Sympathy for the Devil: How to Write Killer Villains
I’m a sucker for a good villain. Just thinking about Szass Tam from The Haunted Lands makes my heart flutter a little bit. Darth Vader takes my breath away. Fascinating and devastating in their sharp suits, with their killer smiles, and their eyes that will eat you alive, they’re strong, smart, and motivated. They have that lean and hungry look. They stand alone. And say what you like about villains, but they know what they want. And that confidence is sexy. Especially to those of us tired of listening to the heroes whine about how tough life is and how they don’t know what to do or how to love or whether they did the right thing or not--again.
I mean, heroes have some tough choices, to be sure, but so do villains. And villains don’t often have so many outs as the hero. Yet you don’t see villains going all emo. Villains get ‘er done--without the support from the hordes of friends or natural talents with which heroes are almost always blessed. Artemis Entreri is Drizzt without friends to teach him what family is. Gaara (as the antagonist) is Naruto without friends to stand beside him.
Without the villain, there is no story. Without the villain, the hero isn’t heroic. And without the villain, things are a lot less interesting. Villains make--or break--stories. What is Star Wars without Darth Vader? Who is Harry Potter without Voldemort?
Every villain needs a good story. What was the moment when your villain went darkside? Was he just born that way? A sociopath-sadist with a history of violence? Or was it more gradual, the result of being a little different in a zero-tolerance society. Or perhaps it was simply an awakening--a primal flaw that calls to darker, baser instincts.
Villains and antiheroes are cut from the same cloth--only villains give in to (or even revel in) their darker instincts, whereas antiheroes resist them. So delve into your villain’s history and try to root out the cause of their evil. Even if your villain is sympathetic, the reader should still recognize that he (or she) has beyond the pale--that he must be stopped no matter the cost. Szass Tam is a great boss and a good leader--better than most of those on the opposition--and he’s as refined, pragmatic, humane, and intelligent as they come. He just also happens to want to destroy the world to remake it in his own “perfect” image. For its own good, of course. You can easily fall into rooting for him until you’re reminded that oh yeah, he wants to destroy everything.
Defining the source of your villain’s dark side is essential. Of course, the seven deadly sins are the classic source of evil. Greed, wrath, and pride provide the foundations for some of the most iconic villains. Greed for money or power is the classic sin of choice for corrupted leaders and would-be conquerors alike. From Sauron’s lust for power that leads to his conquest of Middle-Earth to King John’s greed that leads him to impoverish his people for his own gain, greed is a powerful motivator. Wrath is the source of the monstrous villain’s evil--be it vengeful, like Grendel’s mother from Beowulf, or merely primal rage. And then there is the mastermind villain’s flaw--pride--leading villains to believe their ends justify the means--that their “greater society” or “perfect world” is worth the blood, tears, and sacrifice of others. Because they couldn’t possibly be wrong. Pride-based villains , like Ozymandias, whose extreme intelligence leads him to make callous decisions for the “fate of mankind” and Szass Tam, whose distant, too-clear vision leads him to the make similar calls, are my absolute favorites. The remaining deadly sins, lust, sloth, envy, and gluttony are better for supporting villains, or as side sins, than as the villain’s primary sin.
One of the greatest challenges for writing memorable villains is how you signal to the reader the depth of your villain’s depravity. In the most base of cases, villains are fat, ugly, murderous, rapacious, child-hating, puppy-killing monsters who dress in all black and use too much eyeliner and from whom even the insects flee. You show they are evil by having them look physically vile, and have them do something horrific to lose them the reader’s sympathy.
But on a subtler level, villains can be used to contrast both the hero and societal norms. Just as the hero reflects the light side of society, of what we should strive toward, the villain represents its dark side, the temptations and impulses we should fight against. They can display any number of non-socially acceptable traits to signal their villainous nature and to complement the hero. For instance, villains (like Voldemort) are often loners, depending on and trusting no one, complementing the hero’s (Harry Potter’s) good nature, which earns the hero a bevy of friends, and highlighting the value of friendship when the hero defeats the villain due to the support of those friends.
Ten Reasons to Love Villains
1. They’re Independent. Villains rarely get to where they are by hanging on to the apron strings of others, or by random chance.
2. They’re Ambitious. They had no one to help them, and yet they were able to make something of themselves, all on their own. Wouldn’t Mummy be proud?
3. They’re Smart. Or at least they’ve a bestial cunning. Otherwise they wouldn’t have survived so long in a world equipped to deal with lesser villains.
4. They’re Resourceful. When you don’t depend on others, you have to be!
5. They’re Iconic. Everyone remembers a good villain because there are so many different ways to be evil, but very few ways to be good.
6. They’re Charismatic. Or else fear-inspiring. One way or the other, people see them and have this sudden desire to do what they want!
7. They’re Powerful. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be a threat!
8. They’re Rich. If not in money, than in resources.
9. They’re Famous. People tend to recognize a villain. Otherwise, he’s not very villainous.
10. They’re Relatable! So, they have a flaw . . . Okay, maybe it’s a big flaw, too big to be relatable, precisely. But still, they’re better than Mr. Goody Two-Shoes!