A couple weekends ago Handsome and I went on a date to see Skyfall, the newest James Bond movie. What struck me—besides how gorgeous Daniel Craig is, how amazing the movie was, or mesmerized by the gun fights I became—was how brilliantly well-done the bad guy, Silva, was.
Which got me to thinking, when writing…what makes a really great villain? You know me well enough by now to guess…I went and made a list 😉
1) Do not make them cartoonish.
Twisting their mustache and cackling whenever things go according to plan is not allowed. Evil for the sake of evil is incredibly difficult to write without the character becoming a cardboard cutout. It’s far more chilling to make an evil character that has actions and behaves in a way that a typical person would react given the right set of circumstances and a hard enough push. Think about it, what’s more scary: some pure evil abstract character who is trying his hand at world domination, or the Jeffrey Dohlmer-type who just walked past you in the grocery store?
2) Play on real/current fears.
Why did the Joker in The Dark Knight chill us to the bone? Because even though Gotham is fake, it felt like we we’re watching a post-9/11 world much like our own.
3) Make your villain intelligent and challenging.
I’m sorry, but a stupid and easily overcome villain just means that your hero was equally stupid (as if he couldn’t handle anything harder). Craft a character that makes the reader think there is no hope for the hero. When a hero is forced to go above and beyond to overcome a villain it makes your hero more credible in the end and his journey worthwhile. Along the same lines, give your villain interesting and meaningful things to say. Make them both compelling and convincing.
4) Give them qualities that are sympathetic.
The best villains are the ones we as readers, despite everything, feel a connection with. Remember, no person is all good or all evil. Just as much as your hero should have flaws, your villain should have some admirable qualities. Does your villain, like President Snow from the Hunger Games, enjoy cultivating roses? Or does he provide care for his sickly sister? Rescues abandoned pug puppies? Possibly he’s like Darth Vader and the love of his children holds him back in the end. Give the villain some secret like this that the hero can discover—then you can explore if your hero is the type of person to use the villain’s vulnerability as leverage or is he too honorable for that.
5) The villain should have sufficient motivation.
The villain wants something, or needs something to occur, and they have a belief that what they are doing is necessary in order to accomplish their goal. I once heard the saying, “Everyone is a hero of their own story” and that thought has stuck with me. See, no one views themselves as the villain.
Not even your bad guy, no, your villain thinks he’s the good guy!
Remember that as you write. In his head he has formed justification for why he does what he does. And these motivations must come across on the pages. As a reader I must be able to process that maybe I would have chosen a different path, but I understand why the villain is the way he is and feels the need to take the actions he does.
If you master these five, then you’ll have one excellent and compelling villain. After that, you can play around adding deeper layers. Think Darth Vader (in the original trilogy) his character arc serves as a lesson for what will happen to Luke if he doesn’t get his act together. Or, the musical and book Wicked serves as an excellent example of seeing your villain in a different light. Ask yourself while writing, if given different circumstances to view them through, would my villain still be a villain?
Who is your favorite (or the best) villain in a movie or a book? What makes them stick with you? Did I miss an ingredient to a good villain? What would you add to the list?