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!