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I've noticed in many long-running stories that it's common to have a villain who's a genuine menace to the heroes become impossible to take seriously after they've gotten defeated or died so many times. As a writer, I need to address this question. I have multiple recurring villains in my long-running series who suffer numerous defeats. I'm unsure how to maintain their intimidation factor as it can only last for so long after they have taken so many Ls.

One of the worst examples I can think of is Vilgax from Ben 10. Throughout the original series, Vilgax poses a significant threat, casting a shadow over every episode he appears in and always comes back for more, even after getting beaten multiple times. He's so evil and terrifying that tie-in materials mention that no sane person, human or alien, wants to work for him. If you haven't picked up on the fact that Vilgax is an irredeemable monster by now, the grande finale makes it clear he's also committed genocide, and it's not the first time he's done so.

In his fights with Ben, he doesn't mess around, as seen in their first battle, where Vilgax never trades banter with Ben or goes on a lengthy villain monologue about how he will kill Ben after he gets the Omnitrix. In the sequel series, Alien Force and Ultimate Alien set five to six years after the events of the original series, Vilgax is not the invincible juggernaut he was and relies more on scheming and pragmatism to crush Ben. Despite this approach, Ben always beats him through combat or trickery.

Come Vilgax's final outing in Omniverse, and he's become a complete and utter joke, scared shitless by a D-list member of Ben's rouges gallery, who's rumored to have made Vilgax cry.

So, with all that said, how can I avoid this problem?

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    Maybe let the villain win once in a while? Even if less than a total victory. Feb 8 at 20:25
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    Make the life and mood of the hero absolutely miserable, before the hero suddenly clashes with the villain again.
    – Sebastian
    Feb 8 at 23:08
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    @MichaelRichardson in a similar fashion, book 4 in the Harry Potter series is almost a complete win for the villain
    – svavil
    Feb 10 at 12:17
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    @svavil Well Harry and Cedrick won the tournament together, but that rapidly turned from the apparent climax of the book to "oh crap! we're screwed!" The good guys did get a minor win with the capture of fake-Moody and the rescue of real-Moody, and the previous incantations was the deus ex machina that allowed Harry to survive, which was also a win. Feb 12 at 15:38
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    Doesn't the Question Answer itself? '… they've gotten defeated…' does sound bad but how could 'they've died so many times…' not mean, roughly, that even death will never diminish their menace? Mar 2 at 23:19

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The villain's goal is not directly counter to the hero's goal. Consider that the villain and the hero are clashing over what the hero is protecting. The hero believes that it's the villain's goal to destroy it, but the villain actually wants something else, and this was either a distraction, or something in the way. During the fight, the villain gets what they need, and now that the fight means nothing to them, they allow the hero to be victorious while they retreat to further their nefarious plans.

Nowhere in the fight did the hero actually have a chance at winning, but the hero didn't realize this at first. Over time though it is shown that the villain is more cunning than the hero first gave him credit for, and as such the hero has to grow, or gather more help to deal with him.

Thus, despite the hero's many victories over the villain, they all turned out to be empty or meaningless in time. Now the hero needs to work even harder against a more and more dangerous nemesis that the hero should have taken seriously the first time.

Write depth, not just to your heroes, but to your villains. What are their goals? What are their desires? What aims to they seek out in their fights, and when do they cut their losses? Humanize them, understand them, and don't just make them pratfall comedy. The mistake you list in your question is one of only focusing the writing on one set of characters, and not all of them. After all, villains are characters too.

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    "For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday."
    – mlk
    Feb 8 at 22:07
  • I was thinking more of Magus & Frog, or Robin and Slade, but yes, that is a good example. Feb 8 at 22:12
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    Another good example along this vein would be David Xanatos from Gargoyles, who often sets up his schemes in such a way that, even when the heroes defeat him, it still benefits him in some way.
    – F1Krazy
    Feb 8 at 23:08
  • @F1Krazy: Greg Weisman seems to be good at this sort of character. If you watch Young Justice, you see much the same pattern in its villains, although they do lose "for real" from time to time.
    – Kevin
    Feb 11 at 0:13
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If the antagonist is supposed to remain threatening, the hero mustn't ever completely best the antagonist. If the hero is clearly stronger than the antagonist, and the reader knows the hero will overcome the antagonist every time, then the antagonist is no longer a threat. But if the hero only escapes barely, and only by chance or because s*he had help, then the reader will feel that the antagonist will eventually crush the hero.

You must show that the antagonist is stronger than the hero and only sheer luck has kept the antagonist from defeating the hero completely.

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    Definitely not "sheer luck." Resourcefulness, craftiness, sacrifice, preparation, allies, pluck, determination, effort, anything but sheer luck. Feb 8 at 20:18
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    @DavidConrad If the antagonist is repeatedly overcome by the hero by using his skill, then the hero is stronger than the antagonist and the reader will assume that he poses no danger to the hero and the hero will certainly overcome him again and again whenever the need arises. The question at hand asks how the antagonist can continue to remain a dangerous threat, and that he can only be if the hero is weaker and he lacks all that you named (or at least seems to) and he just got away accidentally — by sheer luck.
    – Ben
    Feb 8 at 20:21
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    There are things beyond sheer luck: The villain not taking the hero seriously yet. A convenient one-off opportunity (e.g., the villain is standing next to a barrel of unstable chemicals) that the hero is lucky to have, but also resourceful enough to take advantage of. Someone else's heroic self-sacrifice. Feb 9 at 10:39
  • @user3153372 Certainly. But I'm sure you'll agree that Stackexchange answers aren't usually expected to be encyclopedic and cover every single possible case. And the principle of my answer still applies: from the perspective of hero versus antagonist (who is stronger?), everything you list – opportunity, outside help – amounts to the hero's sheer luck. By the way, did you notice how your main counterexample even contains the word luck?: "A convenient one-off oportunity ... that the hero is lucky to have ..." Funny that you try to contradict luck with luck...
    – Ben
    Feb 9 at 10:45
  • I'm countering "sheer luck" with regular luck. If the hero wins by sheer luck, not just the villain but the entire world loses its menace; the audience will think the writer has given the hero plot armor. If the hero wins by cleverly taking advantage of a fortunate circumstance that was already established, that doesn't have the same negative effect. Feb 10 at 10:21
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Just have the villain win sometimes.

Obviously, there are certain victories that would render the premise of your series irrelevant and bring it to a premature end. What those are will depend strongly on the story: the villain killing or incapacitating the primary protagonist will often mean their complete victory, or at least a story that no one will be interested in watching afterward, but not always—for instance, on The Vampire Diaries TV show, the primary protagonist, Elena, was incapacitated and rendered an effective non-entity in the plot two seasons before it ended.

But most villain victories do not negate the premise of the series, so they can safely be used in moderation (too much, and you end up with a villain protagonist, viewer apathy, or both). For instance:

  • If the villain is a sadistic type who likes hurting or killing people, then any suffering they cause is a victory for them. The nearly invulnerable superhero protagonist may never be in any real danger, but if the villain kills a few (or a few million) people, they've won even if the hero foils their even worse plans, or even if they imprison or kill the villain. Or maybe there are no worse plans, and the villain just gets away with it this time.

  • If the villain is arrogant and believes themself untouchable, then any situation in which they escape unscathed is a victory for them. Think of the corrupt billionaire CEO whose company has been selling dangerous products—sure, the hero exposed the products' risks and got them pulled, but the CEO is still out there, still rich and powerful, and still enjoying their ill-gotten gains at the expense of everyone else no matter how many times the protagonist inconveniences them. A bit of gloating works wonders here: "Do you really think I care about a few millions lost when I made billions last year?" Or perhaps the hero fails altogether: the product continues on the market and the CEO suffers no more than a small inconvenience.

  • If the villain has a concrete goal, let them achieve it sometimes. They just want to stop the protagonist because they protagonist is in their way, so the protagonist surviving, or even defeating them in a fight (physical or otherwise) is still a loss if they get what they were after: the magic artifact, revenge against the people who killed their parents, a political office, a great deal of money, the respect of the general public.

  • Because we identify with the heroes, even if they defeat every single aim that the villain may have, the villain can still win a victory if they injure, incapacitate or kill someone on the hero's side, particularly if that loss is permanent. If you think the show cannot continue without the protagonist, then perhaps the villain can occasionally take out an important but secondary character; if you are daring, and the show has an ensemble of well-developed protagonists, the villain can even eliminate the main protagonist (but do be aware that the audience may really dislike this). Conversely, on the lighter side, the villain can permanently reduce the protagonist's capabilities: cut off their arm, smash their weapon, steal all of their money, dissipate their powers, burn their house down. The hero has still lost something—not only something that they will miss, but something that will probably make them lose again, or at least struggle mightily to win.

  • In a more depressing work, this last strategy can effectively amount to the villain wearing the protagonist down, until after enough confrontations that they "won," the protagonist has taken enough damage that the villain wins some kind of lasting victory, even if it can be framed as an overall protagonist victory in the end: perhaps the villain finally kills the protagonist but their goals are defeated, or vice versa. This is related to the strategy of escalating villain threat rather than villain decay—the villain achieves more of their goals, and larger ones, up until their final defeat (unless they win....) not fewer. The villain takes more away from the hero up until they finally lose, not less. We start with an optimistic, powerful protagonist confronting a villain who barely is an annoyance, and end with a protagonist giving their all to defeat a villain who has achieved almost everything they wanted and taken everything from them.

The key in any of these cases is to really convey to the audience, emotionally, that the villain has won this time, which is a matter of emphasis and tone more than a matter of facts. A New Hope frames its plot as a straightforward victory for the heroes because the emphasis is placed on the ruination of the most destructive of the Empire's plans, but a slightly different framing could turn it into a depressing villain victory: Leia failed to prevent the deaths of billions of her people and is now without a family or a planet, Luke lost literally everyone who ever mattered to him, and the Empire is just building another Death Star, with the protagonists' continued survival having been bought at a high cost in Rebel and Imperial lives.

Show that the characters believe that they have lost, and that the villain believes that they have won, backing it up with facts that make this point of view plausible, and the audience will agree with them. And if the villain sometimes wins, and the protagonists cannot fully prevent these victories, well, we can see why the villain is still a threat.

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Simple: The antagonist needs to win only once for everything to be over.

Even if you're sure the hero wins 99% of the time, you're still worried that 1% happens.

This usually happens when the villain has the goal of attaining something that the heroes need to keep away from them. Or if the result of the villains victory is so large in scale that it can't really be undone.

TVTropes: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EvilOnlyHasToWinOnce

Tropedia: https://tropedia.fandom.com/wiki/Evil_Only_Has_to_Win_Once

Examples of villains like this are Darkseid and Thanos from DC and Marvel respectively.

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  • This is much like the answer I'd give. I'd upvote this if it were developed into a full answer (with explanation and examples) rather than being a comment.
    – DWKraus
    Feb 16 at 23:28
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There's a lot more to a solid hero - villain dynamic than how they fare in a 1v1 fight.

Consider the context of the engagement:
Who is on that attack and who is defending?
What are they defending?
What would the attacker consider a win?
What would the defender consider a loss?

Look at Batman and Joker. Joker isn't a threat to Batman in a 1v1, but his cunning means that he typically chooses the battles and sets them up in a way that benefits him. He always has an exit plan to fight another day.

Your hero is stronger than the enemy in a direct confrontation, how can there still be tension?
Does the enemy allow for a direct confrontation?
Does he have an evil fortress well defended and unassailable?
Does your enemy have a tendency to set up devious traps, play to the moral weakness of the Hero, or threaten that which the Hero loves?
Does your enemy employ hit and run tactics weakening the Hero / Hero League?

A truly menacing villain could appear out of the shadows, threaten your loved ones, ignore all reasonable rules of engagement, mercilessly destroy your base / homes / employees homes and then disappear without a trace.

Capt Punch-a-lot might be able to one hit KO this villain, but you cannot punch that which you cannot catch.

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Give him a button that makes everyone's head explode.

If the antagonist has an ultima ratio that they have until now hesitated to employ (like the one described above), they remain a terrible threat although they have as yet been repeatedly overcome by conventional means.

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  • Is this answer sponsored by a TV show produced by a delivery company, I wonder.
    – Stef
    Feb 9 at 16:09
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A villain surely has more important stuff to do than to fight a wannabe hero. A villain is the mastermind behind the plan to world domination. He has minions. They are the incapable ones. They can be bested. As such, the villain suffers a defeat by proxy and maybe his plan may even be foiled. However, he can always find a new minion, group of minions or a monster that is a threat to the hero. As long as he never loses (too often) in a 1v1, it doesn't undermine the villain. Afterall, the hero just managed to beat his underlings. Save the final boss fight for last.

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Isn't that already incredibly menacing? You have a threat that doesn't go away, and keeps coming back like a disease. With a truly heinous villain, the heroes have to win every time for society to be at peace, but the villain only needs to win once for world conquest/the world to be destroyed/etc. The concept verges on cosmic horror - the heroes face a threat that never truly goes away.

To play it up, think about how that might weigh on and fatigue the characters. Does it seem pointless? Like an unwinnable war? Think of a weary cop who sees that for every bad guy he puts in jail two more commit their first crime.

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Make the villain's "defeats" be Pyrrhic victories for the hero. That is, while the hero ultimately bests the villain, the villain's plans have progressed far enough that there are already significant negative effects.

For example, while the hero is able to defeat the villain in time to prevent the poison from killing everyone in the city, it's already reached 10% of them. Those people will leave behind family and friends for whom the hero's victory does not seem as such; to them the villain won, and they aren't going to forget that. Similarly, to the hero, their victory may not seem like such due to this "failure".

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Do something to make the Villain more powerful.

There are a lot of great answers here and remember that a long running series can use more than one of them.

But one thing that I don't think has been mentioned yet is that just as heroes can grow more powerful, so to can the villain.

Even a villain that was comic relief in the first appearance can suddenly be terrifying if they gain a new weapon of great power or go through intense training or gain powers that they didn't have before. This applies to a villain that has ceased to be credible.

Note that while this works well by itself, it works even better when paired with some of the other answers. If the heroes defeated the villain previously but only at great cost, and now the villain returns with new powers and tools that he didn't have before, the heroes will likely need to take the very seriously.

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