Every good story needs a good villain. Or a good monster. And no, those are not the same thing. Let’s have a discussion.
Villains versus monsters
Alright, definition time.
Let’s start with the ‘antagonist’. The antagonist is the person, thing, group, or whatever, that opposes the protagonist in a story. Often, the antagonist is the same thing as ‘the bad guy’, but it doesn’t have to be.
You could create a story about a protagonist fighting a villain, but they’re held back by their allies. In that case, the antagonist could be the protagonist’s allies instead of the villain. The climax of the story would be the protagonist dealing with his antagonistic allies so he can save the day from the villain.
For example, look at Robocop. Cyborg police agent Alex Murphy fights Clarence Boddicker, a crime lord that killed him and made him a cyborg. But Boddicker isn’t the antagonist. The evil OCP corporation fills that role.
The next question is: how do villains and monsters fit in? For this discussion, I’ll define a villain as a person with bad intentions toward the protagonist or their allies. They have reasons to oppose the hero. Contrast that to a monster. A monster’s nature makes them do things that your average human sees as unspeakable. We cannot see any rational being performing them.
As you can see, the monsters and villains can be the antagonists of a story, but they don’t have to be.
The easiest way to put a monster or villain in a story is to make them the antagonist. The antagonist must oppose the hero in every step of their arc. This means that a villain must have a motivation that puts them in direct opposition of the protagonist. This often means that in the mind of the villain, the hero is the antagonist.
Let’s use Die Hard as an example. The protagonist is John McClane, the villain Hans Gruber. Hans Gruber wants to rob the Nakatomi building and takes the staff hostage. That puts him in direct opposition to John McClane, who is in the building and whose wife is part of that staff. The conflict between the two escalates, as John keeps thwarting Gruber’s plans, but Gruber keeps on raising the stakes. The climax has Gruber holding John’s wife at gunpoint and ordering him to give himself up to be shot.
This is where the distinction between monster and villain is important as well. A villain will oppose the protagonist because of their motivations. That does not make them monsters. Gruber is a selfish thief with no compunctions about killing, but is he a monster? What he does is evil, but an evil we understand. An evil we can explain.
Contrast that to a monster like the alien in the movie Alien. The alien is the antagonists of the movie, but here it’s not a reasonable motivation that pits them against the protagonist, it’s their alien nature — pun intended.
Putting monsters in the antagonist role is fine, but a writer has to be clear of the motivation involved. In Alien, the monster preys on the humans, picking them off one by one. The thing is the ultimate killing machine and it is very clear that it’s nature is to kill, eat and multiply. That puts it in direct opposition to Ripley. The movie hints at the alien wiping out an entire race of aliens, and Ripley does not want the alien to eat her, or to procreate and create a bigger problem for humanity.
Silence of the Lambs pits FBI agent Clarice Starling against serial killer Buffalo Bill. Bill has no control of his monstrous impulses, and will keep killing until Clarice stops him. Clarice has a childhood trauma about saving innocents from slaughter and needs to stop Bill. Interestingly, Hannibal Lecter is an example of a monster who is not the antagonist of the story. He is a monster, but not in direct opposition of Clarice: he does not kill the innocents Clarice is trying to save. He’s in control of his impulses and does not kill indiscriminately.
Of course, you can really mess this up. One of the most common bad tropes is that of the mustache-twirling villain, who does evil for evil’s sake. That’s bad because it tries to put a logical villain in the story, but instead of providing a proper nature, the writer hand-waves that away by calling them monsters and saying its in their natures. But you can’t be a rational villain who is irrationally motivated at the same time.
Likewise, if you take a monster with an unfathomable nature, then try to rationalize them, that actually undermines their monstrousness. If Alien had contained a section where Ripley finds out that the Alien is really just trying to advance corporate interests and can be reasoned with, well, that would immediately drop the tension to zero.
I’ve already touched on this problem in my ideas about stakes in a story.
Really, this was a long-winded way of saying: know the motivation of the antagonists. Know who is the real antagonist, and who isn’t (Buffalo Bill or Hannibal Lecter). And understand the difference between a monster and a villain.
And of course, use this advice as advice. My method of writing is not yours. Rules are meant to be broken if that makes for a better story.
Now go and write cool books for me to read, or movies for me to watch.