We’ve looked at ten definitive villains (see here and here) so now it’s time to start looking at the principles underlying good villains. But before we plunge into the characters themselves we need to ask what the point of a villain is in terms of narrative, that is to say, when a writer sets out to write a villain what roles in the story is a villain supposed to play?
Every story needs different things, of course, but it’s also important to know what circumstances bring out the most in your tools. Likewise, villains are a very flexible archetype but there are some things they have to do in order to count as villains – if they don’t you may need to start thinking of your character as more of an antihero or perhaps just a morally gray actor. While none of these criteria are terribly groundbreaking without them the effectiveness of most villains will be seriously undercut and even the best written story will suffer some.
Villains are the inciting force.
Heroes almost never start out as heroes. While stories may open with their heroic course already set, and we learn about their motives over the course of the story, remember that at some point that hero probably wasn’t dedicated to setting wrongs right. And when you dig back to the reason those heroes took up the mantel you will always find the villain(s) in one way or another.
The good fairies wouldn’t have taken up their heroic roles if Maleficent hadn’t cursed Princes Aurora. The Pines family wouldn’t have come face to face with the supernatural if Bill Cypher hadn’t reached out to them first. Kuzko definitely wouldn’t have turned into a llama if not for Yzma.
Villains set the hero on their course for the story, if not in life, and as such do a lot to set the tone of the story and, in some ways, the tone of the hero involved (except when the villain is a deliberate reversal of the hero, as with Legato). Make sure your villain can set the tone of the conflict quickly.
Villains are the source of greatest opposition.
While Bill Cypher shares screen time with several other villains in Gravity Falls he’s clearly the most dangerous of them. The JoJo mythos has many villains aside from Dio but none of them ever fight four seasoned Stand users, and to members of the Joestar lineage, all at once. With the exception of the Pillar Men, all the other major villains tie back to Dio in some way or another. And Darth Vader, although beholden to the Emperor, is still the most forceful presence on the screen throughout the classic Star Wars films.
We’re going to look at menace and power in villains more in the future but for now, the point is your story’s villain is the one who causes the heroes the most trouble. Say you have a story about a cop fighting a mobster, in which said cop spends more time infighting with other cops than actual mobsters. That’s a muddled story because the villain isn’t clear. Is it the mobster or the other cops? Get it clear in your head. Make it clear to your audience (although not necessarily your characters). And, as much as possible, downplay the other side of the conflict so that your villain can shine.
Or whatever it is villains do when the audience is enjoying them.
Villains speak on behalf of the audience.
Yes, really. The thing about most heroes is that, in addition to being more capable than most people, they have to face more struggles, work harder and hold themselves to higher standards than the average Joe. Most people look at characters with principles like Vash’s and as themselves why bother?
Heroes are generally something to aspire to. But if aspiring to them was all it took then the world would be a much better place. The truth is, most people don’t live like heroes because it’s hard. To be a hero is to serve others and maintain principles, to give up what we want for a greater good that we may never see. And generally it’s a thankless task. Narratively, villains tend to embody many of the reasons a person would choose not to be a hero.
Look at Louis or Klaus. One just wants to get some enjoyment out of life, maybe a benefit or two from his career as a police officer. The other is driven by half-forgotten friendships, family ties and a sense of responsibility. These are understandable motives when they drive people to live out great principles but they’re also very understandable motives when they drive people to abandon principles.
Of all the villains we’re studying none embodies this more than Legato Bluesummers. It’s true that there are thankfully very few people in the world who will embrace Legato’s nihilism, sadism and murderous tendencies but those characteristics are not what makes him relatable. It’s his role in questioning Vash’s idealism. Vash will not kill. Legato pushes him to do so but he does it by offering situations where we can feel that yes, killing a person here would probably be justified. When he asks Vash whether letting a man live is a greater evil than killing him, because a dead villain can’t cause any further evil while a living one almost certainly will, we understand because that’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves from the very beginning.
Villains have a tendency to become more popular than their heroes and, if I had to point to a single reason for that, it would be the fact that villains are closer to everyday audiences than heroes. When a villain fails sometimes it’s because of poor presentation, sometimes it’s because of poor storytelling, but most often what really pushes it over the edge is a villain who fights for the most unrelatable of reasons. Part of what brings the audience to the hero’s point of view is watching him overcome your villain’s objections to his or her philosophy. But if your audience wouldn’t fight a hero for the reasons your villain would then the effect is lost and your villain is much more likely to fail.
You do still get to have your villain fight in whatever insane way you want, that’s part of the fun. It’s the motives and the arguments that have to be understandable. So how do we make the jump from the narrative’s needs to the character’s portrayal? Well, tune in next week when we talk about what drives villains.