I've been examining my characters lately, and analyzing what makes them tick. Some people spend hours and hours drawing up character summaries and backstories and make tons of lists on each character just so they know them backwards and forwards. I am not one of these people. Generally, my story ideas start with at least one character in mind so I do plenty of thinking about them, but I like to let them develop along with the story. It's fun to be surprised by them from time to time.
The character in particular that I have placed under my perfectionist microscope is the villain. Villains are essential to a story. There must be some kind of oppression that is keeping the main character(s) from achieving their goals. Conflict is what keeps people reading from the first page to the last. What I have been wondering about my villain is this:
Is he evil enough?
This question made me think about other fictional villains in literature and what makes them great. Obviously, the degree of evil is dependent upon the genre and tone of a story. If you are writing a lighthearted coming of age story about a group of kids that get bullied, it might be overkill to have your bully wind up sadistically killing everyone and eating their brains for dessert. Alternately, if you're writing a gripping horror story, you'll disappoint for sure if your villain is nothing more than a passive aggressive soccer mom that starts spreading vicious rumors out of revenge.
In general, though, I think there are some key components of a great villain.
1) A great villain does not know they are a villain. What I mean by this is that most people do not actually think they are the bad guy. Some even view themselves as the hero of their own story. The crazy ones that know they are doing wrong feel completely justified in it, whether it be religious, vengeful, or perversely protective reasons driving them on. Crazy, alone, does not make a good villain. To me, there are only a handful of truly great villains that create chaos simply because they enjoy watching the world burn. (Yes, that is a joker/batman reference) The Joker from The Dark Knight movie springs to mind, but I also thought of Hannibal Lector. These two villains are fascinating to me because they are well written explorations into the equivalent of crazy sauce on a crazy biscuit. Unless you are a super talented author that can delve into the dark and troubled waters of true evil completely devoid of reason, I advise you to steer clear. Give them a purpose to drive their evil.
2) A great villain is not invincible. They have faults, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses just like the rest of us. It's how they adapt to these traits and compensate for them that makes an interesting villain. This is what I am struggling with in my own villain right now. I wrote him as a human being with some form of vulnerability that he is hiding and overcompensating for. In all my analyzing, I wondered if this made him appear weak, which is something I don't want my villain to project. If he seems weak, he will not be truly intimidating and therefor not a believable threat to my protagonist. But doesn't that seem more real than a superhuman, emotionless, and invincible villain? I think there is a small part of all of us that believes the good guy always wins in the end, and in order for that to happen, there has to be a weakness of some kind in the bad guy. Whether it be vanity, obsession, or faith, a villain should, in my opinion, be a three-dimensional human being with weaknesses just like any other character.
3) A great villain has at least one redeeming quality. I know this one is controversial and I may have more nay-sayers than supporters, but I'm sticking to my guns on this one. The villains that I remember reading about and stick with me beyond the last page of the book are the ones that, against my better judgement, I wind up feeling a little bit sorry for. Take Darth Vader of the Star Wars series, for example. Can you really hate the guy for what he's done? Yes, he killed innocent people and struck fear in the hearts of good people everywhere. But deep down, the kid was just scared. Every person he ever loved was taken away from him. To prevent the woman he loved from dying, he chose to let that dark side of himself take over. It was all for love. Besides, his good side won out again, in the end. It's that war of good vs. evil inside us all that I find fascinating to read about. A character that is one hundred percent evil with no humanity left is about as real and believable as a hero that has no defect whatsoever and is one hundred percent good and virtuous. But that's a whole other can of worms I'll open in a later post.
In short, I believe the best villains are human beings, just like you and me. It's their skewed reasoning and justification that add depth and interest. They should definitely be evil and threatening to your protagonist(s). But they should also have a reason for doing so, however twisted it may be to the rest of us.
Villains sure are fun, aren't they? Anyone else have a good recipe for evil they want to share?