You don’t necessarily have to have a traditional villain in your story. Sometimes the antagonist is a force of nature, or even something within the protagonist himself. (I don’t mean literally, although – have you seen Alien?)
But if you’re going to have a villain, make him a great one. What makes a memorable villain?
Darn good question. Although a one-dimensional villain can work (Terminator), you usually want to avoid the trap of a cackling, mindlessly cruel, cookie-cutter bad guy (unless you have a specific reason for that – there are always exceptions). In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West was a fun villain, but she didn’t quite reach the great category because she was all evil. We know she wants her sister’s slippers because they hold great power, but she doesn’t seem all that upset about her sister being killed. How did she come to be in charge in the Winkie country? In the book version, how did she lose her eye?
She becomes more interesting – although no longer quite the villain – in Wicked, the love it or hate it reimagining in which we learn how she came to be in that castle in the first place.
So the first lesson of creating villains is to make them real people. Give them a reason for what they’re doing, a background, and more qualities than just a desire to blow up London. Speaking of London, an example can be found in Ernst Blofeld, from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.
Blofeld is the leader of an international criminal organization but also, we learn, an economist and political history buff, former stockbroker, and turncoat war hero. He also doesn’t smoke, drink, or have sex, which perhaps explains his general bad attitude. There’s something going on in his brain beyond “Must get richer” and “Don’t tell Bond your plans next time”.
So, your bad guy has to be well rounded, and it might be good to give him a sense of humor: Hannibal Lector was scariest when he was being witty.
In addition to that, if you want to take your villain from good to great, remember this one rule: Bad guys don’t think they’re bad.
The really interesting villain in The Wizard of Oz is the Wizard himself, a feared and fearful legend who never leaves the palace and is never seen. Despite the fact that he’s a dictator who committed fraud against an entire nation, not to mention (according to later books) plotted to kidnap and hide the true ruler of Oz, he insists he’s not a bad man at all – just a bad Wizard.
The moment that curtain is knocked over, and the Wizard is revealed to be a timid little circus performer from Omaha, he becomes a character so interesting that fans eventually convinced L. Frank Baum to bring him back to Oz in a sequel.
Which brings us to Darth Vader.
Like the Wizard, Darth Vader is mysterious, powerful, and scary. That voice, the outfit, choking a guy with his frakking mind … wow. But, like the Wizard throughout most of Baum’s first book, he’s strictly one dimensional. At the end of the first Star Wars movie most fans were probably thinking more about the neat ships, lightsabers, and whether Leia would ultimately go for the good guy or the bad boy, than about what went on in Vader’s brain.
Aren’t we glad Leia chose the bad boy?
In the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, something seems off. Granted, Vader must be upset about losing the Death Star, but why is he so intent on capturing Luke alive? How did he even find out Luke was involved in that battle? Why put so many resources into chasing down one guy and his arguable unimportant band of allies? Vader’s still two dimensional, but getting interesting. We knew he’d killed Luke’s father, and was once the student of Luke’s Jedi Knight hero. There was a history. What was it?
You see, it wasn’t Vader’s villainy that was fascinating, it was those unanswered questions. How the heck did he end up in that cool black mask, anyway?
Then – spoiler alert, for those three people in Dubai who don’t know – everything changed. At the end of Empire, Vader said one line that turned him instantly from a memorable bad guy to one of the greatest movie villains of all time:
“Luke … I am your father.”
I was fortunate enough to be in the theater at an early showing, before everyone got spoiled. Talk about a communal gasp. In the words of Professor Farnsworth from Futurama: “Whaaaaa?????”
By the end of the third movie we saw an entirely different Vader: Still strong, skillful and ruthless, certain he’s in the right (“together we can bring order …”) but now conflicted, and with a past that showed he used to be one of the good guys, but got turned around. Whether you liked or hated the later prequels, all Star Wars fans were looking forward to finding out what happened along his journey.
That’s a well-rounded character.
Of course, your character will be on the page instead of the screen (unless you’re writing a screenplay), so the black suit won’t be nearly as effective. A better example might be Severus Snape, from the Harry Potter books.
Talk about a rotten person. He’s an egotistical teacher who bullies his students and plays favorites, he absolutely despises little twelve year old Harry Potter for no good reason, and he kills one of the main good guys!
Ah … but (spoiler alert!) as time goes by we get suspicious, and at the end comes one of the greatest twists of any book series ever: Throughout it all, the evil Snape has been protecting our hero, despite working for the enemy and despising Harry’s father. Why?
Because as a boy Snape loved and lost the girl who married James Potter … and Harry has his mother’s eyes.
Just like that, Snape become a flawed, haunted human being, dedicated to protecting the child who reminded him all too much of his past.
You could argue that in the end Snape was a hero, rather than villain. Still, the rules apply:
Give your villain a reason for doing what he does, so he’s not just some random maniac. (On the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike loves killing, but is also on a mission to restore the health of the woman he loves.)
Give some insights into the bad guy’s past. If he’s stalking teenage coeds, maybe he was bullied in high school. If he’s ruthlessly trying to get rich, maybe he grew up poor and hungry. If he’s just plain crazy, explain how he got to be that way – but insert your back story in little bites, and don’t overdo it. Nobody said it was easy.
If he has a good side (most people do), show it. On the TV show Glee, the vicious cheerleader coach suddenly lets a girl with Down’s syndrome onto the squad. Everyone assumes she’s up to some evil plan – until she’s revealed tenderly caring for her own Down’s stricken sister. She didn’t get less nasty, but she did become more human.
And that made a great villain.