A potent, juicy K-drama villain requires a few healthy doses of a few key ingredients in order to grip our hearts and keep our heroes on their toes. If lacking one of these ingredients, a villain can fall as flat as a loaf of bread without yeast. Let’s explore the perfect recipe of character elements required to make a formidable, enjoyable, and truly terrifying K-drama villain.
A villain who attacks our beloved heroines and heroes for reasons unknown, whose motivations are as much of a mystery as their cruel and thoughtless behavior are just villains we hate to hate. We don’t enjoy them onscreen.
A great villain is someone we love to hate, and hate to empathize with, but we just can’t help ourselves. A solid backstory allows for us to get inside their scrambled brains and see what makes them tick. Was mommy cruel to her as a child? Does he have a history of mental illness? Was she a monster created by society? A solid backstory makes us think and revel in the villain’s role as much as we shudder because of their horrible actions.
Examples of amazing drama backstories are (spoiler alert):
- “I Hear Your Voice”: The serial killer Min Joon Gook (Jung Woong In) whose deadly revenge was spurred by the unfair death of his wife. Her passing triggered the crazy in him and started him on the dark path that haunts the main leads.
- “City Hunter”: Kim Sang Joong plays the twisted adoptive father of the titular City Hunter, Yoon Sung (Lee Min Ho), and suffered the loss of his best friend in a wartime situation. Although he loves Yoon Sung, his desire for revenge nearly dominates that emotion until the bitter end.
Sprinkle a pinch of empathy over the cup of backstory and we have a villain we can relate to, no matter how much that gives us the willies. To have a moment or two when we can truly understand the mental space of a villain brings us close to him or her and makes the story that much richer. Without these moments of understanding, a villain becomes a mere doer of actions, a means to an end, rather than a character we are invested in.
Examples of moments that inspire empathy are (spoiler alert):
- “The Princess’ Man”: Grand Prince Suyang (Kim Young Chul) is historically a powerful and imposing figure, and he was no less than that in “The Princess’ Man.” What we got to see in this fictionalized account of his life was how much he loved his daughter despite his actions that spoke otherwise. We can most definitely relate to his fatherly love.
- “Mirror of the Witch”: Yum Jung Ah as Shamaness Hong Joo was motivated by revenge and would kill to attain her goals. But her love for her teacher and current enemy was poignant and relatable. Who can’t relate to the powerful memories and feelings that come with one’s first love?
Slowly churn a dollop of curiosity into the mixture of backstory and empathy and we start to form the basis of a solid villain. Just like we want to know the stories behind our main leads, we also want to peel back the layers of our villains. The curiosity that creates thirst for knowledge keeps us coming for more. Stories normally reveal backstories slowly, teasing us and making us crave more than just a glimpse. This is a very powerful ingredient whose flavor needs to be maintained over the duration of a drama.
Examples of curiosity-inducing villains (spoiler alert):
- “W”: The curious mixture of father and serial killer is one of the most genius villain creations to date. The creator and the creation become one and it makes us all wonder, “How in the two world of “W” did that happen?”
- “Punch”: Jo Jae Hyun as Prosecutor General Lee Tae Joon is a perfectly blended villain. As the well-crafted political drama unfolds, we are constantly curious about Prosecutor General Lee’s motivations and how they became stronger than his genuine brotherly affection for Prosecutor Park Jung Hwan (Kim Rae Won).
A recipe is boring without a spoonful of surprise; a touch of citrus; a sprinkle of ghost chili. The best villains always keep us guessing as to what their next moves will be, or about what twisted thoughts are churning in their unfathomable minds. Although we may grow to have some sort of understanding as their backstories are revealed, we can’t always guess where they will next step foot. This unpredictability keeps the story exciting and the intrigue snags our interest in the villain as more than just a plot tool.
Examples of surprise that kept us hooked (spoiler alert):
- “Two Weeks”: Boss Moon (Jo Min Ki) is a figurehead of pure evil, but as quickly as Lee Joon Ki’s Jang Tae San outsmarted him, Boss Moon and his extensive crime network countered with moves that neither Tae San or his allies could fathom. This race to the finish was neck-and-neck during every single episode of the sixteen episode drama because Boss Moon and his allies kept us all on our toes.
- “My Love from the Star”: Shin Sung Rok as the sick and twisted Lee Jae Kyung was an excellent villain. We all knew he was a nut job, but he still kept us and the main leads completely in the dark as to his nefarious plans.
No matter how human a villain is during their backstory, or even during the course of a drama, there is always a tablespoon (or two or three) of insanity mixed into the recipe. It is the insanity that allows them to rationalize their deplorable actions or revel in the taking of a life. It is the insanity that evolves and balloons allowing them to murder to achieve revenge, or ruin lives to attain power. Sometimes these twisted minds exist from the beginning, the terrifying psychopaths, or sometimes the monsters are grown.
Examples of insanity that had us shaking in our boots (spoiler alert):
- “Bad Guys“: Prosecutor Oh Jae Won (Kim Tae Hoon) is a bad guy who has deluded himself into thinking he is a good guy, and that his murders are all performed in the name of good. His insanity allowed him to rationalize that the taking of innocent lives was the only way to attain justice for those that he deemed wicked. What he didn’t realize was that he had become the wicked himself.
- “White Christmas”: Kim Sang Kyung as convicted serial killer Kim Yo Han uses a group of unknowing school kids in his sick experiments, pitting them against each other in order to answer a question. “Are monsters born or are they made?” This man has zero compunction when taking life, and even less when he makes these kids suffer both psychologically and physically. He is the definition of insanity.
Intelligence is a villainous element that is needed in great quantities. Throw in two cups into your bad guy recipe to create a heart-stopping monster. Without intelligence, the bad guy gets caught. Without intelligence, his schemes are not interesting. Without intelligence, there is no intrigue. A smart bad guy keeps everyone on their toes. She keeps the heroes guessing. He often corners the heroine in a tight spot. Intelligence is the heart of this K-drama meal. The smarter the villain, the most interesting her schemes. The smarter the villain, the more likely that he won’t get caught.
Examples of intelligence that kept the bad guys ten steps ahead (spoiler alert):
- “The King 2 Hearts”: Kim Bong Gu (Yoon Je Moon) is not only a bona fide nut job, but a crazy smart nut job as well. He has built a worldwide munitions empire based upon his cunning intelligence that allows him to pretty much get away with everything because he has created money and power for himself. He is able to manipulate entire governments to his will, which is truly scary stuff.
- “Healer”: Park Sang Won’s Kim Moon Sik is smart because he knows how to use his connections to fulfill his goals. He has tricked those around him into believe his deluded goals are just and good with his fancy words and intelligent schemes. He twists reality to convince himself and others that hurting and using his younger brother is the right thing to do.
None of the villains written on paper would be worth anything without a solid actor portraying them. Three cups of fantastic acting are needed to take a bad guy off the paper and breathe life into him or her and create a hearty character that we can sink our teeth into. All of the examples I’ve listed thus far are villains with fine actors. Yoon Je Moon was able to make Kim Bong Gu seem “almost” sane and those were the moments that chilled us to the bone because seconds later he was giving kill orders. Shin Sung Rok was able to make his Lee Jae Kyung completely devoid of any empathy or warm feelings, while still making him charming enough to trick almost everyone around him. Kim Young Chul as Grand Prince Suyang could alternately be terrifying in his ruthlessness and relatable in his warm love for his daughter. He portrayed the juxtaposition between Suyang’s feelings with detailed emotion.
Soompiers, what is your recipe for the perfect K-drama villain? Let us know in the comments below!
Raine0211 is a lover of all things Korean, especially K-pop, K-drama, and Korean food. When she’s not writing for Soompi, she’s playing the cello and singing. She happily indulges in all kinds of K-pop, but her biases are SHINee, Infinite, and VIXX. She lives with her sister, her roommate Elsa, and her two cats, Timmy and Momo, all of whom also love K-pop and K-drama.