Secrets of a Good Villain

So I was reading Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander, and I came to a scene where one of our heroines discovers a group of boys torturing a kitten.  I’m loving a great deal about this book, but this particular scene nagged at me.  The boys were there for two reasons: to be bad guys, and to get their asses whooped by the heroine.  I mean, this was the first time these characters had been introduced, and they were torturing a kitten!

Alexander knows exactly what she’s doing.  I cheered when her heroine pounded those boys into the dirt and saved the kitten.  It was a very satisfying scene.

But I’ve heard a lot of writing advice over the years, and she was violating one of the more oft-repeated tidbits: “Everyone is the hero of their own story.”  Nobody thinks of him/herself as a villain.  Characters need believable motivations, and that includes the villains as well as the heroes.

Take Peter Wiggins from the Ender’s Game series.  Peter also tortured small animals, but he was a complex, fascinating, wonderfully messed-up character.  Skinning live squirrels is an awful thing, but it was part of Peter’s twisted psyche, and in that context, it made sense for his character to do these things.

Are villains like Peter more true to life?  Creating a more sympathetic, human villain certainly adds complexity to the story.  Personally, I enjoy villains who cause me to feel conflicted.  Maybe I would have chosen a different path, but I can see why they made the choices that they did.  Heck, would they even be a villain under different circumstances, or if the story was told from a different perspective?  (See Wicked.)

At the other extreme, we have Lord Voldemort from the early Harry Potter books.  Eventually, Voldemort develops slight depth — like going from boxboard cardboard to corregated cardboard – but in the beginning, he’s pure, moustache-twirling evil.

Yet, these cardboard villains can still work when the author knows what s/he’s doing.  As readers, we cheer when the bad guys finally get what’s coming to them.  These confrontations are very black and white, but it’s comforting to know that good will triumph over evil, and to cheer for those fighters on the side of justice.

Perhaps one of the best examples would be Darth Vader.  (Forget the prequels.)  In A New Hope, Darth Vader was 100% Evil Badass, and we loved him.  He crushed throats from across the room, sliced Obi Wan in half, and no doubt tortured kittens in his special chamber on the Death Star.  But over the next two movies, Vader changed.  He went from a one-dimensional villain to a wonderfully tormented character struggling between a generation of evil and his love for his children.  By the end of that trilogy, Vader went from being one of my favorite villains to one of my favorite characters.  (Again, please ignore the prequels.)

My sense is, like so many things in writing and in life, there is no simple answer.  There’s a place for complexity, and there’s a place for the satisfaction of tossing General Zod into the abyss.

So what makes a good villain?  Who are your favorite bad guys, and why?  And at what point is a villain simply over-the-top?

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  1. 1. Jenna Black

    I love a complex villain myself (as well as a flawed hero). The hero of my upcoming Shadows on the Soul could probably be a villain in other peoples’ books. (He was at least an antagonist in the previous book, if not exactly a villain.)

    My favorite villain ever comes from a romance, not sf. (It’s not even a paranormal romance, but closer to a romantic comedy.) It’s Bill, from Jennifer Cruisie’s Crazy for You. Cruisie does an amazing job of writing from his increasingly twisted POV. He is absolutely convinced he’s right about everything, and if he could just get the heroine to see sense, all would be right with both his world and hers. Even better, he starts as being a mildly irritating “normal” person, and the reader gets to watch as he falls apart after the heroine leaves him. His attempts to get her back get progressively crazier and more dangerous, but you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him.

    Even if you’re not a big romance fan, I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys complex villains.

  2. 2. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    The book I just finished focuses on a rather unlikeable character who goes through a transformation and becomes someone you do like. But the hard part was really keeping interest long enough to keep a reader going. But you’re right. Conflicted people, people with baggage, are interesting. What did Tolstoy say? Happy families resemble each other, but unhappy families are unhappy in unique ways? Same with characters. Unhappy characters (villainous characters) are unhappy (or villainous) for their own particular and unique reasons.

  3. 3. David Louis Edelman

    I agree with you, Jim. But I’m irked less by one-dimensional villains than I am by one-dimensional heroes. In many stories, the villain is just a cypher or symbol for the protagonist’s own shortcomings. We never really learn anything about Sauron, for instance, because his motivations are rather irrelevant to the story. And Darth Vader (in the original trilogy) is little more than an object lesson for what will eventually happen to Luke if he doesn’t get his shit together.

    If I read a story where the hero’s only conflict is whether he/she can get his/her task accomplished in time, I yawn. Give me George R.R. Martin’s Westeros any day, where all the heroes are conflicted.

  4. 4. Mitch Wagner

    Kneel before Zod!

    I just wanted to say that.

  5. 5. NewGuyDave

    I have always been attracted to anti-hero type protagonists who struggle with either right and wrong or some other moral dilemma.
    As for villains I always have liked a complex villain. The “understandable villain” who is less like Sauron and more like a guy you could know from Jim’s blog (kidding). But really, how many pure evil villains can we put up with and be terrified by until people realize that the really creepy Jeff Dahlmer-types shopped at the drug store as we did.
    In the novel I am working on right now I am trying to make at least one of of antagonists a misled villain and my main protagonist somebody who crosses the line to get the job done.
    I love gray areas.
    Dave Fortier

  6. 6. Slade

    I have to say that perhapes one of the greatest villians/heroes I’ve ever seen is Light Yagami of the anime/manga “Death Note.” He finds a nootbook dropped by a death god and with it he can kill anyone he cooses as long as he knows their name and face. So, he decides to use this power to kill all the criminals of the world.

    But as it goes on, he becomes more sadistic, claiming himself to be the new god of the world and working to remove anyone who opposes him as well as criuminals an d sociaties burdens.

    What makes him so complex is his desire to better humanity and sociaty in general to make the world a better place for everyone. But he’s still killing thousands of people and developing a god complex while flanting his power.

  7. 7. jake

    i think one of the best villians ever is The Green Goblin. he is a realstic character, and makes you feel sorry for him towards the end. i realy liked him.

  8. 8. Sam Walker

    What makes a good villain, thats the question you all want to know well here it is. A good villain is someone who will never give up, someone who will kill enemies, friends and family to get what he/she desires. Someone who will never surrender to anybody.

  9. 9. peacerenity

    I must say that I love Peter Wiggins as well. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him the villain of Ender’s Game, even though he lurks in Ender’s psyche for much of the novel. He just isn’t present enough. I think most people would choose Bonzo or Colonel Graff as the villain (even though I have to admit that I probably would have done the same things in Graff’s shoes).

    I have to say, though, that sometimes I love a deliciously evil villain. I don’t want to sympathize with the villain. I want him entertaining, sure, but I don’t want him to be too subtle. A good example for me is Balac from Curse of the Hangman (an old thriller).

  10. 10. peacerenity

    edit: Peter Wiggin, not Peter Wiggins.

  11. 11. Tkatarn

    I have one character that starts as the under study of her boss she also trys and to some degree seduces the hero to get what she wants and kills her boss. This woman views people as nothing more as raw material to use to get what she wants in life and then discard or kill as she moves forward. The people that have read the early revisions of this book have asked about this character do I know this person and I have had to admit that yes I based it on my X and all I did was turn up the personality traits to make this villian. My goal was to create a person that the reader hates that you dont want your son to marry. The hero in my story has the belief that nobody is beyond redemtion this person destroys this belief as my X did for me.

  12. 12. Steve Peters

    Light Yagami from the television series Death Note. although he is the main character, he is undeniable evil. As a high school student, he finds a note book that allows him to kill anyone by writing their name in it, and a description of their death (all the while, having their face pictured in his mind).

    He intends to use the power to cleanse the world of all evil, by killing off murderers, crime bosses, rapists, etc. but by the end, he is willing to execute pick-pockets. Because the story follows him, i gained a lot of sympathy for him, despite how much of a bastard he becomes in the last few episodes.

    (spoilers)
    In the end, when he is inevitably killed, i almost felt sad.
    He’s so manipulative and charismatic, that he even became
    the leader of the task force that was hunting him down.

  13. 13. Steve Peters

    whoops, didn’t see number 6.

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Author Information

Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines' latest book is THE SNOW QUEEN'S SHADOW, the fourth of his fantasy adventures that retell the old fairy tales with a Charlie's Angels twist. He's also the author of the humorous GOBLIN QUEST trilogy. Jim's short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, Turn the Other Chick, and Sword & Sorceress XXI. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's currently hard at work on LIBRIOMANCER, the first book in a new fantasy series. Visit site.

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