Creating Three-dimensional Villains: Lessons From Buffy and Firefly

three-dimensional villains

When writing your next villain, take care to give him/her as much attention to detail and backstory as your protagonist. TV’s Buffy and Firefly provide some great examples of well-developed, three-dimensional villains to use as inspiration.

In “Slang Can Help Create Your World,” I focused on great writing on TV — and specifically on Buffy-and-Firefly-creator Joss Whedon’s use of slang. This post focuses on Whedon’s ability to create memorable and fascinating villains.

As I wrote in “Create a Villain Your Readers Will Loathe,” a great villain (Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, etc.) can be the star of the proverbial show, and what’s more, you can use them to make your protagonist great. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Joss Whedon created villains who are some of the series’ most interesting characters. He also used them to present his protagonists (and viewers) with interesting moral dilemmas.

The villains of Buffy

In the very first scene of the very first Buffy episode, “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” Whedon uses a villain to set the tone for the entire series.

He flips the script and subverts expectations. The young blonde girl isn’t going to be the victim in this show.

Throughout Buffy, we see all kinds of monster-of-the-week villains who run the gamut from being silly — almost worthy of a Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday-morning TV show — to the genuinely horrifying (e.g. the Gentlemen from “Hush”). But it’s the season-long “big bad” characters who are the most memorable and fleshed out. In this cartoon world with silly monsters, the Big Bads offer up humor, introspection, compassion, and even genuine affection.

Of all the Big Bads in Buffy, my favorite is Mayor Wilkins, from season three. Unlike The Master from season one — a more-typical Hollywood vampire arch-villain — Mayor Wilkins seemed like the dad from a ‘50s sitcom. He was genuinely charming and funny and constantly promoting family values. (“There’s nothing uncool about healthy teeth and bones,” “Boys? Let’s watch the swearing”). He would be plotting the end of the world one minute and following it up with “Gosh, but I’m feeling chipper! Who’s up for a root beer?”

Of course, charming, atypical villains are nothing new. What set the Mayor apart was his genuine affection for Faith, the other slayer on the show. Unlike every other male figure in Faith’s life, the Mayor does not want a sexual relationship with her and he overtly treats her like his daughter. Because we know the Mayor is evil — someone who is actively planning to literally eat the people of Sunnydale — we keep expecting there to be a moment when he lets Faith down or reveals that he has just been using her. But he never does. He genuinely cares for her, and it’s disarming to the viewer.

This video isn’t great, but it offers up a selection of Faith and Mayor scenes.

The Mayor isn’t the only Buffy villain who displays affection. There are Spike and Drusilla, of course, but another favorite of mine is D’Hoffryn. He has a complicated, fatherly relationship with his vengeance demons. He’s caring and reassuring, and this affection makes his occasional act of cruelty that much more horrifying.

The villains on Buffy have familial relationships that are every bit as complicated and layered as the heroes’, which helps make the show more compelling than it has any rights to be. It makes this seemingly silly universe believable.

The villains of Firefly

Firefly offers up a different set of villains. There are no aliens or monsters in this show (aside from the Reavers). Instead, we get mobsters, con-artists, bureaucrats, thieves, and government agents. There are no familial structures. These villains have no affection for anyone other than themselves. So, how does Whedon make them compelling?

One way: he makes them truly terrifying. Like Jubal Early, from the last episode of the series. Early is cold, calculating, and unhinged, often given to asking random, pseudo-philosophical questions (“They make psychiatrists get psycho-analyzed before they can get certified, but they don’t make a surgeon get cut on. Does that seem right to you?”).

But it’s his cavalier attitude towards violence that makes him truly terrifying, as we see in his first encounter with Kaylee (you can skip to the 19-minute mark in the video).

As memorable as Early is, I think the Operative from the movie Serenity is even more fascinating. As we see here in his first scene, he’s polite, calm, earnest, and honorable. In no way are you expecting what comes next. For my money, this is one of the best character introductions I’ve seen in years. (It doesn’t hurt that the Operative is played by the incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor.)

Zoe tells Mal what makes the Operative truly terrifying is that he’s a believer, as we see in this pivotal conversation with Mal:

How many villains are this monstrous, sad, and self-aware? This is no one-dimensional arch villain. This is a fleshed out character with realistic motives. We may not agree with his values (or his methods) but we understand where he’s coming from, and it makes him a formidable presence.

When writing your next villain, take care to give him/her as much attention to detail and backstory as your protagonist. More, even.


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Related Posts
Writing Lessons From TV: Slang Can Help Create Your World
Create a villain your readers will loathe
Writing three-dimensional characters
How much physical description is enough when you create characters?
The Drama Is In The Details (the humor, horror, and suspense are too)



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