What makes a good villain?
Characters Writing Craft
Scott Stoops  

What makes for a good villain?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.”

Agnes Repplier

In a recent Twitter conversation, someone asked, “What makes for a good villain?” What makes a villain interesting? A few people responded, “someone who is bad and opposes the protagonist.” Some respondents took it deeper, pulling in aspects of character such as motivation, goals, objectives. My answer? Someone who could be the protagonist in a different story.

What is a villain?

We should also ask what are heroes? Protagonists, antagonists?

Are heroes always the protagonists? Villains the antagonists?

The short answer is no. These roles typically align, and readers expect them to do so such that breaking away from these patterns can be challenging. To be clear, protagonists must have antagonists and heroes must have villains. That is fundamental to storytelling. Villains can be protagonists.

According to Jeremiah Burt in his article, “What Traits Would an Archetypal Character Have?”, the villain archetype is “a character who displays characteristics of pure evil. Typical villains are self-centered, power-hungry and interested only in achieving their personal goals, usually at the cost of others.”1https://penandthepad.com/traits-would-archetypal-character-have-4946.html

We depict the villain as someone who is compelled by a desire to commit acts of cruelty and immorality. And in many stories, he or she is. Is this definition always true and helpful?

We want our villains to be as bad as possible, and yet we recognize that we just don’t relate to pure evil. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is the fullest expression of pure evil, yet I find it hard to associate with this character at all. He is the personification of wickedness, and we want his downfall. Most of us feel no sympathy for him. Saruman is actually more villainous, because we can identify with his motives and decisions, even if we wouldn’t act the same way. The same is true for the Emperor and Darth Vader in the Star Wars stories.

Characteristics of a good villain

No one likes to read about two-dimensional cardboard characters. The clichéd hero dressed in white and villain dressed in black isn’t appealing. We want depth, not cartoon-like characters.

So, what makes for a good villain? It turns out to be the same things as for heroes.

Strong connection to the hero

Something inextricably links the villain to the hero. He is a part of the hero’s development through opposition. The villains’ and hero’s goals must conflict. Saruman and Gandalf exemplify this. They are Maiar and assisted in creation, and, after the rise of Sauron, were tasked with defeating him. This makes their conflict much more interesting because of the sides they choose in the battle against Sauron.

A clear sense of morality

“Whenever you take on playing a villain, he has to cease to be a villain to you. If you judge this man by his time, he’s doing very little wrong.”

Colin Firth

Snidely Whiplash is the typical cartoon villain2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snidely_Whiplash, appearing in a couple of cartoon series. Snidely takes great delight in tying women to railroad tracks and doing everything in his power to thwart Dudley Do-Right. He is the typical villain that arose out of early silent films and melodramas.

The problem with Snidely is that he has no motivation for any of his evil schemes. He does them just because he wants to.

One guy who gets a bad rap is the Sheriff of Nottingham. He opposes Robin Hood and sets out to capture him. Robin Hood is a thief, even if he has good intentions. The Sheriff is doing his job.

The Frankenstein creature. Although this is not depicted well in most film adaptations, the creature’s reasons for his actions against humanity and Victor Frankenstein are plausible. Everyone sees him as a monster. The creature approaches Victor Frankenstein with the request that a female be created who would be like him. The two of them would go away and the reign of terror against Frankenstein and his family ended. Frankenstein rejects his request.

The villain sees himself as the hero of the story and his actions are justifiable.

A worthy opponent

The villain must be a match for the hero. He must neither be easily overcome nor impossible to beat. We must keep the outcome of the conflict in question until the end. The reverse is true, as well. The hero must be a match for the villain.

Not only must his skill match that of the hero, his character must, as well. If his view of his morality is not equal to that of the hero, then he will give up too easily. He must posses the drive to achieve his goals and objectives to the same extent as the hero.

Professor Moriarty is Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis. Moriarty is, in every way, Holmes opposite and a match. In some ways, Moriarty is superior to Holmes, and that adds to the tension.

An interesting backstory

Heroes don’t just appear on the scene, do their heroic deeds and then exit stage right. Neither should villains. They come from somewhere, had parents, went to school, excelled in some activities and failed in others. They faced life and overcame obstacles, or tried to. By showing the things that shaped them, their flaws and weaknesses, we help our readers to sympathize with them and that is one thing that Agnes Repplier said villains must have.

We may find that “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

Villains should be fun

The villain of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the mad scientist intent on creating the perfect life form as his own sexual plaything. He is primarily concerned with himself and lacks any genuine compassion or concern for others. He delights in playing with people and even destroying them for his own pleasure.

And he is fun to watch. We feel sorry for him at the end of the film when his biggest dreams come crashing down around him. Tim Curry, who played Frankie on London and Broadway stages and in the film, made a career of being the villain, injecting pathos and humor into many of his characters.

What makes a good villain?

Villains and heroes. Characters in stories. Each has a goal, and that goal is revealed as the story progresses. We typically see the villain opposing the hero, but they oppose each other. Each has motivation for his goals that are not just to thwart the other. Each has facets and aspects of his or her character that make them well-rounded, believable, and human.

In the end, if he fails, and we hope he does, his end must be consistent with everything that comes before in his story, the one where he is the protagonist.

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  1. […] my post, “What makes for a good villain?”, I talk about some things that we should do when creating and writing our […]

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