Possibly more comic-book-villain than literary-villain but YOU GET THE POINT
We love villains, don’t we? I mean, we love heroes, sure . . . but a good villain really turns our cranks. They get to be wild, unconstrained badasses; they get the best lines; they get to give into those primitive human urges that the rest of us only dream of dabbling in. They get to wear cool outfits and make funny jokes. Heroes can be kind of square, but villains? Far less likely.
What makes a villain good, though? I mean, besides the badassery and the well-timed barbs. I ask because it’s entirely possible to write a shitty villain. Just being a villain doesn’t make a character awesome. So let’s explore some of the characteristics that make legendary villains.
A good villain has complex motivations.
When we find out that someone did something heinous–killed a bunch of people, for example, although that’s probably not even the worst example–for something as piddly as basic greed, I think it tends to leave a bad taste in our mouths. “He did all of that.. just for money? What an asshole.“ I feel that way about certain real-life people (cough) who go around wrecking other people’s lives because they have the mentality of children seeing how much they can get away with before they get punished. I envision a fat little Dudley Dursley type, sticking his hand in the cookie jar again and again until someone finally smacks it. That’s not a good villain at all, that’s a chump villain–they can make great characters, and even great antagonists, but as the major nemesis of a hero? I think not.
A good villain has a good back story. He or she has a reason to be so fucked up. He’s not just greedy, or bloodthirsty, or generically “evil.” Something drives a good villain; he lacks something that he’s desperate to fix or fill. A good villain would scoff at someone who gave in so easily and crudely to base desires. Common murderer? Please. Where’s the passion? Stumbling into villainy is for amateurs.
We don’t need that back story explained to fucking death, though.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, pisses me off more than when people take a great villain and, after he becomes popular, go back and explain exactly how he got so disturbed in exhausting and/or convenient detail. An example off the top of my head: Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Is it just me, or was Michael Myers a hell of a lot scarier before Rob Zombie made up some bullshit white trash background for him? The original Michael Myers was a “force of nature,” with a complex pathology hinted at through his family background and first murder; Rob Zombie turned him into an episode of Jerry Springer.
The truth is, it’s really hard to completely explain extreme villainous behavior in back story. You’re looking at a potent brew of trauma, brokenness, bad seeds, bad timing, opportunity. But a good villain also has to own what they do, or they’re chumps–writers often get carried away creating elaborate reasons for a villain to have gone bad, but in doing so, they take away some of the significance of that choice to cross the line. Letting a villain off with the insanity defense makes him more of a victim than a villain–he can be both, but taking away the choice pales him as an antagonist.
There’s also the risk that a writer will end up writing a completely unbelievable back story that’s so full of holes Swiss cheese would be envious. Over-explanation can absolutely ruin a good villain.
A good villain should be as powerful as the hero, and probably just a tiny bit more powerful.
Imagine the story of David and Goliath. Now imagine reversing them. David, although still righteous, comes off a bit of a bully if he’s the big one and Goliath is the puny one. I mean, it wouldn’t even be a story. Big guy crushes little guy, yawn.
A good villain may have started off life weak and defenseless, but if he doesn’t become strong–either mentally or physically–then he doesn’t pose any kind of challenge for the hero. There’s no story there.
Weak villain syndrome is sometimes known as over-powered hero syndrome. The villain isn’t necessarily meant to be weak, but the hero has no weaknesses at all and defeats the villain without a lot of effort. (A lot of the J.D. Robbs lately have fallen prey to this . . .) If the hero doesn’t fail at least once, the story sucks. Let’s be real. There’s not even a point if the hero can just swagger in and take care of business without breaking a sweat.
A good villain is also not predictable.
If a villain telegraphs all of his moves so that the hero can counter them effectively, well, that doesn’t make for a very good story, either. See previous point about the hero needing to fail and break a sweat and etc etc.
Good villains have a multifaceted personality.
I always feel like a villain, in a different set of circumstances, could have been a hero. They have many of the same qualities–passion, inner strength, resolve, drive–but somewhere along the way, the villain got fucked up about something. Even totally fucked-up people, though–even super-evil people–have more than that to their personalities. The Joker is a great example; everyone knows that Catwoman and Batman have a sometimes-romance, but fewer people talk about the bromance between Joker and Batman. Joker, despite being a psychopath who constantly puts Batman (and many others) in fatal danger, is also one of the few people who really, truly understands Batman; the Joker’s understanding is, of course, a little twisted . . . but it’s there. In The Killing Joke, Alan Moore explores this theme, showing flashes of humanity in Joker that we rarely see; in the final scenes, Batman tries to convince Joker that he can change his ways, but Joker, regretfully, tells Batman that this isn’t possible. (The film The Dark Knight also explores the Batman and Joker connection but doesn’t show any real vulnerability in Joker.)
Showing a villain’s soft underbelly makes the character more complex, more sympathetic–hell, even likable at times. This can cause great emotional conflict in many of us (the Snape Debates still rage on: good guy, or bad guy?) because his actions make him so unlikable. Or it can spark understanding in us, which can be disturbing as we contemplate how we could just as easily end up in the same position. Emotional connection is good, but almost nobody can connect to someone who is pure evil and little else. Purely evil people simply don’t exist; even psychopaths have a distinct pathology that goes beyond “just evil.”
A good villain needs to be his or her own entity, not just a challenge for the hero.
This ties into having complex motivations and humanity, so I won’t linger here. Suffice to say that the villain needs his or her own momentum–a villain can’t just exist for the hero to fight against. It’s like how a love interest is boring if they’re only there to further the protagonist’s arc. We have to be just as emotionally invested in the villain as we are the hero, so he can’t just be a throwaway pawn–he needs substance.
A good villain hits our hero right in the feels.
Wanna ratchet up the tension between hero and villain? Have the villain pull off some dastardly plot that harms a person or thing that the hero holds dear, or have the villain outwit the hero and pull off an amazing scheme while rubbing the hero’s nose in his victory. The hero just went from “Gee, this guy, he’s kind of an evil bastard” to “I WILL FUCKING DESTROY YOU.” A good villain is able to upset the hero, able to disrupt his whole damn life until their beef is settled.
What’s your favorite aspect of a good villain?
I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to good villainy. What do you love in a villain? What makes a villain unforgettable? Also, what do writers do wrong with villains that drives you insane? Drop your thoughts in the comments below!