Evil laugh… funny hairdo… yeah, that’s another boring villain. Yawn.
Why is it that most villains are run-of-the-mill, seem to pose no real threat even though they’ve got the remote for the bomb in their hand, or — to put it bluntly —are just dumb?
For your efforts to really take off, you need to create a villain your readers will love, loathe and secretly root for at times — and, more importantly, will stay lodged in memory long after the final word of your novel has passed.
One of the best types of villain is the true antagonist: a person you’re not quite sure is truly evil or who is honestly misunderstood. This type of villain works well when they’re acting as a parallel to a single hero. As both arcs begin in the same place, or at the same level, the hero’s curves up while the villain’s curves down. For every stroke of luck the hero has, the villain has a crushing tragedy. For every obstacle overcome, a plan is thwarted.
These villains work so well because, if even the tiniest circumstances had been different, THEY could have been the hero. You find a disquieting little piece of yourself rooting for them because you just feel they just need to catch a break. Villains like Frankenstein’s Monster, Mr. Glass from the movie Unbreakable, and even Gaston from Beauty and the Beast all qualify as villains we hate to love and love to hate. Because, like the hero, they have a flaw in their character — but while the hero finds the strength to overcome their shortcomings, the villain is dragged down by them.
Amp up the delicious horribleness of their character by making them in some ways better than your hero — more charming, a kinder person, smarter or just well-informed. When you encounter villains like this, you can’t help but throw your hands up at the do-gooders and yell, “Why can’t you be more like the bad guy?!”
Villains like this include Loki, who, in Marvel’s Thor franchise, is smarter, more humble, and (many would argue) better looking than his brother.
Another compelling type of villain is the one who’s just plain insane. Their motives are overblown, they exhibit obsessive, narcissistic and delusional tendencies, but most of all — they’re unpredictable. They blow into town like a hurricane, destroying everything in their path, and no amount of logic or reason will tame them. They want what they want. They might not necessarily be evil people, but most will stop at nothing to fulfil their mission.
Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s novel Misery is one such villain: she’s totally nuts. After her favorite novelist Paul Sheldon crashes in a snowstorm, she finds and ‘rescues’ him… only to demand that he finish off her favorite series in a way she likes — i.e., without killing the main character. A fairly reasonable request, from a certain perspective, except when Sheldon wishes to leave, she refuses to let him. And when she finds out that he’s been traversing the house while she is away… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Norman Bates from Psycho is another ‘crazy’ villain. Acting normal for police and the loved ones of the missing Mary Crane (whom he killed), Bates is all smiles and pleasantries when investigators arrive at his motel — but things are very different when his mother gets involved.
Hannibal Lecter is a famous example of the insane villain, but interestingly he isn’t actually the antagonist in Silence of the Lambs. He isn’t committing the awful crimes Clarice Starling has been assigned to investigate, yet his particular brand of malice and insanity hangs like a cloud over the investigation, suggesting that he poses a much more significant danger than the serial killer she’s pursuing.
Why do all of these villains make such a grand mark on audiences? Because they’re thoroughly fleshed out, thoughtful, devious, and – even when at their worst – undeniably human.
All in all, to make a villain believable and enjoyable, they have to be real – and it helps if they mirror some positive or negative traits of the hero. If you begin to think that some may argue your villain would make for a better main character than your hero, chances are you have a compelling battle on your hands!
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