Screenwriting Tips - Developing a Negative Character

Negative characters are the omnipresent pinnacle of a screenplay and most importantly, the conflicts of the screenplay are where they shine the most. 

They may lose to superheroes or be killed by the morally pure main character, but the main character would not be considered a hero or the main character if there weren’t any obstacles to overcome or murders to be solved.

A film is made from a plethora of components handled by people skilled in their respective fields, and screenwriting is one of the most important bases of foundation to create a film or even an idea of a film. 

Even though screenwriting seems like a baneful profession, it is surprisingly simplistic and includes formal rules which you can learn.

Out of the numerous screenwriting software available today you’ll need to pick the one that suits your working style and aesthetic.

An idea is a seed, which is watered by writing a script, finally resulting in a beautiful plant of a strongly structured screenplay. And a strong screenplay is written about conflicts. 

Conflicts are the reason for a screenplay being made in the first place. And there is no other way of creating a conflict than to introduce a negative character in your story. 

In this article, I provide the most important seven tips from the locked secrets of screenwriting to help create your negative character without it being nondescript, brazen, and austere. 

But before we get into the depth of making a villain, we must know that there is a huge misunderstanding between an anti-hero and a villain.

NEGATIVE CHARACTERS: ANTI-HERO V/S VILLAIN 

Aflred hitchcock on Creating negative characters
Image source

Even though some writers may proclaim it is very arduous to sieve characteristics from an anti-hero to a villain, however, in reality, it is not that strenuous at all. 

First things first – if you are creating a hero (main character), and then you are creating a character completely opposite to the main character’s exceptional morals, then there is no doubt that you are fleshing out a villain or a straight-out negative character.

But when you have an idea where your main character itself is negative or has corrupt values and has the story revolving around the flawed ‘hero’ lathered in aberration, then; you are creating an anti-hero, who battles itself to become better for the good, or just thrives on heinous incidents. 

One of the best examples of an anti-hero being the star is ‘Veep’ starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, or Sumukhi Suresh wreaking havoc in her partly-autobiographical dramedy thriller ‘Pushpavalli’.

Now, let us see the archaic yet interesting tips about creating your negative characters.

CREATING NEGATIVE CHARACTERS

“The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”

– Alfred Hitchcock

TIP #1 – ORIGIN / BACKSTORY 

Yes, this is a very ancient yet most practiced rule of creating a villain – giving them an emotional back-story or a gruesome flashback. It never fails to encapsulate an audience, but we are going for a more technical approach here:

The Why, The How, The When:

  • Why did the negative character aspire to be negative? 
  • How did he adapt to the way of the darkness? 
  • When was the breaking point of his innocence? 

All these questions, if answered, will lead you to a very clear path of carving out a strong negative character that even the audience could root for. 

Leonardo as the villian in Django Unchained
Image source

An audience, let alone root, will not even care for a villain who just goes around and causes ruckus for no reason. Whenever creating a villain, prudence should be practiced. 

Even though they may get overshadowed by the main character, the villain mustn’t back down because he has one thing the main character doesn’t – emotional complexity. 

Forget the luminous scenes where the hero was brought up; focus on the cunningly hardy writing of the flashbacks where a simpleton just like us was forced to become something he loathed; or something he always wanted to become. 

Here, filmmaking comes into play as the magic of creating a surreal atmosphere happens on set mainly. A lot of screenwriters expect to see the scenes play out exactly the way they have written down, that is when learning filmmaking becomes necessary.

Coming to audiences, they need something to latch onto, so that they can connect with the negative character. 

For example, if the past of the villain shows him going through trauma, or financial difficulties, or the loss of a loved one, or just suffering mentally, audiences will relate themselves not to the villain, but his extremely real and burdened past. This way, not only the main character but also a villain can be sympathized with.  

“Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”

Calvin Candie (Django Unchained)

Nowadays, writers are morphing rules to their pleasure and providing us with fresh takes on a negative character, by throwing in some quirky traits that came with the character from birth, or was led by someone even more negative in nature. 

This way, you can mix up a potpourri of eccentric characteristics and create a villain deviating from the norm. 

TIP #2 – WHAT MAKES THEM A VILLAIN? 

As you walk on the road and see a man litter in front of you as he goes away without any guilt, does that make him a villain? 

When a man walking by completely ignores a beggar begging by the curb, does the penny-pinching behavior of his make the man a villain? 

No, they are just human!

So, then what makes your negative character ‘negative’ and utterly evil from the rest of the grey crowd? 

Screenwriting Tips: 7 Things to Remember while Creating a Negative Character

Just like the Hero, who’s ready to die for society, your villain must also cajole his need of creating a menace in the society, or in the Hero’s life. 

To create a villain, a chain or a file of his induced disasters must be introduced, to show how much dissonance he can cause in the story or the screenplay, as we have a gauge of his wrongdoings and not just a blank slate of his past incidents. 

He could be an incendiary, who can agitate the Hero just for his own leisure, which our main Hero won’t tolerate, and take it with a grain of salt. 

“Why so serious?”

– The Joker (The Dark Knight)

The negative character can be a villain in the making when his past catches up to him or he becomes addicted to the high of causing panic among everyone. There should be a strong, reasonable motive for every action that the villain carries out, as we cannot let him go with the flow as most negative characters survive over meticulous calculations and they despise unpremeditated coups.  

Of course, some villains are psychotic and perform extremely dangerous stunts to displace the world of the Hero but they get away until the last act. However, being psychotic isn’t enough to capture the audience with shock.

TIP #3 – MAKE THE VILLAIN HUMAN 

No matter how ruthless and heartless the villain may be in his or her wrongdoings or behavior, deep down the misanthropic, solipsistic personality layer ends with a warm, still compassionate sobriety of pure innocence.

Negative character: Hans Gruber

The humaneness shouldn’t be at all saccharine or seraphic inside the negative character’s torn heart, but his origin began from the neutrality of being a human. There is a limit to the amount or the degree of crime one can commit. 

Even an orthodox villain has some sympathy towards something he still feels sensitive about or some symbolic thing of his past self that he still carries in his heart to revive the memory of his neutral self. 

Duality in nature isn’t necessary, but a part of his completely opposite self should tag along with the negative character. 

The villain should not be completely flat towards not showing any emotions. Even if he is, there should be a valid, accessible reason to why he feels so emotionally insensitive – getting bullied for being lachrymose or overly sensitive, had a very strict set of parents, etc. 

“Mrs. McClane. How Nice To Make Your Acquaintance!”

Hans Gruber (Die Hard)

These types of melancholic moments may be used to show what triggered the modest human to finally turn into an atrocious villain. 

This tip is obviously helpful and a little volatile, because adding emotions to a negative character should be a diligent, conscientious task. Add too many scenes of the villain being vulnerable and helpless, and you will end up creating not a fearful negative character but a pitied damsel-in-distress. If you add too little emotions, the villain will come across as too stone-cold to care about.

As said before, if vulnerability is the weakness, then the audience must know either by flashbacks or small scene pockets of the villain feeling like his old self.

TIP #4 – GAZE INTO THE EVIL MIND 

A no-nonsense trick to write a villain or a negative character without any unnecessary brainstorming or extra hassles is to become the villain. Not literally, but for a more hands-on psychological approach to your villain’s working of the mind and cogs of behaviorism, manners, and thought process. 

voldemort as the negative character

There is no need to take things seriously or obsessively – just have a notepad, or a blank document in front of you and start thinking about what you want your character to think. The next step is to write down whatever thoughts pop up in your mind as you start thinking from the perspective of an opposite spectrum of exceptional morals. 

Now, categorize those thoughts into three divisions

  1. Familial thoughts
  2. Chaotic thoughts
  3. Pure thoughts

Familial coincides with thoughts of the villain’s closed ones or as mentioned ‘family’.  

Imaginary anecdotes, lessons, and sayings can be put in here which were said by the villain’s loved ones or close ones to the villain himself. This will be extremely useful to add more emotional depth to the character.

Chaotic thoughts stand for the negative character’s core thinking – causing hellish chaos around the main character or among the crowd. It is up to you to create the villain’s specialty – sly businessman, contract killer, dangerous dealer, etc. which will define the character the most and note down every imagined incident and future planning to cause more crime to the negative character’s portfolio. 

“There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.”

Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter series)

And in the final psychological assessment of the villain, we have pure thoughts. 

Pure thoughts will instill a feeling of the negative character still being a human or having a shred of innocence in him, which will give light to some kind of catharsis towards the end of the climax. 

Just writing a crass evildoer and showing it to the audience won’t do – but adding a beautiful dimension of hidden warmth to a monster will end up heightening your negative character to untouched heights. 

TIP #5 – REASON OF CONFLICT  

Here lies the tip that can either make or break your script – the reason for the conflict and the stirring of the storm by the negative character, which is ultimately in your hands to craft.

Now, a fight, or a needed incident that pushes the story is guided by the motivation of the character that creates a momentum of opposition in a harmonic surrounding or story. 

Screenwriting Tips: 7 Things to Remember while Creating a Negative Character

The villain, without any motivation, is as good as an expensive showpiece gathering dust in a garage. 

No matter how emotionally deep of a vile, clever character you create, there will not be a single second to appreciate unplanned actions. Of course, triggered incidents and surprises in subplots or main plots aren’t included, but a meaningless plot of the negative character pushing through the screenplay will be of no use rather than filling the white pages.

The villain may get insensitive and do provocative actions towards the neutrality of the script to catalyze the inciting incident but there should be an explainable, valid reason for every dialogue, action, parenthetical, acts, emotion the villain is related to. That goes for the main characters and the other supporting characters in your screenplay too. 

“I’ve killed for you. Who else can say that?”

– Amy Dunne (Gone Girl)

This way, it will tighten your screenplay not only by editing off the unneeded sentences that will make your script a lot more visually obtainable and readable, but also give it a sharp, standardized structure. 

For example, if you are creating a conflict through the negative character and it doesn’t relate to the negative character’s mannerisms or thought process, it will leave everyone scratching their heads for an answer, and not in a good way. 

More appropriate action would be to create the villain first and foremost, and as mentioned in previous tips – carve out their motivation from their past, or based on the character’s likelihood that will inflict a robust explanation to those motivations, may it be triggered or surprising or intricately planned.

TIP #6 – CREATING UNCONVENTIONAL ATMOSPHERE 

Every time you ever come across the idea of how a villain or a villainess looks physically, or how their actions are performed, we always get a vivid, stereotypical picture of them sitting in their gargantuan thrones, with their cunning pet, and speaking in a conniving, sultry voice that comes across as eerie and unsettling. 

gordon gekko as a negative character
Image source

Since cinema has evolved through its volatile years of new-age cinema, commercialized films and high art, the stories as followed have metamorphosed into simplicity and realistic expectations. 

If you go around looking for morally diminished people, they do not wear animal fur or smoke humidors in their free time – they are around us, omnipresent just like normal people. Just like that, villains do not ever need to be grandiose in their mannerisms, financial capability, or even physicality for that matter.  

Quirky attitude, swift symbolic statements, or dialogues of the negative character may settle inside the audiences’ minds and provide them a momentary entertainment, but as a screenwriter, it is obligatory to kill your darlings if they are just fluffs to elongate your screenplay. 

If these symbols are elevating your character, then it is absolutely phenomenal to have a string attached to the audience for personal connection and remembrance. The negative character’s behaviorisms should be the caliber of their audacity, moreover their aura, and their structured persona. 

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

– Gordon Gekko (Wall Street)

A negative character shouldn’t ever be forcefully limited to a singular entity. As in, your negative character could be written as a cluster or a mob of people standing opposite to your main character, or an alien race wanting to annihilate the planet, or even a dubious man double-crossing the main character’s side. 

This way, one can have fun with limitless possibilities, conflicts, and the personality of a villain because any crafted material has the potential to be one.

TIP #7 – THE YIN-YANG CLASP 

After squeezing out your creative juice for the creation of your meticulously crafted negative character, you try to place it on one of the custom pedestals beside your other characters, and specifically, the main character. 

In this tremendously important tip, the importance of the negative character pairing with the main character is provided with elucidation so that you do not come across any ‘chemistry’ hindrance later while writing the screenplay. 

Game of thrones Joffrey as the negative character

With every character, no matter what the relationship dynamic is, there is a godly need for a chemistry test that includes your main characters and ones in the forefront, meaning a strong, indestructible web of relations that will weave your screenplay cleanly and tightly.

With all the tips and hard work we went through for the negative character’s birth and crafting, we need to find a suitable caliber of relationship with the main character too.

The negative character and the main character are the sole parts of the story and ultimately the screenplay as the plot is about their conflicts and danger – they are the yin-yang of the heart which the screenplay holds on to. 

There are quite a number of films with no villains at all or no heroes at all, which are classified as slice-of-life films that are shown as easy-going, warm, and humane. 

“Everyone is mine to torment.”

– Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones)

But, two opposite poles in your story cannot come together. This will result in some contradictions, but it can be used to create interesting dialogues, verbal debates or physical altercations in actions. 

The negative character of course is not inclining towards the better and the main character will stand strong against the wrong, which is the core of the story and reason for clear-cut conflict. 

This core of the story should be followed as per your rules, which will result in bewitching subplots, robust plot armor and so on, ending up enhancing your script. 

If you want your script to come alive on the screen but are unfortunately restricted by financial borders, making an independent film with a small budget might be a painstaking task, but it’ll be worth each cent as a learning curve.

CONCLUSION 

This article surely will help while you have tantalizing moments of severe sessions of brainstorming over creating a complex, negative character for your screenplay. 

All seven tips are the blueprint of a villain, and at last, it is up to you to build your character above a robust foundation. 

Delving into the dense art of screenplay is no joke and requires serious attention, so there is only one way to enlarge your knowledge about screenwriting and that is by reading books on the topic that will give you an upper hand in writing more mindfully.

Negative characters are definitely very strenuous to flesh out on a page, but if you use these points and some boundless imagination concerning the negative character, then there will be no hassles in crafting the villain or the villainess of your choice. 

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About the Author

Dhruv Jogdand

Dhruv is a screenwriter by heart and a Mass Media enthusiast by profession. He writes screenplays and blogs about them with intricate details. He admires groundbreaking, female-centric films and shows, slow-burn arthouse movies, and breathtaking cinematography.

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