It’s been a long journey to get here but we’ve finally finished a quick tour through the art of building an effective villain. I hope this exploration of villainy will be useful to you as you seek to build a compelling villain your audience will relate to. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about that in this series, rather than talking about how to design their looks and backstories. Classic sources of villainous gambits like Machiavelli’s The Prince or Robert Green’s The 48 Laws of Power have been pretty much absent (though do read them) in favor of getting at your villain’s motivation and persona.
The reason for this is simple. Villains are a part of us in a way we rarely like to acknowledge. People do love villains, they like the feeling of someone who will do whatever it takes to get what they want, but they don’t like the contradictions that destroy villains nor are they entirely comfortable with the depths of depravity that villains can sink to. Heroes are the uncomfortable, challenging but ultimately more edifying alternative to villainy. In many ways the hero vs. villain narrative we love so much is a study in two sides of ourselves, highlighting the conflict between things like selflessness and depravity that every person faces.
Unfortunately for fiction today villains are cranked out as totally bland, featureless, cackling mischief makers. They don’t represent parts of ourselves that must be challenged by our better selves, they’re just obstacles for protagonists to overcome. As villains have lost those shreds of humanity that made us fear them less as an existential threat and more as a glimpse of our inner demons heroes have lost something as well, becoming meaner, more vindictive and thuggish, until sometimes it feels like the hero’s victory boils down to a crowd cheering as one bully beats another bully into the pavement.
For a long time I didn’t understand the people who liked villains more than heroes. It wasn’t until I’d done a lot of introspection that I realized how much of what I hated about myself I saw in villains and how profoundly the ways heroes responded to them had influenced me. It didn’t just change the way I thought about villains, it gave me much greater compassion for those people from my life that I could have easily considered villains.
The failure of villains in modern fiction goes far beyond it’s literary implications. Fiction is an opportunity to face our darkest depths and see the ways they can be overcome in ways that are healthy and safe. Without fictional villains to let us face our worst parts of ourselves we start to see our worst traits everywhere, even places where they might not really exist. Without relateable villains to let us build empathy we start to think anyone who shows us even the slightest specter of evil deserves to be shunned, loathed and possibly even hunted and destroyed. When our cultural landscape is empty of truly great villains we must face our worst natures in the here and now with no preparation in the safety of our imagination, with none of the edge blunted by the lessons great art can teach.
A villainous generation of flat caricatures, one dimensional monsters that bear no resemblance to anyone who has ever lived, has deprived us of the nobility and compassion that should define our greatest heroes. We’re the poorer for it.
Mankind is dark. Our capacity for evil is staggering in scale and history has confirmed it time and again. No matter what hero rises up to face it, the problem will never be defeated. Each person must come to grips with the problem, as each person embodies it. So today, I make the case for the villain. Each person deserves to face their worst and try to overcome it and the fictional villain is a time tested way to start. Weigh the villains you encounter, take their measure and seriously consider what makes them human and how they come undone and you’ll eventually find the way to write your own. Yes, it will probably mean facing your own dark side. Consider it a side benefit.
We’ve spent a lot of time on villains. Two months, to be exact. Next week let’s flip the paradigm, look at the other side of the equation for a bit. Until then, go forth and think evil. For greater good.