Villains are a complicated sort of character. Done right, they can make your reader feel genuine anger or resentment at them for foiling the protagonist’s hopes and dreams. Done really right, they can become worthwhile characters with following all of their own. In a discussion with a friend some time ago about our favorite villains, I realized there are certain characteristics that make a more well-formed bad guy. Rules of villainy, if you will, that often are the difference between someone the readers feel genuine emotion toward and someone is just a prop to move the plot along. I put together a list of things to make myself run through when creating my villains, and I thought I’d go ahead and share it with all of you.
1. Real Villains Have Real Motivations
I think sociopath/psychopath is one of the most overused and absolute worst models to use for a villain. Evil for the sake of evil is just so unrealistic. In the real world people do bad things, sure, but they do them because they have a reason. Greed, anger, jealousy, fear, love, revenge; all of these can lead people down to path toward committing atrocious acts.
When creating a villain, really take the time to ask yourself why this person is a bastard. What do they want? Maybe they want power, but still ask why. What about them or their life is so compelling that they’re willing to kill or subjugate innocent people to achieve that level of power? The deep you get, the more you understand your villain, the better crafted they’ll be. Find the thing that drives them, the thing that makes them choose evil, because it is a choice.
Favorite Example: Johnny Marcone – Dresden Files. (Minor spoilers from Book 1) The leader of Chicago’s underworld, he runs things with brutal, ruthless efficiency that includes severe punishment for his people killing innocent bystanders. The reason he rose through the ranks and imposed his will so forcefully is that when he was starting out he was in a gunfight that killed a child. The guilt from that drove him to amass power and create an empire where such mistakes wouldn’t happen again.
2. Villains Can Be Broken
One of my biggest red flags of badness in a series is if the protagonist is super-kick-ass-awesome right out of the gates. That’s what we in the Tabletop RP world call a broken character, one who is too powerful to be provided with reasonable challenges in the course of their adventures. Except under very rare and skillfully handled conditions, protagonists shouldn’t be broken. The more room they have to grow, the better the journey for the reader.
This does not hold true with villains. Since villains represent the ultimate obstacle, the thing terrifying your protagonist all the way through the journey, villains can absolutely be broken. Dragon-riding, demon-summoning, god-strength-having broken. The tougher they are, the greater the peril your protagonist faces by confronting them, and the more satisfying it is when that villain is defeated. A broken villain ups the stakes; a broken protagonist lessens the story.
Favorite Example: Galactus – Marvel Comics. In a world of people who are “strongest in the world” Galactus doesn’t measure himself on the same scale. He fucking eats those worlds, and those ultra-powerful people on them. When Galactus comes a knocking, everyone, good or bad, shits their pants, and that creates a terrific obstacle for the heroes to overcome. He embodies unstoppability, especially in the fact that “defeating” him is usually just convincing him to go grab a bite elsewhere.
3. Villains Can, and Often Should, Have Rules.
This pairs well with the evil for the sake of evil argument in point #1, but just because a person is willing to do one bad thing doesn’t mean they’re will to do all the bad things. Remember, your villain is a person who grew up with experiences and some sense of morality, skewed as it might be. A man who is willing to rob a bank isn’t inherently someone who is okay with killing, and even a killer may have set rules about what type of people they’ll hurt. They aren’t empty inside with no concept of empathy or pain; they’re just making the choices that get them where they need to be.
Having a villain with rules is an especially useful technique to use, because it opens up the possibility down the road for your protagonist and villain to work together, should circumstances demand it. After all, your villain might be so money hungry that he’s willing to rob banks, but if a serial killer begins picking off people in his community that’s not something he’ll stand for.
Favorite Example: The Assassins’ Guild – Discworld. This was a tough one to pick an example for, because so often that morality is used as a significant plot point and I hate to do real spoilers. Thankfully, the Assassins’ Guild is upfront with their terms in all of the Pratchett books. Despite being killers for hire they steadfastly refuse to (Edited): kill anyone who cannot defend themselves, take multiple simultaneous contracts on the same target, or kill anyone for free. This set of moral lines allows them to play villains without crossing over into truly abhorrent territory, which makes for richer characters on the whole.
4. Villains Can Be Protagonists
I don’t mean writing a story from the villain’s perspective, at that point your villain is a protagonist and they have a difference force acting as their antagonist/villain. What I mean is this: some of the best villains in fiction would actually be good guys, easily accessible for the readers as heroes, if the story was written from their perspective. Without changing any of the stories details, just by switching viewpoints, a reader would be rooting for that character to succeed. This can get tough to discuss theoretically, so I’m jumping right into the example.
Favorite Example: Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze (Mid 90’s- late 2000’s cannon) – DC Comics. In this continuity timeframe, Victor Fries is a brilliant researcher whose wife contracts a fatal illness. He creates a method for freezing her alive until such time as he can find a cure for her disease. The people he is working for, however, decide to terminate his grant and employment in the middle of the experiment. They barge in, disrupt the experiment and cause an accident that leaves Victor Fries unable to survive outside a cold environment. In some versions of this they also kill the wife, in others she survives but is still frozen; you know how comic book continuity is. For the sake of this example, we’ll go with the one where she lives.
So, now we have a brilliant man whose very body was destroyed by a heartless corporation, one who uses his mind to create a suit that allows him to move around in the non-refrigerated world. He then creates a freezing weapon and goes forth in a corrupt city, stealing from the same sort of wealthy people that caused his condition; all to fund the research that he hopes will allow him to save his wife, as well as anyone else with her disease. Standing in his way is a billionaire vigilante with limitless resources, a lifetime of training, and no regard for the law.
Mr. Freeze might be one of my favorite villains, because with just a perspective tweak it becomes a crippled man balancing his desire for righteous vengeance with the need to help his wife, and that need ultimately wins out in his motivations. Mr. Freeze is, through most of Batman continuity, a thief rather than a killer. Really, he’s an ice-theme and a few dead family members away from being The Punisher.