As surprising as it might seem, villains have just as big a role in a story as the hero. Yes, we may spend much more time with the hero, but essentially there is no story without the villain there to oppose the hero’s every move.
But what makes a good villain? What is it that enthrals us so much, and makes us love to hate them? And what makes them fall flat and not seem like much of a threat?
Well here are a few of my ideas about what makes a good villain!
- Good villains have clear motives for their villainy.
No one ever does anything without good reason (even if they don’t consciously know the reason), and I don’t believe that anyone is born evil…so what makes a villain tick? What drives them to do the things that they do? What do they gain by committing such terrible acts?
Stories with a good villain answer these questions (even if it isn’t right away) and the villain always has as strong a motive as the hero, even if what they are aiming for is completely different. You see it so often in books where the villain is just bad because he’s the villain and that’s his job, but that isn’t a proper motive, and it keeps the stakes low for both the villain himself and the hero. The villain and hero should be fighting to achieve their opposing goals as if they’re lives depend on it (and maybe they do!)!
- Good villains are believable characters.
Villains are people too (unless they’re not…Eye of Sauron, I’m looking at you, although please don’t look back!), and so we have to believe that they could actually exist.
They have to be a fully-rounded, well-developed character just like the hero, as opposed to some cape-wearing, moustachioed stereotype because that doesn’t make for a very imposing villain. Because let’s face it: there’s something much scarier about real, believable people doing terrible things than some cardboard cut-out character cackling and making soliloquys about his plans for world domination.
- Good villains believe they are the hero in their own story.
In my opinion, good villains don’t think of themselves as villains. They genuinely believe that they are the one that is in the right, which is why they fight as hard as the hero to achieve their ends.
Maybe they genuinely believe that the world would be better off with them in charge, or that killing a few people will benefit the greater good, but they have their own narrative in their head that puts them front and centre. Even if what they do seems entirely selfish, they are still doing what they think is best, but perhaps can’t see further than themself and their own needs.
- Good villains should be competent.
A good villain should be as competent or even more competent than the hero, because otherwise you aren’t going to have a very long story. Take Moriarty for example: he’s the only person anywhere near as clever as Sherlock Holmes, and he may even surpass him. If he wasn’t, then the genius Sherlock Holmes would have caught up to him and defeated him in just one story, and where would the fun be in that?
The hero has to have a worthy opponent for a good story. You want to feel excited and genuinely fear for the hero when they come face to face.
- Good villains should have an interesting back story.
People aren’t born homicidal maniacs or evil dictators, so what exactly makes them that way?
A compelling back story is a must for a good villain, as it explains how they came to be who they are. Maybe their entire family was killed in a terrible tragedy, and they have been hell bent on revenge ever since, or perhaps they were a lonely, unloved child who now resents those who have what they didn’t… There has to be a good reason for why they do bad things, otherwise they just aren’t believable as a character.
- Good villains often have some likeable qualities.
This isn’t necessarily a ‘must’ for a good villain, but it sure can help if we have some ounce of sympathy for the villain, or find them entertaining as a character. It gives the villain that ‘human factor’, and allows us to connect with them as a person, even if they do terrible things.
- Good villains are often a foil for the main character.
Some of the best villains are foils to their respective heroes: they are opposites, but potentially could have been the same, or have gone in the other direction had their roles been switched.
Take Harry Potter for example: when you think about it, he and Voldemort actually have a lot in common. They were both orphans and unloved children who discover they have magical powers. What they choose to do with these powers is completely different, as they are influenced by different people, and have different experiences. But whose to say Tom Riddle couldn’t have ended up a good guy, and Harry Potter could have gone bad if things had been slightly different?
- Good villains are often mysterious.
This isn’t exactly a ‘must’ for a good villain either, but an initial bit of mystery can help get us interested and invested in the character.
Plus if the villain immediately arrives upon the scene, announces that the reason he’s evil is because his mother didn’t love him, then it kind of destroys the reveal later in the book. It can be good to go through a story hating a character, only to find yourself identifying with them and feeling for them later on, as it makes you change your entire perspective.
So what do you think makes a good villain? Do you agree with my list?