Tips To Create Striking Supervillain Introduction & Origin Stories
The purpose of a supervillain origin story is to help us understand how the supervillain got from there to here, and why here is where the supervillain will be staying for the indefinite future. A well-constructed origin story can make for a believable, multi-faceted supervillain - which in turn can make a for a supervillain who can evoke powerful emotions. Whatever these emotions are - be they disgust, hatred, fear, and maybe even somewhere a slight twinge of sympathy or self-recognition - they'll get the audience all the more invested in the conflict and in what happens to the characters involved. What's more, your villains and their actions will be all the more memorable for it.
So with all that in mind, here are some tips to help you make great supervillain origins that will stick out in people's minds!
Table of Contents
- Make their origins/introductions fit the types of villains they're supposed to be.
- In their origins, let their first actions as supervillains make sense in light of who they were before.
- Give them each more than one driving factor behind their supervillainy.
- If their origin stories don't start them off with the attitudes and skills that will define them as supervillains later on, make sure they are shown developing them.
- Like superheroes, supervillains should also have realistic reactions to new powers.
- Think carefully before using these origin story elements.
- So, in summary...
Make their origins/introductions fit the types of villains they're supposed to be.
Villains are designed with all kinds of purposes in mind. Some are designed to terrify us. Some are designed to make us feel uncomfortable. Some are designed to represent a specific form of hate or malice in the world. Some are created to remind us of some asshole we've probably all dealt with at some point. Some are meant to be seen as sympathetic to some degree. Some are intended to be seen as irredeemable monsters. And some are even designed to be laughed at.
Ask yourself: How do you want your audience to perceive your supervillains? And how do you want your audience to perceive the conflicts your supervillains create? Because your supervillains' origin/introduction stories will do a lot to color those perceptions.
If you show that your supervillain was initially forced, coerced, or deceived into villainy, or only got into it as a desperate/last ditch resort, then people might have a hard time believing that this character really is an irredeemable monster later on. The problem will be compounded if nobody ever tries to give the character a second chance, nor offers that character a feasible out from a life of villainy.
If people see your character resort to supervillainy over some matter of personal disappointment, or over being treated slightly rudely at some point, or over a minor setback, or basically over any issue that almost everyone faces at some point, your villain is likely to be perceived as petty or immature - which will make your villain look at least a little pathetic. Of course, petty/immature villains do have their place - which is where you don't mind audiences cringing, laughing, or tutting at them. (This isn't to say that petty/immature villains can't be credible threats - but no matter how dangerous they are, a tantrum is still a tantrum!)
And if your supervillain is supposed to be a competent, charismatic leader, yet is shown acting like the last person anyone would want to actually follow all throughout the story, your character's credibility is going to be damaged. (And not just that, but it'll break people's suspension of disbelief, which will in turn break their immersion.)
So put some thought into how you want people to perceive your villains, and write accordingly.
In their origins, let their first actions as supervillains make sense in light of who they were before.
Far too many supervillain stories have a major hole in them: what they start doing as supervillains doesn't actually make a lot of sense given what we know about their personalities, beliefs, goals, skills, knowledge, etc. Here are a few examples of what this can look like:
Example 1: The supervillain is presented as a cunning and shrewd corporate executive. But suddenly, this supervillain decides to murder a competitor in a way that would be impossible to deny or cover up after the fact. One would expect a character like this to put some thought into planning a murder that wouldn't be an almost certain ticket to prison. (Also, anyone high up on the corporate ladder should well understand the concept of a risk/reward analysis!)
Example 2: The supervillain is first established as a compassionate person who is greatly distressed by needless suffering and death in the world. But when this character ultimately decides to take violent superpowered vengeance against a perceived rival, there is no concern shown for other people who would be (and end up being) hurt or killed as collateral. It just doesn't make sense when a character suddenly takes action that conflicts so strongly with established core values and personality traits.
Example 3: The supervillain starts out as a faculty member at an elite academy. This character strongly believes in the ideals that the academy teaches and in the value of the work that graduates go on to do. Upon finding out that the head of the school doesn't always live up to the standards that the school espouses, the character goes around murdering the students. The problem here is that this course of action isn't even remotely aimed at what the character perceives to be the problem, and instead targets something that the character has no discernible reason to go after. (Why not instead try to depose the head of the school and instate someone perceived as less of a hypocrite?)
So while you're planning out your supervillains, ask yourself: Does it really make sense to want to do X because of Y? Does it actually make sense for that kind of event to lead to this kind of reasoning? Or is there a course of action that would make a lot more sense based on what kind of people they are? If you have to, put yourself in their shoes and pretend that they are your protagonists for awhile.
If you find that something doesn't add up somewhere, there are three possible solutions. The first is to start your characters out as very different people from the get-go. The second is to make them carry their actions out in ways more fitting for the people they're established to be. The third is to give them believable development arcs, where multiple events and realizations over time gradually cause their views and values to shift and/or push them farther and farther into a state of desperation or disgust that makes such actions seem justifiable.
Give them each more than one driving factor behind their supervillainy.
Few people (if anyone) actually take on any major undertaking for one reason and one reason alone. Plus, characters who have only one driving force usually end up being two-dimensional. So whatever your villains are doing and trying to accomplish, try to give each of them more than one reason behind it. (These reasons don't all need to be good, rational, or sympathetic.)
For example, let's say your character becomes an ideological fanatic who believes that those who don't believe in the same ideals deserve to die and essentially becomes the leader of an inquisition against perceived heretics. What we want to do here is to think out a few reasons why. For example, "my supervillain honestly believes the other guys are standing in the way of a far better world," "my supervillain feels personally victimized and that it's high time the other guys get the retribution they deserve," "my villain really gets a thrill out commanding authority," and "my villain really enjoys the luxuries and comfort that come with the position" are all solid enough and fit together nicely.
You don't necessarily need to have your character outright state these reasons in the origin or introduction story itself, but if you write with it in mind - taking effort to show your character acting in accordance with these reasons - you'll end up depicting a multifaceted character.
For more on what might potentially drive your character, check out Core Drives: What They Are, And Why Your Characters Need Them.
If their origin stories don't start them off with the attitudes and skills that will define them as supervillains later on, make sure they are shown developing them.
If their origin stories don't start them out with all of the defining traits they're supposed to have as supervillains, then you need to make sure the stories show how they develop them.
For example, if your supervillain is supposed to eventually become a leader, then we need to see your character develop into actual leader material. If there's someone your villain is supposed to hate with wild abandon, then we need to see that hatred grow and develop. If your villain is supposed to come to believe in some warped ideology, then we need to see how and why your villain adopts it.
An origin story that neglects to deliver these goods runs the risk of making the audience feel cheated out of the stuff they really wanted to see (which can also ruin the entire thing for them!). It can also make it hard for them to believe that the villain's later attitudes and behavior are actually for real, as seemingly incongruent behavior often means that a character has been put under mind control, or is carrying out a ruse, or similar.
In other words, it fails to do the job of an origin story.
Like superheroes, supervillains should also have realistic reactions to new powers.
For a supervillain to have no other reaction to suddenly getting new powers beyond "Muahahaha, I can defeat my enemies now!" just rings false. Certainly there would be would be other reactions. As detailed in Tips To Create Sensational Superhero Introduction & Origin Stories, some emotional reactions that one might feel over getting new powers include wonder, awe, curiosity, excitement, and fear. Depending on the attitude and personality of who you're writing, a character might feel any or all of these at different times and in different amounts.
While your supervillains might not fear for other people's safety as your superheroes might, some of them might at least worry for their own safety, especially if these powers might attract the wrong kind of attention or if there seems to a possibility that they might lose themselves to their powers.
It would also be odd that a researcher driven by scientific curiosity wouldn't be curious and want to learn more about these powers - find out what makes them work, what their limitations are, and what sort of external factors might affect their function, for example. Someone who wants attention might try to show off with them. The particularly sadistic might start finding ways to torment random people with them.
So think about the reactions that your villains would probably have realistically, and let them play into their origin stories.
Think carefully before using these origin story elements.
The following elements should be given careful consideration before using, whether because they just don't make very interesting or satisfying origin stories, or because they don't really make a lot of sense. If you are going to use them, make sure that you have really good reasons and/or that they actually make sense in context.
Molded to be twisted and evil: Where someone is deliberately trained or groomed to be a supervillain. The lack of dramatic choices involved here make for a pretty boring origin story, which tends to make for a pretty boring character.
Sudden supervillainy over a single traumatic incident: Where a single tragic loss, shocking revelation, etc. is enough to immediately make a character who has shown no particularly harmful or malicious inclinations before turning into a full-blown supervillain. This tends to make a backstory feel contrived and/or comes off as a lazy and ineffective way to humanize the character. (If you want to use a traumatic incident, it works better when it clearly serves to blow the stopper on something that's been building up all along, or as something that starts the character off on a slow downward spiral.)
Phlebotinum-induced permanent personality shift. Where a supervillain is created when exposure to a phlebotinum (EG, a serum, space rays, etc.) causes a radical personality shift. It's just not that compelling or interesting. Possible alternatives include having your character develop organically into a villain, or making your character someone who was rotten all along and was only held back only by the fact that any evil shenanigans up to this point would have resulted in a swift and sure smackdown.
Random trivial events creating defining traits: For example, let's say a supervillain has a prominent scar that's raised all kinds of questions up until now... and then, we find out that the scar came from a random kitchen accident and has no bearing on anything else. Talk about underwhelming! Optimally, that scar would be revealed to have come about in a way that's actually relevant to the character's personal development arc.
The result of mind-boggling ineptitude: For example, a lab project escapes and wreaks havoc on the world because everyone forgot to use the most basic of security/containment measures. Or someone grants godlike powers to an uncooperative jackass prone to fits of violence. Or an organization creates a "perfect" defender/protector/soldier/etc. with no real way to protect themselves or get it back under control if it goes rogue.
So, in summary...
- Make sure their origins make for the right audience perceptions. It doesn't work to have a villain who is intended to be perceived as patient, cunning, and controlled acting like a whiny, petty, entitled brat!
- Make sure their actions as supervillains make sense in light of who they were before. For example, someone who was disgusted by the idea of killing people before shouldn't suddenly be willing to murder people by the dozen. Someone smart enough to figure out how to commit murder without ever being found out shouldn't suddenly be trying to kill someone in a way that's impossible to hide.
- Give your supervillains more than one driving factor/reason behind what they're doing. It creates believable complexity.
- If they don't start out with defining attitudes or skills in their origin stories, make sure they develop them along the way.
- Make sure they have realistic reactions if they get new powers, per their attitudes and personalities.
- Think carefully before having characters twisted/molded to be evil, or a character turning evil over a single traumatic incident, or a character getting a sudden personality change through some phlebotinum, or acquiring some defining traits through random/trivial circumstances, or having your character's origins involve somebody's mind-boggling ineptitude - these elements tend to make relatively boring and/or implausible origins.
And these pages might be relevant to you:
Building Better Backstories - Tips & Ideas
Basic Tips To Create Better Characters With Tragic & Traumatic Backstories
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains
MORE Tips To Improve Your Villains
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
Villain Tips: Of Conquest, Minions, Progress, & Planning
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses
Things About Skills, Talents, & Knowledge Writers Need To Know
Tips & Ideas To Make Better & More Interesting Powers
How You Got Your Superpowers
Random Superpower Generator
Magical & Weird Science Effects Generator
Yet Another Superpower Generation Tool
Tips To Create Better-Looking Superhero & Supervillain Costumes