Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved villains. And it’s not all that surprising. Villains are almost always the most interesting character in any story. Somewhere in my mid-teens, though, I began to sympathize with villains and then it all went wrong. Disappointed time and time again by the often rigged defeat of my favorite characters, I began to despise most books and films.
I became one of those people who sincerely hoped Snape would turn out to be the real hero of the Harry Potter series. And why not? Of them all, only Snape has made the choice to sacrifice anything of value to achieve his larger goal. But I digress…
Now right now, you might be tempted to say that heroism and villainy are all subjective. But you would be mistaking an argument about the qualities that comprise a character for a much more technical argument about the basic mechanics of a functioning story.
Because the fact is that a reader is not meant to sympathize with the antagonist. The reader is supposed to be hoping for the success of the POV character in accomplishing his goal, not gleefully rooting for the villain’s success in finally destroying that annoying goody-goody once and for all. If the protagonist of a story is so basically unlikable that the reader actively fantasizes about his demise then the story has gone wrong. The author has failed to make a protagonist journey appealing enough for a reader to get behind.
Oftentimes in these situations, the difficulty lies with massive passivity on the part of the protagonist combined with villains who at least have goals. In situations like these the reader is very excited to see the villain every time he appears because it means that something interesting will actually happen soon. After the reader starts wanting to see the villain, it doesn’t take long for the reader to like the villain best. It’s a basic Pavlovian response.
This basic principle is successfully put into play by slasher movies. The characters inserted so that they can be victims who are mowed down by chainsaw-wielding maniacs are generally the ones the audience is not meant to like. They are made deliberately flawed or ugly so that the audience won’t necessarily object when they are ingeniously bisected. The protagonist, though, is a person whom we never hope to see impaled on a pitchfork. She (slasher film heroes are almost always women) is the character we want to see turning that pitchfork back on her persecutor and winning.
To put it succinctly: as much as I enjoy sympathizing with villains, I like hating and fearing them more. I want to be worried for the protagonist when I see him, rather than filled with gleeful anticipation of the ensuing bloodbath.
But the mad slasher is a very simplistic sort of villain. He’s really more like a plot device that is almost always devoid of actual characterization. What about villains who appear in more complex stories?
I asked myself, why do some villains work for me as actual villains while others become de facto protagonists in my mind. And I discovered that more often than not the stories I like the most contained villains who I actively disliked, but whose motivation I understood. In other words, these villains appeared in stories that were working the way they were supposed to.
A good example here is Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. The villain, Syndrome’s, motivation is clear: he wants to be recognized as a Super. The benefits of being a Super are obvious: fame, admiration, going down in history. The motivation itself is neutral. Everybody dreams of being one of the important people in the world.
So, apart from the fact that he occupies the part of antagonist in the life of protagonist Bob Parr, what makes Syndrome a villain?
Well, his actions, of course.
Syndrome creates a robot that will attack the city, one that he controls, allowing him to swoop in and subdue the robot any time he chooses. This plan allows Syndrome to appear to save the city, and gain the love of its citizens and achieve his goal of being recognized as a Super without actually risking his life or fighting any real foe.
What’s the first character quality that makes Syndrome a villain? He is a coward.
So, back to the plot of The Incredibles: in order to test his machine Syndrome kidnaps and kills several other Supers.
Now what do we know about him? He’s an asshole who does not value the lives of others, certainly. But we also learn that he’s an intelligent and systematic asshole who cannot be beaten easily and will not stop on his own. Hence we feel tension about whether or not Bob & Family will be able to stop Syndrome.
Eventually, Syndrome tries (and rather hilariously fails) to take a baby hostage.
In the final scene we are shown that there is no low to which Syndrome will not sink in order to achieve his goal and also that he is not just myopic, but genuinely vindictive.
But what makes him an—dare I say it?—incredibly good villain is that almost everybody has met somebody like Syndrome. Everyone has, at one point or other, run afoul of some cowardly, back-stabbing self-absorbed weasel with delusions of grandeur. As fantastical as the character of Syndrome is, he is based on a real kind of person that we encounter (and dislike) in our everyday lives. He makes sense.
As with the rest of romantic literature, M/M contains room for a wide variety of villains and antagonists. After all, any book with a plot contains room for an antagonist—requires one, even. So here are my tips for creating a villain:
- Though he should make sense, a villain should not be more interesting or sympathetic than your protagonist. If he IS more interesting, you must accept the fact that he might BE your protagonist and go on to create an actual villain. Alternatively, this might be a clue that your protagonist needs some depth and complexity if he’s going to stand up to this much more interesting character.
- Though the villain can make the first move, in terms of drawing your protagonist into action, he cannot be the only person making moves in the game. Your protagonist must take some meaningful action that provokes your antagonist to retaliate. The villain’s retaliation must escalate the situation. Then the protagonist must take action again, and so on.
- Having a villain relentlessly persecute a hapless hero who takes no action does not create forward motion in a plot. It just further weakens the hero.
- An anti-hero is not the same thing as a villain. Anti-heroes run the gamut between cheerful rogues like Captain Jack Sparrow to Uma Thurman’s vengeful Bride in the Kill Bill movies. Anti-heroes are morally-challenged types who fight FOR something or someone pure, such as Han Solo fighting for the Rebels or against a villain so unbelievably evil, corrupt or chaotic that a purely moral person could not succeed—think Mad Max. Mafia stories, and stories dealing with other criminal underworlds often contain anti-heroes, for the same reason. Unless a situation calls for an anti-hero, the anti-hero and the villain come very close to being the same person. What separates them is that the anti-hero usually retains one inalienable moral, humane quality: he is loyal, he keeps his word, he does not kill women, something like that. Some kryptonite-like factor that keeps him from sliding into the self-centered depravity enjoyed by villains the world over.
- Others might disagree with me on this one, but for my money, the surest measure of the total incompetence of a villain is that he kills his own people. Why would any sensible villain destroy his own property? Sending some henchmen on suicide missions is one thing. Actually senselessly shooting your own guys just to prove (either to the hero or to the reader) how ruthless you are is absolutely wasteful. Minions, henchmen, operatives—none of these people are easy to come by. It’s not as though they can be acquired 2 for 1 at Walmart. When faced with a silly and capricious villain like this, a canny hero need not even mount an offensive since with only a little patience, the villain will irrationally kill all his own guys. This leaves the hero free to just waltz in and triumph all by himself, mano y mano. That is, provided that the villain’s cooks haven’t already wearied of his shenanigans and just poisoned the bastard, which eliminates the need for the hero entirely.
Got thoughts on villains and villainy? Let me know!