Villain Studies: Darth Vader

For those of you just happening upon this post, this is the second in a series of villain studies I’m writing in order to learn what makes an effective villain. By looking closely at some of the best (by which I of course mean, worst) villains out there I hope to learn a trick or two for my own (eeeevil) designs.

That said, may I present…


Alright. Now I’ll admit I’m a little out of my element with Star Wars. I have seen each of the films approximately once, and most of them at an age where loads of it was probably over my head, anyways.

But what immediately stands out to me about Vader, a villain everyone has heard of and is at least vaguely acquainted with, is the immense amount of backstory we get. One suggestion I am repeatedly finding as I seek villain-crafting advice is this: the protagonist is only one of the stars in any story; equally important is the antagonist. As such, we should develop our villains with the same care and effort as our heroes. An antagonist needs his or her own history, motivation, and conflict; that is what makes him or her compelling, relatable, or pitiable. A well-developed villain can even incur sympathy and make the reader/viewer conflicted about what to want and who to root for. Darth Vader is on that shit like peanut butter on jelly.

Vader’s backstory is unusual: he starts as a protagonist. Anakin Skywalker is a nine-year-old boy and slave on a remote desert planet who gets his lucky break when Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn discovers that the Force is unusually strong in him. Thought to be the prophesized hero who will restore balance to the Force, after winning his freedom the young boy makes the difficult decision to train as a Jedi, although it means leaving his mother and home planet behind. He is young, auspicious, and vulnerable. We are rooting for him.

It is the very fact that Anakin once was the protagonist, and groomed to be hero, that makes it all the more devastating when he turns to the dark side. We feel the loss, and Kenobi’s pain, when teacher and student duke it out in Episode III. “You were the chosen one!” Kenobi cries after he has cut Anakin down. Anakin clings to the edge with the one arm he has left, spitting and bitter as he slides toward the lava. “You were my brother, Anakin…I loved you.” When the flames catch his clothes and begin to consume him, Kenobi only watches, a tortured expression on his face as Anakin screams, before  leaving his former friend to burn. To this day it is one of the most haunting scenes I have seen.

Of course, this is all build-up. Technically Anakin Skywalker is not his full-fledged villain self—that is, he does not become Darth Vader—until the end of episode III, and he really doesn’t assume the presence until episode IV. And while Vader’s motive (power lust) is hardly new, the rich drama informed by his backstory is: in episode VI we see him do battle, not just against Luke Skywalker, but within himself. What is left of Anakin Skywalker, a human being and Luke’s father, acts to save his child’s life at the price of his own. Here is another reason for Vader’s epic and unrivaled antagonist saga: he is a redeemed villain by story’s end.

Other factors that help the Darth Vader legend:


Dude rocks the classic black.

Mask (helmet, to be exact)

What’s under there? Everybody loves a good intrigue.


Finally, if you’ve any thoughts on what / who makes a good villain, please feel free to chime in below! I am interested to see what villains stand out in other people’s minds and why.


6 thoughts on “Villain Studies: Darth Vader

  1. Villains have always frustrated me the most, which is strange considering I’ve always considered myself more of a villain. There has to be a more careful balance of backstory and growth with a villain (Which is the thing most people forget, villains grow as characters too, many authors won’t grow their villains until many books in.) Too much backstory and you end up with people relating with the character so much that they are no longer the same villain they were before, they aren’t just the evil the good guy opposes anymore. This is largely what led to so many star wars fans hating the episodes 1-3, as we suddenly go from this badass vader in episode 4 that redeems in 6 to this tiny pipsqueak kid that is all about trying to help people.

    One of my all time favorite villains is quite honestly more of an anti-hero, but because he played such a pivotal antagonistic and rivalry roll to the protagonist I would still consider him a villain. That’s Zuko from Avatar Last Airbender. I praised that show quite often, but Zuko goes through a redeeming feature much the same as Darth Vader had and it managed to catch some amazing pivotal moments in which even at one point he helps the protagonist and they work together despite him returning right afterwards to hunting down the protagonist. But it went one step further than Darth Vader by actually giving backstory of the character throughout the series rather than just throwing it all at you like with the prequel star wars films.

    • Thank you for sharing about Zuko! I am only vaguely familiar with Last Airbender but I have heard good things!

      Also, just wanted to mention (I know I’ve been slow to get back to you with comments) but I have been reading your book and really enjoying it!!! It’s been a long time since I’ve looked forward to reading something so much before turning in for the night 🙂

      • I’m glad you are enjoying it, that is the whole point of writing it in the first place, people enjoying it as much as I have with writing it.

        I highly recommend the entire series of Last Airbender if you are at all interested in Fantasy context. Many of the characters are superb, the plotlines are well developed and interesting and not confusing at all. Not to mention the world it built is wonderful. And most writers tend to completely overlook the fact that TV shows and movies and even Video Games can actually have a large impact on your writing. Sometimes even more so than novels. This is because when writing the object is to show your reader what happens and not tell them. TV shows and movies and video games HAVE to show you to get any story out, where many books can simply tell you (Generally through a character).

        It’s why my own writing tends to be a bit more showy than just throwing all the information at people. I’d probably do better writing screenplays or graphic novels than novels, but I do what I can.

  2. Ah yes…the classic showing vs. telling ploy… I absolutely agree when it comes to more visual mediums influencing our writing. Especially in combat / action scenes, I think we borrow a lot of our choreography from what we’ve seen in films, on tv, maybe even in comics. Those are engaging images. Our task, as writers, is to convey image through word, and if we have such vivid mental images to draw from, all the better!

  3. Though I never liked any of the movies and I currently can’t recall the title of it but I can tell you the villain I think is a nice addition to this topic: Jigsaw. He did many unspeakably horrible things to others for the sake of giving them a second chance at appreciating their lives and stop wasting them. In addition, I think I remember in the second sequel that he had a terminal illness. I was just trying to think of all the villains I have seen, read about (in fantasy/sci-fi novels and reality) and the first person on my mind was him. Hope this helps.

    • Thanks for contributing your thoughts! I’m not familiar with the Saw series myself but Jigsaw sounds well-developed and demonstrates something that I think is essential in villains: duality. He isn’t doing terrible things to be terrible; he’s doing terrible things for what he sees as a good cause. Those are the villains that are really unnerving– the ones that don’t see themselves as the bad guys!

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