What Makes A Good Villain?

First and foremost, before I begin on the main subject of this entry, I feel obliged to offer up some lame excuse for my lack of posting. Namely, I had no idea what to write about.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s always something to ramble about; the trouble comes in finding a subject that won’t make me fall asleep and drool all over my keyboard.

That said, I finally decided to discuss something that has been on my mind quite a lot lately: villains.

In the first draft of my novel, I didn’t have a villain. Or rather, I did but it wasn’t a person so much as a massive army backed by some ominous nation; the idea being they wanted to kill my hero. Not terribly original, or very realistic for that matter, but then I have a history with villains. The only two I ever put any real thought into ended up weaseling their way out of the whole ‘mindless killing’ gig, winning increased sympathy with every revision until finally, they became two of my most interesting good guys to date.

One of these little wiseguys also happens to be the main character for the novel I’m writing now, so there you go.

In any case, as I revised the draft for my novel, I found that my ominous nation was developing a spokesperson; and I was thrilled. At first, I admit, he was pretty lame; just some nasty man with an awesome war ship and no real motivation for hurting people. But then as I thought about him, he started to develop a personality. In the short space of two months, I had a crystal-clear idea of who this guy was, and the very simple reason for why he does what he does. I had my villain.

Still, I could not help but be apprehensive. I had never written with this guy before, and I was opening with him. So, I started doing research with just one question in mind: what is it that makes a good villain?

Seriously, you, the one behind the monitor (have a cookie), which villains stand out for you as being the most effective and creepy? Why did they work so well?

I don’t even have to think about that my answer.

Without a doubt, one of my favourite movies of all time would be Terminator 2. It has so much going for it; intense action scenes, characters I can sink my teeth into, a guy loading a shotgun with one hand while riding a motorbike, and of course the father-son relationship between the young John Conner and our good guy Terminator; which in spite of the film’s genre still managed to bring me close to tears at the end.

More than any of that though, they had the ultimate villain. This film has the sort of suspense that just wins hands down over most other examples I can think of, and it was all because of the villain. After bearing dozens and dozens of cheap, theatrical, world dominating wackos; all of them making lofty promises they obviously could not keep, here came a character who was all action and little talk. Here was a guy who just would not stop, no matter what was thrown at him. He was perhaps the first villain I actually feared (not in a nightmare sort of way, mind you), and I really felt he was a threat to the well-being of the main cast.

Of course, if I’m talking about good villains, the next guy that comes to mind would be The Joker from The Dark Knight. I know, I know, this guy is well over-hyped; but you have to admit he was an incredible villain. For the first time since Terminator 2, I was scared of the opposition. What made him work so well for me was the fact that he wasn’t this merciless killing machine. He was unpredictable, and he managed to both draw in and repulse me with his insanity.

However, for all my praises, I also have to admit that I felt the writer’s failed with this brilliant character on one account: he overshadowed Batman. No villain should ever be allowed to overshadow the hero, especially not in Christian fiction.

I could honestly write an entire essay on that film and my opinions concerning it, but I’ll close before this post gets too long.

Anyway, I’d love to know what you guys think. What villains worked for you, and which ones failed? If you have or know of any articles on the subject, I’d really appreciate it if you could pass me the link.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try to do a little more writing.

More than any of that though, they had the ultimate villain

About Zoë Demaré

Zoe Demare was born in England and spent the greater part of her restless adolescence in Holland. She is currently working towards her BA in creative arts, an achievement that she prays becomes a reality sometime in 2011. Daydreaming is her favourite pastime, and when she isn't doing that, she's writing or drawing. Her greatest ambitions are to travel, get a novel published, and make a living out of comics. More than anything else though, she just wants to follow God's plan for her life. In 2009 she started writing her 'first real novel' (the actual first attempt was pretty dire), and is still trying to get it finished.

11 comments on “What Makes A Good Villain?

  1. A good villain needs to be someone whose needs we can understand, even if we don’t agree with them. In the case of T2, we knew what the evil terminator wanted. His motivations were understandable. He wasn’t doing evil for the sake of doing evil: the “machine” was fighting to protect itself.

    Or look at Hannibal Lecter. A brilliant yet insane man, trapped forever in a cage, doing what he can to entertain himself as best he can, surrounded by people hostile and repellent to him. We don’t agree with Lecter’s actions, but we can understand them.

    Very few real bad guys consider themselves evil. They always feel justified in what they do. I’ve heard it said that when Dillinger was gunned down, he was genuinely surprised that someone had killed him, saying something along the lines of, “What did I do to deserve this?”

    Thus, you must make your villain “good” in his own eyes, even if not in your readers’ eyes.

    • I completely agree with this. Regardless of how evil a villain is, they are still (in most cases) human beings and need a realistic motivation backing their actions; no matter how warped it may be.

  2. Wow, I comment on the other blog post about villains again, only to see my ideas written up here about villains overshadowing heros. Spot on critique my friend. I don’t quite agree with you about Batman/Joker from Dark Knight, but that’s a subject that, as you say, we could on ad nauseum about.

    As for great villains, I’ll suggest another overhyped guy by the name of William Shakespeare for advice: his tragedies, as well as the old Greek ones, provide a template for almost everyone who came afterwards in Western literature/art. As for explroations of how to keep your villains “bad” and heros “good,” I’ll go out on a limb and suggest Jane Austen for character studies on the subtler differences between the two.

    Mainly, in my mind, Heroes have to be selfless while Villains are always motivated by self. Anakin of the prequels fails because he is entirely motivated by his own interests above those of others (yes, even little Ani, it’s always about him and his friends, not the greater good), while Luke prevails (and ultimately helps to redeem his father) because he is willing to sacrifice for what will benefit all, not just his own desires.

    • I’d be interested to hear your opinions on that someday. I’m always up for a bit of discussion when it comes to films. (:

      Those are some unexpected suggestions. I must admit, I hated anything to do with Shakesphere throughout high school, and only developed an appreciation for his work a few months after I graduated. (x Are there any particular works you recommend?

  3. Great post! I would exactly define the T1000 or the Joker as “villains”, but as monsters. But that’s another post for another day. Whatever they are, they sure are scary and well portrayed!

  4. A good villain is Elijah from Unbreakable, unpredictable, and very maddening.

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