I love a good villain, but I prefer a complex villain. One dimensional evil is kind of boring and doesn’t offer much in the way of character development or surprise. I prefer villains with their own ethical codes. It doesn’t have to be a code I agree with; it’s just important that whatever the code is, it’s consistent.
Villains are meant to move a story forward, but at their best, are foils for the hero, a way to contrast the hero’s choices and make the hero shine brighter.
So what makes a good villain?
I think that they have to be in somewhat understandable and relatable. Who wants to read about a villain who is so far out there that no one cares. That’s one of the things I liked about Hannibal Lecter (from Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, and Hannibal by Thomas Harris); he didn’t do things he considered to be rude, and he “ate the rude.” Sure, a little extreme, but I agree that the rude should be punished.
They have to live by a set of rules. Annie Wilkes of Misery (by Stephen King) was CRAZY. But she didn’t like profanity, didn’t like cheating, and liked fiction. Maybe she was okay with hobbling a guy, but she wasn’t going to say any naughty words while doing it.
They should be well-developed enough to be an actual character. Seems a bit obvious, but I want to know a little bit about my villain. Enough to know what makes them a villain. In Watchers, by Dean Koontz, The Outsider’s character was so well-developed that I felt a little sad and wondered if he could have been redeemed, even though I knew he had to die.
Though sometimes mystery is good. Darth Vader was much scarier in Star Wars IV-VI than he was in I-III. ‘Nuff said.
They should be scary. If a villain isn’t scary, what’s the point? Evil should always scare us. The Joker in The Dark Knight was one of the scariest villains in a long time, and what made him scary was his complete and total unpredictability. (That’s not to say he didn’t live by a set of rules; he did. But he was all about anarchy, which is inherently unpredictable.)
Sometimes the villain makes you kinda agree with them. A little. I love villains who make me question my views on morality. Erik Lensher aka Magneto in the X-men movies. He’s tired of being a second class citizen, so he wants to kill off all his potential oppressors. Yeah, it’s wrong. But if wrong is a continuum, it’s not at the far, far end. Is it?
Writing villains can be satisfying and fun, but it’s also difficult to do well. I’m not saying that a good villain must have all these qualities, but at least one or two, and scary is a MUST.
“The villains were always ugly in books and movies. Necessarily so, it seemed. Because if they were attractive—if their looks matched their charm and their cunning—they wouldn’t only be dangerous.
They would be irresistible.”
― Nenia Campbell
Who’s your favorite villain?