What Makes a Good Villain?

A year or so ago, while working on a novel that ended up being entirely recycled, a friend of mine criticized my main villain as being “mustache-twirling evil.” I didn’t quite understand and asked him to elaborate. He told me that, in his opinion, a good villain had to have some sort of redeeming quality—not necessarily morally redeeming, but developmentally redeeming. Having a character who just walks around doing evil things is essentially one-dimensional. Giving a backstory, a touch of wit, or even some emotional substance is key to making a villain that is more than just a stereotypical melodrama bad guy. After talking it out, I found that I entirely agreed with his analysis.

Recently, out of interest in gathering other opinions, I posed the question of what makes a good villain to a Goodreads group I am part of. Here are a few gems from the discussion:

“A carefully constructed villain emphasizes not the goodness and purity, but rather the darkness and flawed nature in the heart of the protagonist. A well-written villain should not be an effigy for the protagonist to simply burn, but rather a mirror casting a disturbing reflection.”

“[H]is intelligence, that’s what makes him truly horrible. An evil ‘dullard’ is effective enough, but you almost want to excuse their evil on some level just to consider them a brute or thug. For someone like the [villain]: intelligent, worldly, even charming and sophisticated at times, it feels as if there is more intent behind his evil.”

“It isn’t a new idea: without darkness, there can be no real appreciation of light. As much as we celebrate when the hero triumphs over his or her foe, or despair in the rare occasion the villain is the one to triumph, that hero is nothing special at all without that opposition. The more insurmountable the opposing force, the more heroic the protagonist ultimately becomes.”

I’m not sure I can put it much better than that! The conversation was unanimous; a good villain is not necessarily one who demonstrates the greatest degree of objective evil, but one who serves as the best oppositional touchstone for the protagonist’s morality. This can be another character, the very culture in which the protagonist lives, or even the protagonist themselves! The villain challenges the hero, and through pushing them out of their comfort level/disrupting their homeostasis, they really drive the story. Probably why most people have started using the term “antagonist” more often than “villain.” Perfect examples of these strong villains in recent hit TV shows include The Governor from The Walking Dead and Moriarty from Sherlock.

But to use an example from literature, I want to talk about one of my absolute favorite classic novels: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and its protagonist, Edmond Dantès. This is a good example because, in a way, multiple “types” of villains are represented in the novel.

Dantès faces several villains early on, particularly the three conspirators who wish to imprison him: one out of greed, one out of jealousy for Dantès’ wife, and the third out of jealousy for Dantès’ career. These three men prove throughout the novel to constantly test Dantès. For the most part, they force Dantès to question the willfulness of his vengeance, but also question how much he will sacrifice his morals and how many innocent people he is willing to hurt for that vengeance.

Another, relatively minor, “villain” which Dantès faces early in the book is the environment of political paranoia and fear. Following the Bonapartist Reign, France was terrified of Napoleon’s return. Not unlike a witch-hunt, those accused of being Bonapartist could be thrown in prison for no more reason than that. Which, spoiler alert, is exactly what happens to Dantès. This is with the help of a prosecutor who readily sentences Dantès out of fear that Dantès might know something of his father’s Bonapartist activities.

The third and most obvious villain, however, is none other than the Count of Monte Cristo. Now, those of you who are wonderful enough to have read the book will know that the Count is just an alias constructed by Dantès in order to exact his revenge. But that’s exactly my point. The Count is an embodiment of Dantès’ need for vengeance, and there are many times where the Count nearly destroys—or does destroy— that which would make Dantès happy out of the blind hunger for revenge. On several occasions, Dantès is tempted to allow himself to forgive, but is beaten down by the Count.

Obviously this is a very quick and relatively shallow interpretation of the novel and its characters, but it serves its purpose. The villain and the protagonist are oftentimes cohesive, thoroughly interconnected, distorted reflections of one another that let us, the reader, see both for what they truly are. To pull upon another trope, just think of the iconic villainous line: “We are not so different, you and I.”

What do you think is the most important function of a villain? Who are some of your favorite villains? Let me know, comment below!

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3 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Villain?

  1. The first comment you feature is closest to my own opinion. A well-constructed villian shows us that we’re not so perfect and good after all. I learned long ago that the things which bother me most in another (habits, personality flaw, whatever) are the very things I struggle with.
    One of my favorite “villians” is Jack Randall in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. (I refer to the books, but from what I understand, the TV series is sticking pretty closely to them.) Randall is a deep-down type of evil, but there are moments when he does the right thing, even if it’s for his own benefit. But no mistake about it, he is evil, and his particular brand of evil lives on long after he’s dead, through the ripple effect as well as PTSD-type memories. I love to hate him.
    Having a villian who’s all evil, all the time, is as bad as a protagonist who’s too perfect to enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! “Good” and “evil” are way too black and white; life is really one big gray area. A character who can accurately capture that sentiment, hero or villain, wins in my mind.
      Look at Les Misérables. Javert, who is for all intents and purposes the antagonist/villain, is staunchly good. He is committed to abiding by and enforcing the law. But his ruthless persecution of Valjean is viewed by the reader as unsympathetic and excessive, thus placing him in the “bad guy” category (subjectively speaking, of course). They mirror each other perfectly, as Valjean will do illegal things for a good cause, while Javert will do cruel things for the legal cause.

      Like

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