What I Look For in a Villain!

thoughts orangutan

Hello again! I’m back with one of my favourite topics… BAD GUYS! Specifically what I look for in a villain. Now, if you’re expecting a list like: tall, dark, handsome, brooding… prepare to be disappointed. What I look for in a villain is slightly more complex than the surface level stuff. I’m not going to be addressing things like the paraphernalia, names, or aesthetics- that’s not what draws me in or makes my heartbeat quicken. No, I’m after something  a little more elusive, like…

peaky blindersA great plan– I love me a clever baddie. So whatever they’re planning to do can’t be easily undone by a teenager (usually one who can’t even figure out which love interest is more appealing to them, let alone save the world) doing something really simple (like pressing a big red button that says STOP EVIL GENIUS). Plus, whatever this dastardly plot is, it has to make sense. So they definitely have to have…

dr evil laughing.gifAppropriate motivation– this underpins whatever they’re trying to achieve and without a “good” goal, they’re never going to hit the target. None of that “so why do you want to destroy the world?” “Because!” When I was younger I read a lot of the Alex Rider books and could never quite understand why every. single. villain wanted to *blow everything up* just for shits and giggles. Otherwise they’re going to be textbook, moustache twirling villains. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some explosive individuals out there, yet a) they’re not always the most compelling villains and b) it has to make sense for this particular character (eg it won’t necessarily make sense for a billionaire, largely motivated by money and control, to set the world ablaze). This doesn’t mean that their backstory has to be a justification, but that it has to line up with what they want to achieve. Which leads me onto…

pondering pinky and the brainPsychology that makes sense– now I will say that I am in no way an expert when it comes to psychology- it’s just an interest I have. And I do think about the baddie’s motivating factors in relation to books like Baumeister’s Evil and like looking into interesting. This doesn’t mean that the bad guy’s dreams have to be overtly destructive- we’ve all heard the idea that the villain should be the hero of their own story-yet that doesn’t mean they have to be honest with themselves. I’m often drawn to theories that suggest evil people can have sinister goals buried deep in their psyche (there is an argument by Dr Peterson, for instance, that Hitler may have claimed to want to build a thousand year Reich, and yet every action he took led to catastrophic destruction- so what’s to say that when he was sitting in his bunker with all of Europe burning above him he hadn’t got *exactly* what he wanted deep down?). Regardless, if what’s going on inside the bad guy’s head doesn’t add up or seems totally illogical, then it’s very noticeable. Speaking of human monsters…

darth vader humanA human being… gone wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not adverse to *generic monstrous evil* all the time- however I’m never particularly drawn to it either. Manmade evil feels more authentic than the detached *evil force*. Seeing the villain as a *person* can make them feel more sinister, since we can see ourselves reflected back in their seductively relatable ways. And there’s nothing more terrifying than that.

i see you sauronOf course, they also must be SCARY! Without being a true threat, they can hardly be the driving force of the novel. And, unless it’s parody, people in the book have to be scared of what they’ll do. So that means they actually have to DO SOMETHING. Preferably something truly malicious…

alan rickman cut your heart out with a spoonBecause, yeah, I’m looking for someone NASTY. I’m really not someone who cares about what the baddie looks like- whether they’re ugly or stunning doesn’t matter to me- it’s what’s inside that counts. And what’s inside has to be *horrible*. Villains need plenty of flaws. Some of the best ones for a bad guy are resentment, arrogance and jealousy. Even if they’re appealing externally, they need to have some traits that are off-putting. That’s why liars work for me too- the best manipulators learn to hide their faults. This certainly helps to make them less than straightforward.

sad thanosIn fact, it’s brilliant if they have some *major doubts*. Or a soft side. Even if they’re perfectly malevolent, like Thanos, pitting children against each other to create the perfect murderers, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a good side and, you know, care.

 

I'll help you kiara and zira lion king 2This naturally lends itself to the possibility for REDEMPTION. Now, I’ll admit I can be a sucker for a well-told redemption arc. For me, the best stories have a hopeful side, with the chance for turning back always being on the table- that’s why I love Star Wars. At its core, the original story was always that good guys can go over to the dark side OR come back to the light. This doesn’t necessarily = forgiveness, mind. My major caveat in a story like this, especially when you have a genocidal maniac for a villain, like, say, Darth Vader, is that they don’t get to go off happily into the sunset at the end of it. Harsh as it is, they pretty much have to sign their death warrant when this type of story comes to an end.

choicesFor that sort of story to work, the evil character has to have some agency. One thing that bugs me about a lot of stories lately is the desire to take away the villain’s free will. For instance, spoilers abound particularly in Falling Kingdoms, Gaius taking a magic potion to be evil or in Throne of Glass where the king was possessed all along (though in Maas’ defence she makes possession work well for Dorian’s character). As horrible as it is, evil does exist and it’s nearly always a matter of free will. Some henchmen can have limited choices, but the driving force of the story has to have the power to make up their own mind.

harley quinnWhat can also work particularly well is if they’re chaotic and unpredictable. While not totally necessary, I do think it can be the greatest cause for a plot twist if the villain did something no one expected. Again, this comes back to them being vaguely competent as a villain and having an intimidating presence, but they should be able to outwit the hero at some point.

loki and thorAnother favourite is for them to have a personal relationship with the hero. To go back to the Marvel universe again (because they do this so well) what makes for an interesting adversary is if they are closely connected to the hero. So, Loki for Thor, Killgrave for Black Panther, Ultron for Iron Man etc. These villains work so well because they are practically handpicked for the good guy to overcome. Which brings me to…

harry vs voldemortHaving parallels with the heroI seem to go on about this every week now, cos it works so well, but having a similar backstory can work brilliantly. That’s why it’s so significant that Harry, Voldy and Snape’s all have tragic pasts- because they have to make different decisions. And that is the only thing that separates them from each other. It’s a powerful tool and works exceptionally well when it comes to forming a fantastic antagonist.

So that’s all for now! What do you think? Do you find any of these traits appealing? And what do you personally look for in a villain? Let me know in the comments!

84 thoughts on “What I Look For in a Villain!

  1. These are some really great points! But that is no surprise coming from you! I love the examples you picked for each quality in a villain and definitely see your point for many of them! I truly think that villains are the ones who have the power to make or break a book/series to be honest. Without a great villain, you just have another hero story, and at least for me, it feels like there are much more parallels from hero to hero than villain to villain, which is why villains are so much more interesting to read about!

    Awesome post :]

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I saw that Thanos gif and in my head it just went off like “What did it cost?” – “Everything.”
    This whole post is amazing though. Villains, especially the kind you’ve described, are my favourite too. Motivation, good planning, a tinge of humanity .. those truly are the best ones!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. What a fantastic post on one of my favorite topics: villains! I think that two of my favorite traits will always be the Human being..gone wrong as well as The possibility for redemption. Both of these I absolutely love…and of course that has a lot to do with my love for Star Wars. Vader’s redemption story will always be my number 1 favorite villain story. I don’t think anything will ever beat it.
    I really had a lot of fun reading this post: well done! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  4. OMG this is just a FANTASTIC post! You sure put much thougths in this one. And I have to agree with everything. You sure made me laugh with the teenager hero not knowing which love interest to go for LOL

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Villains are usually the most interesting characters to read. But I totally agree that they must have realistic motivation – even when I’m teaching my 7-year-olds I insist that their antagonist needs to have a reason for what he/she is doing!

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  6. Parallels with the hero, sound motivation, good psychology (well-written not like good obviously) and a high-level of chaos are tops for me. But I agree with your list point-for-point. But especially the good plan part though! Also excellent picture choices for your points!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I relate to almost everyone of these!!!! I love when the villain is human, has an interesting psychological profile, a motive and a solid plan with twists and turns that sometimes the “hero” doesn’t see coming. It all just makes the story all the more exciting and unpredictable. My personal favourite is when we get to *see* the villain become one, eventhough it’s not something i see often. I like the possibility of a redemption arc but i rarely like the way it’s executed if/when it is, sometimes it’s just too easy and tidy whereas i like messy!

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    1. I’m really glad you agree!!Definitely!! Oh yeah I absolutely love seeing the person evolve into the villain- that’s one of the best story arcs! Totally get what you mean- it’s really hard to pull off a good redemption arc (I just love it when it does work)

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  8. You make some great points. I definitely have to agree with you that human will and choices/psychology play a big role for bad guys. And yet, still, you could see a bad guy as sort of a good guy. Loki is fun, and generally finds his way back to the good side at the end only to do something trickery just afterwards… or like Klaus Mikaelson from The Originals — granted, not the best story telling, but he was definitely a bad guy worth rooting for. He wasn’t ALL bad, all the time. Of course, there’s Dexter Morgan. A self-proclaimed psychopath-borderlining-on-sociopath with an ethical code to abide by. He’s a bad guy, but he’s a very likable bad guy, and though he doesn’t often show it, he does care and he does feel. There are far worse bad guys he must face and people he cares about that he must protect.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much!! ❤ I totally agree with you there- I love seeing the bad guy as the good guy! And yes, I really loved Klaus in the Originals (though you're right about the storytelling, that was too disappointing for me). Such a great comment- thank you!!

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  9. A very interesting post! I am especially picky when it comes to villains’ psychology and agency, though I’m not a fan of botched origin stories – like Hannibal Lecter’s one, for example. And redemption should be a possibility, but there is a point of no return and saving one’s son doesn’t clean up their slate full of mass murder and slaughter, at least in my book 😛

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great post! I don’t have any definite “rules” (they’re made to be broken after all!) but I tend to like villains best when they’re complicated. Some of the factors that you mention are great: parallels/personal relationship with the hero can make for some interesting dynamics, and they need to have some kind of motivation that makes sense. Doubts can certainly play into that. But I think some of the “best” villains are the ones who believe that they’re doing good. It becomes more interesting when they feel like they’re making sacrifices for some kind of higher ideal, because then they have to justify their actions to themselves. That justification doesn’t always make sense to us but there needs to be someone kind of internal logic. As for origin stories and redemption I’ll say it depends. Origin stories are great as long as they’re consistent. I hate when a villain seems like a completely different person in his/her origin story. We should see the seeds of villainy early on. They don’t need to be developed or evolved yet. Seeing how that happens is part of the fun of origin stories! Redemption is interesting because there’s a point at which you can’t overcome a lifetime of evil with a single act of good- unless the author is able to convince us that you can. Some authors can sell me on the idea that a single act of pure love can have a greater moral weight than I lifetime of doing bad things, but not all can. And there’s nothing I hate more than a redemption arc that feels unsuccessful.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you! hehe that’s very true 😉 Really agree about liking complex villains. Thank you! Oh yes, I absolutely agree- it can be really fantastic when the character believes he’s doing the right thing. And yeah it’s really good when they seem to live by a moral compass (especially if that moral compass is immoral and doesn’t make sense to us, if that makes sense). That’s fair- I hate when the origin story doesn’t correlate too. And yes, I do agree with you there- I strongly dislike when everything works out for a character that’s done something truly unforgivable- I do think that characters can be forgiven, but that doesn’t mean all their crimes get forgotten and there are no consequences! Yeah I really agree with you! Thanks for the awesome comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  11. This is such an awesome post!! I love villains so much, arguably more than the hero of the story. But you’re right, there needs to be a lot going for the villain, otherwise they come off kind of flat and generic. I also love villains that have sinister goals buried deep in their psyche, that’s so interesting. But my favourite element is them having parallels and a personal relationship with the hero — I think it makes their character so much more interesting. Have you read The Young Elites by Marie Lu? The MC is the villain and she is paralleled quite nicely to the hero, but I like how Marie Lu twists the book and makes it the villains story instead.

    Great post!!! 💕

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much!! Yeah me too!! And absolutely!! Definitely agree with you there. I completely agree. And yes I have- I loved that series- I thought it was so cleverly done and really well executed 😀 That’s a great point about the parallels between the heroes/villains (and the connection they have is great as well!)
      Thank you! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  12. This is such a great post and so many fantastic points about villains. I see quite a lot of the mustache twirly variety bad guys and it rankles me so much. Like, the writer is only thinking about one side of the story, or just our main character’s motivation. What about the other side of things? It’s a little frustrating sometimes, other times I can overlook it if the story’s focus is something else (like a romance or something). But still, when villains are done right, it’s so good.
    I love also love an antagonist who starts out as friends with the protagonist. I think one of the most recent books I read like this was The Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North and it made the end pack so much more of a punch.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! Really glad you liked it!! Yeah for sure!! I can sometimes overlook it too, but when it’s done well it can really make the story.
      And yes- it’s so great when the antagonist starts out as a friend- I love that story arc. That’s really cool and makes me really curious about that book! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was one of my favorite books from last year! It’s very slice of life. Or rather slice of lives because he keeps reliving his life over and over again. There’s not much plot until near the end but it was so impactful.

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  13. These traits could make for a GREAT villain! Especially, having some kind of relationship with the hero! For me the story is as good as it’s villain. And it would be a wonderful story if the villain is one I sympathize with, charismatic, and has so many layers and depth!

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  14. A most outstanding post! I loved every word of it! In fact authors should read it and take exams on it! A poorly thought out villain seems to be quite the norm. Writers devote lots of time and energy in creating the perfect hero and then go on to pit them against a parody of a villain.

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  15. This is such a wonderful post, I agree with all of your points! My favorite kind of villain is definitley someone who’s smart, charismatic, complex, unpredictable and has agency. I also love it when they have a personal connection with the hero or their stories have parallels, so basically EVERYTHING YOU JUST SAID. This list is perfect ❤️

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  16. I completely agree with all of your points! Those are also the things that I look for in a villain. 😀 I love when author write complex and intriguing villains. Amazing post! ❤

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  17. Oh I love this post! These are all the things I look for in a villain too! It’s always a treat when the villain is somewhat relatable and their motivations actually make sense. That’s also why I love the concept of anti-heroes. They usually walk the line between right and wrong and reside in a very grey area but their stories are almost always much more complex than a straightforward villain. Though that doesn’t mean we haven’t had some truly well-written villains to admire. And THANK YOU so much for using Tommy from Peaky Blinders. That show is fantastic LOL

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Such a great post!! You are spot on with these. I particularly laughed at this: “whatever they’re planning to do can’t be easily undone by a teenager (usually one who can’t even figure out which love interest is more appealing to them, let alone save the world)” 😂😂 So true. Actually I think that’s probably one of my favourite traits in a villain: being clever (though I agree with many other points you made) – because if they’re clever, they’re far harder to beat and far more scary, and their plans actually make sense and might work. And if there’s a really annoying big red STOP EVIL GENIUS button (I hate those too!), with a clever villain you’ll be wondering if they actually plan for the heroes to push it 🙂

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  19. Chaos and unpredictability in a villain works well for me which is why I have a soft spot for Loki or the Penguin in Gotham. 😄
    Awesome post again – you really rock!! Always such fun reading your posts and all the lovely comments you get. 😄💕

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Fantastic list! Honestly, there’s only one aspect I’d add and it might be very ‘me’ centric. You see, what I look for in a villain is all the weakness I see in myself taken to the nth degree. Watching some outside figure succumb to the darkest temptations I’ve known gives a sense of… understanding. A clear cut reason of why Not to give in. And better yet? If they do manage a redemption arc? Well then, that’s a source of reassurance all on its own. This was a great read, thank you for posting.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. For me one of the main thing I love in villains is redemption arcs, but I don’t like the whole ‘redemption through death’ trope because it feels kind of lazy. If a villain is going to be redeemed they have to really work for it, and not just sacrifice their life for the hero to make the readers feel something for them. Also yeah appropriate motivation is a must, it’s hard to believe in villains as characters (or any kind of characters lets be honest) if their motivation is really weak or doesn’t feel true to them. Unfortunately that does happen every so often doesn’t it?
    Great post. 🙂 ❤

    Like

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