What makes a good villain?

13/01/2018 Discussions, Reading 25

What makes a good villain?

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!

Essentials:

  • 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.

Extras

  • 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?

25 Responses to “What makes a good villain?”

  1. Cait @ Paper Fury

    Ooh I do love your list! My favourite is when the villain thinks they’re doing *good* but they’re going about it in a bad way…I think it presents so many questions!! I do admit I like redemption arcs for villains 😂 but I also like when they get their dues. And complex and competent = a MUST!

    • Laura

      I love that too when the villain thinks that they’re doing good by doing the bad things they do! It just makes for such a complex character. And I’m kind of the same in that I like when villains are redeemed, but I also like when they get their comeuppance. Villains are just such fascinating characters! 🙂

  2. Aj @ Read All The Things!

    YES! Exactly! I don’t like it when villains do something just because they’re “evil.” I like it when the villain is the hero of their own story and believes they’re doing good things.

  3. Birdie

    I have to agree with everything on this list! My way of summing it all up is basically “A villain is who you get when your hero’s goals get in someone else’s way.” Your hero IS a villain to someone (even if it’s just the actual villain). The antagonist should be just as fully developed and 3D, since they’re generally super important to the story.

    Which is basically what you said, so… yes. Much agreement.

    • Laura

      That’s so true, and such a good point to make! It totally depends on which side of the story you’re telling as to who is the villain and who is the hero. In the villain’s mind, the hero is the villain, because he’s working against him, so potentially the same story could be told from the other perspective with the roles reversed 🙂

  4. Sherryl

    There wouldn’t be a story without someone/thing for the hero to fight against. Story is conflict.

  5. Stephanie Jane

    I love this analysis and personally think a proper villain can successfully carry a book even if the hero is a bit bland. It doesn’t seem to work as well the other way around though!

  6. Rosie Amber

    A very good list, yes a villain has to be very believable, some authors can write them so well that you find yourself empathising with them, it can be confusing when you think you shouldn’t ‘like’ them.

    • Laura

      Yeah, I think that’s definitely the sign of a good villain when you find yourself feeling confused because you like them when you know you shouldn’t! 🙂

  7. Aimee (Aimee, Always)

    “Good villains believe they are the hero in their own story.” MUCH YES TO THIS ONE! They do bad things because they believe these are actually good. I think this is why the villain in Marie Lu’s WARCROSS was really believable for me. Have you read that one yet? <3

    • Laura

      I haven’t read Warcross, but I just checked out the synopsis, and it sounds like my kind of book! I love believable villains, so I’ll have to check that one out. Thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

  8. Janine

    What a fantastic list! I love when a villain has some sort of redeeming quality . . . you know, maybe they are not as bad as they either make themselves out to be or as others see them. On the flip side, I also love when a truly ruthless villain really gets what’s coming to them after a long hard fight.

    • Laura

      I really like villains with a redeeming quality too! I think it makes them much more believable, because I don’t think that anyone is pure evil. But I do like the satisfying feeling you get when a really evil villain finally gets their comeuppance! 🙂

  9. Elley the Book Otter

    I love your list, and totally agree! Especially the bullet point that villains are the hero of their own story, which I think ties into the point you make about motives for their villainy as well. I recently read Deadly Sweet, a paranormal YA novel, and I really liked it EXCEPT I didn’t believe the villain’s motivation at all. It was really weird and fell flat, and kind of ruined the whole book a bit. A good villain is so key to a great story!

    • Laura

      It sucks that the villain ruined Deadly Sweet for you! Villains really are such important characters, which I think is something it’s easy to forget until you read a book like that with a disappointing villain.

  10. Karen Blue

    Yes to this whole list! I recently had issues with a villain in a book and it is because he wasn’t believable. All these things are so important to compose a good villain. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Laura

      I always find it so disappointing when a villain just isn’t believable, as the villain is such an important aspect of a story that it can ruin the whole book. I’m glad you agree with my list! 🙂

    • Laura

      I like that too when you can kind of see the villain’s point of view, they’re just going about it the wrong way. It definitely gets you thinking anyway about morality and what’s right and wrong, and I always like books that make you really think like that.

  11. verushka

    This list is brilliant! I read this and nodded to each one — in particular that villains believe they’re the heroes of their own story. You’re so right!

Leave a Reply