Today I’d like to talk about everyone’s favorite characters – villains. A good villain can make an otherwise normal story unforgettable. Silence of the Lambs would be nothing but a serial killer novel without Hannibal Lector. And I Claudius wouldn’t be much of anything except an historical drama without the incredible machinations of Livia. What’s Star Wars without force lightning? Villains are everything we love about fiction.
In my first novel, I didn’t worry too much about my villain, and while I think I still managed to pull it off, I didn’t want to ignore the villain in my next book. But what makes a truly memorable villain? I sat down to find out.
Your villain is your antagonist, so it seems reasonable that your reader should hate them as a by-product of cheering for your main characters. It isn’t hard to inspire hate in a reader, just have your villain do something awful. Burning down the main character’s village is classic, so is killing your swordsman’s beautiful and far too saintly wife, preferably on their wedding day. If you’re looking for something a little quicker, you can just have the bastard abuse a child, or better, a puppy, and you’ll have instant, rabid hatred.
But simple, hated villains rarely end up on top ten lists. There’s only so much evil cackling they can do before they start sounding like every other cackling villain. True, hated villains play their parts with great aplomb and push the story along admirably, but I can’t help feeling that simple hate isn’t enough. Pure evil is just as boring as pure good. For a villain to truly go down as an amazing character, they have to be a character, which means a mixed bag. A truly good villain must be someone readers love, or at least, love to hate, and to achieve this, you must capture the reader, trapping them into feeling empathy, admiration, or even simple watching-the-trainwreck fascination.
Empathy is perhaps the rarest and the trickiest. My favorite empathetic villain is Salieri from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Here is a composer who has dedicated his life to music, who did everything right, but who was unfortunate enough to be a competitor with Mozart, who, in the movie (and the play), is a horrible, irresponsible, dirty little man, but whose music transcends the best of what Salieri can produce. In one of the most moving scenes, Salieri, a devout Christain who had dedicated his life to making music for the glory of god, turns his back on his creator, saying:
“From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.”
It is at this moment that Salieri becomes the villain, and the viewer can not help but empathize. Salieri has been the movie’s central character. He’s charming, genteel, and his love of Mozart’s music, even though he hates the man with a murderous passion, constantly redeems him. He can not hate such beauty, and neither can we. He represents the inadequacy and mediocrity we all feel, tapping into an extremely human feeling of jealousy combined with seemingly justified wrath. For all that he does horrible things, we as the audience can not help loving and empathizing with Salieri.
Admiration is its own kind of tricky. How do you make the audience hate and admire a villain at the same time? It’s all about character. One of most masterful portrayals of this I ever saw was Livia in I Claudius. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, I Claudius is a so-so book and a fantastic BBC mini-series about the family life of the early Roman Emperors, from Augustus to Nero, following the life of Claudius, later Emperor Claudius, the stuttering grandson of Augustus.
The first part of the series is undoubtedly my favorite because it features Augustus’s wife, Livia, as the primary villain. Livia is desperately ambitious that her son, Tiberius, become Emperor on Augustus’s death, never mind that there are quite a few other heirs before him, or that neither Augustus nor Tiberius himself is very keen on Tiberius being Emperor.
None of this stops Livia, and she removes every obstacle in her path with such precision, such cunning, such ruthless efficiency, you can’t help but admire her. Here is a woman so skilled at what she does, namely bumping off family members, I found myself almost cheering for her because it was so much fun to watch someone so clever get around seemingly impossible obstacles. Through it all, Livia is a constant character, and, other than her murderous streak, a very no-nonsense, entertaining lady who happens to be a sociopath. She is, in short, murderously charming, and you can’t help admiring her as much as you hate her.
The villain as can’t-look-away train wreck is a difficult beast. It’s so easy to go from captivating to cliché. The best example I’ve seen of this kind of villain is the Joker from Batman, particularly in the Dark Knight movie. Here is a true maniac who, through excellent writing and characterization, manages to be completely original. You simply can not look away, there’s always this wonder of what will he do next, and how can such an insane, reckless genius be stopped? The tension in Batman and Joker’s antagonism comes not from us hating the Joker, but of our desperation to see how on earth Batman can beat him.
The truth is that, if the movie was centered around the Joker, and not Batman, we’d be cheering for him with pure murderous glee, and that, that right there, is the truest hallmark of a good villain. If the viewpoints were switched, you would still cheer for the villain as the hero because you love the character for themselves. A good antagonist is exactly that, an equal opponent for the hero in strength, cleverness, and characterization. A true threat, not just through armies or super weapons or power, but a clever, ruthless competitor who can stand up on their own.
These three types are certainly not the only options for villainy, just the ones I’ve encountered that I happen to like the most. In everything I’ve written, villains have always been my greatest challenge, and I still don’t think I’ve gotten it quite right. So if you have any suggestions for villains I should get to know, please leave them in the comments. I’m always looking to learn a new twist on how to make a great antagonist.