story.

So make sure your supervillain’s goals clash with your superhero’s goals. And not just once, but multiple times. That way, they’ll continually be at each other’s throats as they fight to gain the upper hand.

Your supervillain needs to be unstoppable.

The best villains are the ones who never let themselves be caught. Instead, they hover over the hero’s world. They ensure that there will always be another battle between good and evil. Make sure your hero and readers are waiting for the next time the villain strikes.

Here are some ways to make sure your supervillain remains a force to be reckoned with:

  • Let your supervillain win. If the villain always loses, it gets boring for readers and your hero. So make your hero struggle for that eventual win.
  • Always have an escape route. It could be a hidden passageway, a trap door, a brilliant disguise, etc. Whatever it is, make sure your supervillain has a contingency plan for when things go south.
  • They cheat death.  I’m not too fond of this one, but it’s a great tactic on the villains part. Just make sure it’s not plot armor. So the idea with this one is that we think the hero has finally put an end to the supervillain, only to find out that’s not the case. It can be as simple as a “missing body” or more complicated, like body doubles or dealing with an immortal.
  • Kill them. Most supervillains would rather die than go to prison. Choosing never to be taken alive reeks of fanaticism and desperation, and it can make the villain even more frightening.

It’s all about the looks.

Supervillains don’t act or look like the rest of us. They have their own aesthetic. Most villains like to sport bald heads, scars, and other deformities if you look at most villains. It makes them stand out. They even dress differently. Some of your supervillains will wear black and full-face masks, instead of their mask-less or eye masks.

An evil laugh.

Don’t forget the chilling evil laugh. It’s a villain prerequisite.

The best supervillains shoot fear straight into our hearts because they represent what we can become if we go down the wrong path. They are the manifestation of how badly we want our deepest, darkest desires.

But they also possess qualities that we should take to heart. They’re self-assured and not afraid of going after what they want. And when we temper these things with the light of a superhero, we get someone we can look to for guidance and inspiration.

Like most binaries, you can’t have a supervillain without a superhero, and you can’t have good without evil. So take the time to develop your story’s evil character as much as you do the good. Your readers will thank you.

Who’s your favorite supervillain?

Stay safe, everyone.

Until next time.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


12 Responses

      1. The villain is needed to make the hero. What if you had a whole planet full of superpowered individuals, and not one of them was evil. They could not call themselves heroes.

      2. No they couldn’t. In this scenario, they would follow a regular hero type characterization.

        But even though no one on this planet is evil. It doesn’t matter. They could be fighting a different planet that is filled with evil superheroes.

  1. I do feel like something is off when we’re talking about the history or origin of a supervillain. It seems like the writers, in a sense, are trying to justify the evil acts.
    The reason for an evil act does not justify evil. So why get bogged down in the villain’s reasons for committing his/her evil?
    That’s why I love 1980s Megatron from the original Transformers animated series.
    He was powerful and ruthless. He didn’t need to go blaming his chosen actions on some “trauma from his past “, or something. He wanted conquest. And by raw power, fear, and diabolical intelligence, he was going to get it.
    Enter 1980s Optimus Prime. He transformed into an 18 wheeler. His helmet design looked like a construction worker’s hard hat and welding mask. He looked like a real working man’s hero, humble and dedicated to his principles.
    He made his principles greater than himself, while Megatron wanted everything in the universe to serve him.
    This was the conflict that mattered (not internal turmoil), and it made for many years of great, action-packed sci-fi toons.

    1. I don’t think it’s a writer thing per say. But as human beings we need to rationalize why someone can commit such heinous acts.

      And I think with the emergence of the whole Professor X vs. Magneto storyline, it adds another way for authors to explore complex themes.

      Because I agree. Sometimes we don’t need to know about why a supervillain is evil. Other times, it’s a good thing.

      1. You’re right. As human beings, we do want to see reasons for things, in the hope that with that understanding, we can unravel or undo evil.
        The original x-men live movie captured Magneto’s past wonderfully, and set up character development that would build the story.
        So I wonder if the story of the movie was humankind’s fear of mutants, or Magneto’s stance against having such widespread persecution and death repeat itself?
        The Xmen had to face both.

      2. I think it’s a mixture of both. There’s the desire to not let something like genocide or persecution of a group again. However, there are those who wish to maintain a status quo that benefits one group over another.

        We also seek to destroy what we cannot understand or see as a threat. Mutants are a threat to the great human race. They could easily wipe us out. And the human response to that threat (in some cases) is to wipe then out. Instead of seeking to understand them or work with them to find a peaceful balance.

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