Villains are some of the most fascinating, and (in my opinion) easiest to fumble. A great villain makes a book better, an adequate villain doesn’t really do anything either way. This post is with urban fantasy villains in mind – since that’s what I write its also what I think in terms of.
Right from the start, its important to remember one of my favorite pieces of advice: The Villain is the hero of his own story. Great villains – whether they’re great because of the dialogue they get to say, the actions they perform, or even little moments that stick with you – are like the perfect seasoning to an already good book.
Think about it – would Harry Potter have been the same without Voldemort? Would the Mortal Instruments have been the same without Valentine? What about the Hunger Games and President Snow? Each is their own brand of villain, and each sticks with you for very different reasons.
I think there are two distinct kinds of villains. There are the villains that you remember – either they scare you or impress you; either way, they make an impression on you. Then there are the other villains. The ones that are boring, or who aren’t that interesting. The ones you don’t remember when you put down a book. These villains tend to be inserted in a book simply as a foil for the hero to overcome. In the terms of a longer series, a mixture of both becomes important (because frankly being a Memorable Villain is hard work and they require lots of vacation time).
A great character has a great voice. Same with the villains. A great villain has a voice that leaps across the page. And its not always about dialogue. Valentine from the Mortal Instruments is a charmer, Ridley from Beautiful Creatures is the literal definition of a bad girl, President Snow sticks with me because of the way his breath smells. Then there’s Buffy – some of the best examples of villains with character. The Mayor and his neat-freak obsession, Glory with her Paris Hilton godhood, even some of the one-shot villains are completely fascinating. They intrigue us because they’re fun, or they’re interesting in a way we don’t normally see.
Great villains have a bond with one or more of the main characters. This isn’t to say that a great villain must be related to the hero. Sometimes bonds develop over the course of the book, or over the course of several books. But eventually there is some sort of relationship there, even if that relationship is “come any closer and this stake is going through your heart.”
The interesting backstory. A villain with an interesting backstory can draw us into a book faster than a vanilla mobster with a grudge on his shoulder. Not only does a backstory allow us to see how the villain came to be the monster we know him to be, but it also gives us a chance to see how OTHERS view the villain. Now a villain can have a completely unique backstory, or he can have a backstory that puts the hero in sympathy with him. Both have their strengths. Look at the similarities between Harry and Voldemort. A good backstory can also allow you to shine light on interesting aspects of your world building, as well as flaws or traumas in the history of your world. Is the villain brought up in a war torn country thanks to the genocide of his people? Or was he meant to be a hero before he was seduced to the dark side?
The best villains are heroes who’ve lost their way. There is nothing more demoralizing than realizing your best friend has turned to the dark side. (And there’s nothing so morale-boosting as a villain who’s redeemed themselves). Flawed heroes who succumb to the darkness have already (hopefully) integrated themselves into the hearts of your readers. When they turn? The reader, just like the hero, feels that betrayal. The question then becomes, do you save your best friend? Or do you stop the villain he’s become? Moral dilemmas add a whole other level of complexity to your villain, who may or may not still have good feelings for the hero. Plus, things get actively worse for the heroes because that new villain? He already knows everything he needs to about you. He knows what buttons to push, and where to make it hurt the most.
Villains get to say all the best stuff. Being witty is just one benefit to being a villain. A great villain has lines that stick with you after you put down the book. There is nothing worse than a villain who tells you the truths you don’t want to hear. There’s also nothing better than a villain who gets all the best lines. Being melodramatic works better for a villain than it does for a teenage girl. Villains don’t have to play by the rules, they can do whatever they want. And sometimes that means torturing the heroes simply because they can. They don’t have to worry about being appropriate, or hurting feelings. And that gives them the freedom to make their barbs sting, and rub salt in those wounds.
The villain is the hero of his own story. This bears repeating. Heroes, by their very nature, have to REACT to trouble. Villains get to CREATE it. They’re active, they have plans and plots and all sorts of schemes up their sleeves. They have a master plan, and the hero’s job is to stop them. But just like the hero, they have flaws, and weaknesses, and things that can be exploited. From the villain’s perspective, failure isn’t an option. Good doesn’t always triumph in the end. And that’s what they’re banking on.
Villains are smart. A villain doesn’t have to be supervillain “I have forty-seven contingency plans if this goes wrong” smart, but smart enough. Like I said above, heroes have to REACT, but villains get to plan. They have to think their evil schemes through ahead of time, and the better they know their opponent, the better they can anticipate the troubles they’re going to face. Good villains keep an ace up their sleeves – an ally the heroes aren’t expecting, a bit of knowledge that throws them off balance, or a whole other plot that hides their true intentions. The villain’s job is to make life as difficult as possible for the hero.
What do you think? What makes a good villain? And what are some other examples of villains that kept you wanting more?