Storytelling According to Pixar Part 4: Creating Formidable Villains for Children Without Making Them Scary

This is the fourth installment in a series analyzing the humor, heart, and zany plots of various Pixar films. The focus is on applying these principles to children’s stories; however, writers of all genres can benefit from Pixar’s literary genius, so I highly encourage you to have a seat and prepare to write like the wind!

One thing I dislike about most villains in children’s stories is: everything. Their life goal is to show the audience how stupid they are, and sometimes they don’t succeed at that. Pixar is the one exception. They’ve captured the memorable attributes of Captain Hook and combined them with the genius of today’s criminals to create a villain children will love to pretend to defeat. The most surprising part, however, is that the villains aren’t scary. They are diabolical, dangerous, and smell like strawberries, but scary doesn’t fit their description.

Except for Sid, of course. Everyone knows he’s scary.

How to Make Villains Formidable

1. Give Them Brains

Giving your story a stupid antagonist is a surefire way to keep him from being too scary, but it’s also a surefire way to bore readers and give them the wrong impression of evil.

In many children’s stories, the antagonist lacks intelligence and the protagonist is the pinnacle of wisdom. Unfortunately, in real life, oftentimes the good people are stupid and the bad people are smart (just saying).

Criminals are usually quite intelligent—they have to be—otherwise their plots wouldn’t succeed. Besides being unrealistic, stupid villains won’t be able to push your protagonist to his fullest potential. No matter how powerful the villain is, the protagonist can easily outsmart him. But evil isn’t easy to conquer, and the sooner children know that, the better equipped they’ll be to battle it in their own lives now and in the future.

Try to make your villain as intelligent as your protagonist, and preferably more so. Take Pixar’s villains for example. Randall developed a machine to suck the breathe out of children. Muntz invented collars that enabled dogs to speak. Syndrome created remarkable technology that could give the average human superpowers. However, some villains display intelligence in areas of inventions, yet they seem to lack it in everyday affairs. But someone who can create a machine to destroy the world is obviously able to handle whatever the protagonist schemes up. For example, Syndrome constantly combatted the Incredibles’ attempts to defeat him; he had anticipated their animosity and planned accordingly. He even sent a homing device to make sure he’d eliminated Mr. Incredible after he escaped down the waterfall. Or take Randall and Mr. Waternoose. At every turn they managed to keep their operation a secret from the monster public, which would have been a huge feat for a stupid villain (if not impossible).

2. Give Them Goals

In children’s lit, the antagonist’s chief goal is: stop the protagonist! And if that’s not the goal, then the second one is likely to take over the world in twenty-four hours. World domination is a respectable villain occupation, but not every antagonist is going to want to rule the earth (or Narnia, the galaxy, or wherever your antagonist may be). Some may even have simple goals. Perhaps they want to live in a museum forever, safe from children’s grimy hands. Or perhaps they want to keep their family’s power company from going asunder. Or maybe they just want to be left alone to deconstruct toys.

If your antagonist has a unique purpose, that will give him direction and help drive the plot. Furthermore, supply his goal with a reason why he must accomplish it no matter what. If Skinner failed, he’d lose his ownership of the restaurant. If Muntz didn’t capture the bird, he could never return home. If Hopper lost the ants’ food supply, he and his friends would starve to death.

Whatever it is, the goal itself doesn’t necessarily have to be evil. Stinky Pete wanting to be in a museum wasn’t evil, nor was Waternoose’s desire to keep his company afloat. Wanting to deconstruct toys isn’t evil (note that I did not say it isn’t weird). Rather, the way they chose to achieve their goals was wrong. In many ways, the antagonist’s goal may not necessarily be controversial to the protagonist. Mike and Sulley wanted to keep Monsters Inc. running, but not at the result of hurting children. Woody wanted to live in fame for eternity, but not if he lost Andy. Mr. Incredible wanted to be a hero just like Syndrome, but not if it meant injuring others.

4. Give Them Power

When I say you should make your villain powerful, lightning, heavy breathing, and lightsabers probably flash to mind. But power exists in more than just superpowers, special abilities, and weapons. Intelligence can be a type of power. An army of talking dogs can be power. Even having a strong desire to accomplish a goal can be power.

Like your protagonist, your villain needs to have a list of strengths. Hopper was fierce, manipulative, and flew faster than any ant could run (not to mention, he was a lot bigger than them). Randall was sneaky and could disappear in an instant. Sid was mean, creepy, and could blow up toys at will. Better yet, make your antagonist strong where your protagonist is weak. This will help your protagonist’s strengths to shine because he’ll be forced to pull them together to defeat the villain. Flick had to use his innovation to take down Hopper and his gang. Woody used his love for Andy and his devotion to his friends to escape from Sunnyside and Lotso’s minions.

As with everything, ask the eternal “why?” behind your villain’s strengths. His powers have to make sense with who he is and what he does. A neurotic chef isn’t likely to be physically tough, but he might wield the power of firing people and destroying condemning evidence. An elderly explorer won’t be able to fight very well, but he may be able to beat you with his cane and stick his dogs on you. Try asking yourself a few questions about your villain’s power: what are his strongest external qualities/abilities (invisibility, brawn, stealth)? What are his strongest internal qualities (intelligence, hate, etc.)? What physical items/weapons best fit his strengths? What people/places/ants/etc. does he have dominion over? How did this come to be?

How to Keep Your Villains from Being Scary

1. Give Them Emotions

Villains are humans too, and thus are subject to emotions. They aren’t cold, heartless beings who never feel anything but hate—even if they are, at one point they did feel love—and that will haunt them even after they’ve said goodbye to kindness and warmth.

Syndrome adored Mr. Incredible like any other kid fawns over a hero. Later, he still had the dream of being another Mr. Incredible, except his adoration had turned to hate. Lotso cherished his child to the point of following her all the way home in the rain, and even later he remembered that love. Muntz felt the excitement of finding new creatures, but became so infatuated with it that he lost sight of the more important things. All these villains were normal, kind individuals once—none of them were born with evil laughter pumping from their lungs. If your protagonist had met them earlier in life, they might even have become friends.

Exhibit the tender side of your villain—show readers that he wasn’t always evil and that he can be deeply hurt like the rest of us. Humanizing your villains will help children sympathize with them and show them that we all can become the villains of our stories if we let ourselves follow the wrong path.

2. Don’t Make Their Villainy Obvious

Unlike Cruella de Vil, few criminals actually parade their corruption for everyone to see. Three reasons people don’t is because: 1) They don’t want to get caught (newsflash), 2) They still have a (slight) sense of decency, and 3) They think it’s fun to fool readers (I mean people).

Some of Pixar’s villains don’t even seem villainous (at first). Stinky Pete, Charles Muntz, Lotso, and Evelyn aren’t introduced as villains. Some, like Stinky Pete, aren’t even revealed until the latter part of the film. They seem like nice, upstanding, sweet-smelling (in Lotso’s case, at least) characters. Many books keep the villain’s identity a secret for suspense, but this practice also mirrors reality. Evil likes to stay hidden, and those who we thought we could trust have stabbed us in the back and robbed us. This also serves to humanize them since you are displaying their positive qualities first (whether they are authentic or not), giving readers a glimpse of what the villains might have looked like had they not joined the dark side.

A few ways to keep your villain from being obvious is by:

  1. Making him appear innocent. Don’t let readers suspect he is the one behind the plot. Instead of having him wear a black cape, have him wear a smile and hug people a lot like Lotso.
  2. Give readers a distraction. Try shifting some suspicion to something else or starting an event that will keep readers’ focus off the villain. In the first and second Incredibles, people’s attention was on what they were fighting (i.e., the omnidroid and Screenslaver), not who was the force behind them.
  3. Have the other characters like him. In Up, Carl laughed and talked with Muntz like he was a good friend. In Toy Story 2, Jessi relied on and trusted Stinky Pete. Readers will less likely suspect a villain if the characters have befriended him—how could someone they’ve grown to love make a bad relationship choice, after all?

3. Give Them a Weakness

Your antagonist needs strengths, but he needs weaknesses too. No one—no matter how powerful—is perfect, and everyone falters at some point. Flaws will help your antagonist seem more real and gives the protagonist something he can use to his advantage. Hopper was afraid of birds. Randall was small and could be taken out by a baseball bat. Syndrome wore a cape and had a terrible hair stylist.

However, revealing the villain’s weakness at the wrong time can make your antagonist seem pathetic and vulnerable. If the audience had known that Hopper was terrified of birds at the outset, he wouldn’t have appeared as foreboding. Even though the audience saw Randall’s smallness from the beginning, they never witnessed how easily he could be beaten until the end. Instead, foreshadow the villain’s destruction by showing another character being destroyed because of that same weakness. Dot was nearly eaten alive by a bird, and Edna informed Mr. Incredible about the danger of capes.

But not all villain weaknesses have to be physical. Oftentimes you can have the force that empowers them be their weakness. Wickedness is strong, but also weak. Muntz was destroyed by his own infatuation. Skinner’s determination to shut down the restaurant caused him to be bound and tied by disinfected rats. Mr. Waternoose’s resolution to kidnap a thousand children before he’d let his company die was caught on camera in the very company he was fighting so hard to keep.

Okay, Scary Feet, Scary Feet, the Kid’s Asleep!

Frankly, I rather appreciate the value of a good night’s sleep. Most adults must not or else they’d be banning horror movies. But children don’t like nightmares, and I would shudder to think I’d ever kept a child up at night wondering what horrible thing might pop out of her closet (excluding Mike Wazowski, of course). On the other hand, children should also be aware of life’s dangers, like robbers, murderers, and bears who hug too much.

And, actually, when we craft foreboding villains who aren’t scary, we’re giving readers a more accurate display of reality. Because the evilest things often don’t seem terrifying.

For instance, Pixar. One moment you’re enjoying the movie and laughing, and the next minute, Wham! They kill one of your favorite characters.

I hoped you enjoyed this fourth post in our Pixar series! Each month Aberdeen and I will break down different concepts into further depth. Please join us next month as we show what Pixar teaches about creating compelling stories without villains.

Other posts in this series:

Writing Impactful Children’s Stories

Creating Unforgettable Children’s Characters

Giving Your Protagonist Flaws Children (and Adults) Can Empathize With

10 thoughts on “Storytelling According to Pixar Part 4: Creating Formidable Villains for Children Without Making Them Scary

  1. Wow, this is the greatest! Villains in my mind are a bit complicated, therefore I feel like I don’t spend enough time creating backstories or motives to what they do, and that is something I really need to work on. I really don’t want to have some cringy cliche villain who nobody likes or can relate to. This was really thought provoking! 💕

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love this!! Honestly, it explains why kids love Pixar so much (except, ya know, for Sid 😂): we weren’t really creeped out by the antagonist, and we knew he’d be defeated. And AHH, each month I get more excited for the next month’s post!! I just don’t do villains…I never consciously realized Pixar doesn’t either…I’m in good company!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aw, I’m so glad you enjoyed this! 😊❤️ Yes! Each time I write a new installment to this series I find more reasons to love Pixar.

      Cool! (I have some stories without villains too 😉).

      Liked by 1 person

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