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I often give workshops at public and private schools. I emphasize that everything is about telling a story and every story needs a good villain.

When I ask if anyone can name a good villain, nine times out of ten I hear, “Darth Vader” or “The Wicked Witch.” Why? Because these are two clear examples of evil individuals: they terrorize, they kill; they act without conscience. The fact that Darth Vader partially redeemed himself at the end of the original trilogy is the reason he could no longer be an effective villain.

In both movies, when these villains were on screen the audience had a palpable sense of dread. Bad things could, and did, happen at any moment; our hero was in mortal danger if they crossed the path of this villain unprepared.

The villain of a story should make us care for our protagonist. The villain intensifies our investment in the hero’s success. We can’t crave justice where there is no injustice. We need darkness so the light can dispel it.

While these may very well be rudimentary examples of what makes a villain a villain, they remain nonetheless true. The argument happening today, that “nothing is ever so black and white” may be valid in some real-life situations, but it muddies the water for telling an exciting story.

If we, the audience, see the villain go home after a day of destroying planets to lovingly take care of his sickly mum and seven younger siblings, and we see the hero return home after saving children from drowning, and a school for the deaf from burning, to beat his loyal dog bloody for barking too loud, it divides our loyalties and confuses us. If the audience begins cheering for your villain, but it was not a twist intended by the author that the bad guy is actually the good guy, you’ve lost the plot entirely.

Does that mean a story shouldn’t throw us a curve? Absolutely not. However, it must serve a purpose. Just like every evil action a villain makes must serve a purpose in the story.