I love a good villain.
No, really…a proper villain, whether in print or on the screen, is a thing of beauty. It is also, unfortunately, a thing generally under-appreciated. And far too often, a thing woefully shortchanged by its creator.
Think about it. Would the original Star Wars trilogy have been as memorable without Darth Vader? He touched a nerve with his initial presentation as faceless, anonymous evil.* After the inane bullshit of the prequels, and the more recent “final three”, there is a definite reason why my fellow geeks and I completely nerded out at Vader’s scenes at the end of Rogue One. It wasn’t just the return of that voice, it was the return of, well, iconic evil. The perfect villain.
*James Earl Jones’ magic freaking voice didn’t hurt, either.
It goes beyond that, however. Bad guys — truly memorable, truly powerful villains — have to have a depth and pathos to them beyond even that of the hero. Ask yourself, then, how often does that happen?
Not often. Or, at least, not often enough.
And, no, just putting a different accent on a supposed villain — British, German, Russian, Arabic, etc… — doesn’t do the trick. That’s not clever writing or directing, that’s just a cheap shortcut that does nothing but put the bad writing up in the freaking neon lights. “Oh look honey, he’s Arabic, he must be the bad guy!”
That’s right up there with, “He’s Indian, he must be a software guy!”
*”Harrumph” is, if you’re wondering, Latin for “motherfuckingstupidassbullshit”
That’s why most, if not all, Bond villains are so pointlessly forgettable. Each and every one has been nothing more memorable than a bad accent, a fake scar and an over-the-top performance that borders on freaking camp. Liberace would have been a more memorable villain than Blofeld, for God’s sake!
What most writers — and editors, directors, actors, fill-in-your-own-blank-here — tend to forget is that villains can’t be just…well…bad guys. Truly memorable, effective villains can’t just be evil for the sake of being evil, they have to have their own motivations and backstory. They have to have an end goal, and a reason for that goal.
A NO, extorting a government for one million dollars* isn’t a legit end goal. Something has to be driving that person to be a ruthless asshole, or the whole house of cards that is any story’s plot and character development falls down. The truly great movies and books explore that motivation. The best, even, blur the line between good and bad. Can we all say “Michael Corleone” here and just acknowledge that character as the Holy Grail of blurred lines and gray areas (not to mention an epic fall from grace…)?
*And, yes, Dr Evil IS on my list of “good” villains, primarily as a wonderful parody of crappy, mundane, bad ones…
It’s idiosyncratic as hell, but one thing that also really resonates with me is dissonance in villains. One example comes immediately to mind here, mainly because the actor just died: Wilford Brimley.
The man was most kindly, grandfatherly archetype you can imagine. He looked like freaking Santa Claus, for heaven’s sake, but when he played a bad guy… When he played a bad guy, it resonated because it was so dissonant with who he appeared to be. It was the functional equivalent of Mr Rogers running a meth lab in his basement.
And, yes, before you ask, that whole “dissonance thing” has significant history in the real world, too. Some of the most memorable — and most evil — psychos in history are embodiments of that very thing. Just to name the few that come immediately to mind: John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and the grandfather of them all, Adolf Eichmann.
How, then, do we make villains worth the name?
Give ‘em love.
No, seriously — give them the same love, the same effort and focus, that you give to your protagonist. If your villain — if any villain — is not at least as fleshed out as the hero, that story is going to be a forgotten one-and-done read (or watch). If that villain is a plastic, two-dimensional, over-the-type caricature, your work may not even make it to the “and-done” part of that phrase.
There is a reason, after all, why we still read stuff like Paradise Lost. How can we flawed and broken humans not identity with motivation like “it’s better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”?
Make your readers, then, see a little of themselves — or, at least, of who they could be — in your villains. Make your villains real. Make them memorable, and you’ll find that they’re even more fun to write than the “good guys.”
I want freaking bonus point for managing to put pictures of Darth Vader and Liberace in the same post, dammit!