Villains: the good, the bad and the (very) ugly

what are villains
Is this a villain? Or is he the good guy? (Image –
When my group decided that we would perform an extract from King Lear for one of our A Level Drama pieces, I was adamant I wanted to play Goneril or Regan. Why? Goneril and Regan are two of the “mean” sisters, two of the play’s villains. I consider myself to be quite a pleasant person really, so I thought pretending not to be could be fun. Snarky comments, evil glares and a general sense of haughtiness.

Everyone loves a villain, from Hannibal Lecter to the pantomime variety. But why? What makes the worst villains the best, and are the good ones really so bad (if you see what I mean…)? Can a villain be something other than a person?

What is a villain?

Conventional wisdom has it that every story, whether film, play or novel, needs a villain. Villains cause problems, up the stakes for the protagonist and generally make things just that little bit more interesting. Villains can provide comic relief (think numerous lair-inhabiting Bond villains). Villains can inspire terror and dread, like Voldemort. Villains can be complicated and psychotic, neatly turned out and polite, or even a little bit like you or me.

So what do such varied villains have in common?

In a word, antagonism. An effective villain needs to “antagonise” the protagonist, to get in their way at every twist and turn. An effective villain tries to stop the protagonist from achieving what they set out to do over the course of the novel, whether that’s win the girl (or boy), kill the beast or bake that perfect Victoria sponge.

What about stories without a traditional sharp-fanged, gun-toting, evil-spewing villain?

This got me thinking about my own book, and I started to worry. What are the goals of Sadie and Umiña (my two main characters)? Who is trying to prevent them from achieving those goals? I had an answer to the first question, but not the second. I mean my book has characters of questionable morals, sure – Mama Izhi, Mollie the acrobat and Teddy the equestrian performer, just to name a few. None of these characters, however, are at the core of the story. Their antagonism of Sadie and Umiña is mostly the fodder of subplots.

But before you decide never to read my book on account of the lack of snarky comments and haughty stares (there are plenty, I promise), neither Sadie’s nor Umiña’s journey from beginning to end of book is entirely simple and unopposed. They are just a different type of journey, that’s all. In the case of each of my protagonists (particularly Sadie), her own mind is the villain she is battling, in the form of memories and unruly emotions and her general sense of injustice with life.

So no, to answer a question I posed above, I don’t believe a “villain” needs to be a person, although this does depend on a large extent to the genre in which you are writing. Extremely plot-driven narratives (such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) will generally feature a story arc with a tangible objective and a villain of a more traditional vein. Extremely character-driven narratives (like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) tend to focus on the protagonist’s transformation, whether emotional or otherwise. Of course, a large number of books fall somewhere between the two extremes, with protagonists battling both inner and outer demons simultaneously.

This leads me, then, to conclude that conflict or tension, not villainy, is the key to a story, whether that conflict is with someone else, yourself or the world at large.

But let’s suppose a villain IS a person. What makes them a good one?

Attributes of a villain

  1. First and foremost, and again, conflict is the key. It doesn’t really matter whether your villain is good or bad, just that they are “other”. I mean your protagonist might be the bad guy right? Which means their antagonist might be the good guy. As long as they are striving for opposing ideals, then it’s all good. After all, nobody thinks they are the villain in their own story, not even Voldemort. The “villain” might actually be somebody the protagonist is very fond of, a spouse or parent for example.
  2. A villain is more believable as a character if we understand where they are coming from, and what motivates them to be such a villainous villain. It might not even hurt if we empathise with them a little (see below). When pulling together Mama Izhi’s character profile, I spent just as long on it as Sadie’s or Umina’s. It lists her hopes, dreams and deepest, darkest past, and, to read it, you probably wouldn’t even know she was the villain. A villain should amount to more than just a list of actions and reactions. A villain should just be doing what is natural to him or her given their background – it’s the reader’s closer relationship to the protagonist that makes the actions of the villain seem villainous.
  3. It might just be me, but I really like morally ambiguous characters. I find it fascinating when you can’t quite decide whether the guy you are rooting for is the good guy or the bad guy. Wanting Cersei Lannister or Draco Malfoy to succeed, even if in some small way, can cause you to question your own morality. This is why I like villains with a little bit of light in them, whether it’s a love for their children or a moment of compassion for their adversary. A glimpse of humanity or the mundane can also makes them seem more threatening sometimes. Would Hannibal Lecter be quite as frightening if there was no chance he could ever be the guy next to you in Majestic, scanning the label of an Italian red?
  4. Having said all of the above, the opposite sometimes holds true. In certain stories, particularly those of a supernatural bent, the unknown is what we fear. I can name countless occasions (most often in films but in books too) where the SCARY UNKNOWN THING stopped being frightening as soon as I found out what it was. I believe though, that in stories like this, the fear itself is the source of tension, not the villain. Getting to know the villain and his/her/its motivations is no longer necessary, but convincingly written fear and its implications for the protagonist are now required.

(All of the above holds true for a character battling an inner demon too – we need to understand WHY they are feeling a certain way, what their deepest desires and dreads are, and how it affects their life right now.)

So, are the worst villains really the best?

In short, an effective “villain” might be evil or lovely, short or tall. They might like chianti or they might have a penchant for cognac. They might not even be a person, but an emotion, say, or traumatic event. It doesn’t really matter as long as they are fully developed and believable, and they do their job, which is to provide a source of tension or conflict for the protagonist.

After all, nobody wants to read a story about a woman who goes out for a walk on a lovely, sunny day, doesn’t encounter a rabid dog or the man of her dreams, thinks happy thoughts about how idyllic her life is, and then goes home for tea and cake. The end.