As a lover of good stories and, generally, good storytelling, one of the characteristics that make a story good is the characters. Obviously, every story has a protagonist that the reader or audience roots for and wants to see do well. However, the antagonist is the established person that tries to undo or hinder the attempts of the protagonist.
It may just be me, but I think that a villain is far more interesting than the protagonist. They’re meant to be foils to the hero character, but I find them to be far more interesting to dissect and to try to understand. Psychologically, mentally and physically, I find that an antagonist is overall more interesting.
In doing the research for this blog, I tried to determine the many qualities that determine whether or not a villain memorable or a worth foe. So, what makes a good villain in my book? I have separated the essentials into several characteristics:
1) A good backstory: Before a bad guy can be introduced, we need to know a little more about him. Just look at Dr. Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs: both the literary and cinematic versions of this particular character go to painstaking lengths to show the audience the horrors of what Lecter has done in his ‘criminal’ career. Thus, as Agent Clarice Starling searches for Buffalo Bill, we find out more about the mind of Lecter and how he affects the people around him.
There are several exceptions to the rule here, however. Take for example Jaws. Obviously, no explanation is needed to determine why the shark is “evil.” It already is. Its animal instincts are its driving force.
This approach was also taken with 2008’s The Dark Knight, in which director Christopher Nolan decided not to give a definitive version to his vision of the Joker. Thus, this is why Heath Ledger’s Joker has two differing versions of how he got his trademark smile. As a viewer, I see these scenes as a “buffet;” that is to say, Joker decides to give each one of his victims a differing story so as to try and “humanize” him, when, in reality, he doesn’t really care about why he became psychotic. He just…is. The backstory is just a means to an end.
Nolan himself said in an interview: “‘The Joker cuts through the film, he’s incredibly important, but he’s not a guy with a backstory. He’s a wild card.”‘
2) Intelligence: A good villain has to be smart enough to outwit the hero and to match wits with him/her. It kind of defeats the purpose if the villain’s plan is weak or can be easily foiled. You see this a lot of times in James Bond movies: time after time, the villain has the opportunity to do away with him, and yet, they decide to brag about their plans, so as to give Bond enough time to escape or think of another plan.
Not to use the Joker from Dark Knight, again, but his plan was not one of “domination” of Gotham. Rather, he wanted to see the city collapse on itself, by turning citizens against one another and, thus, to prove his point that humanity is self-centered an immoral. As he says in his interrogation scene: “When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”
3) The Human Factor: Ultimately, a villain is just a flawed human being, whose view of the world has been corrupted and altered in some way. This, in turn, makes them relatable: we also have that capability to succumb to our fears. Example: Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies. His fear was that of dying, a rather common fear, to be sure. However, instead of accepting the inevitability of mortality, he decided to do everything in his power to ensure his own existence, to the point of becoming inhuman. It doesn’t matter who’s in his way. In particular, upon learning that a child will one day grow up and defeat him, he decides to snuff out the problem before it can occur, which, ultimately, backfires on him.
Those are the three basic characteristics of a good villain, in my opinion. There are probably more, however, but I tried to narrow them down to three essential elements.
Who are your favorite villains? Leave a comment below!
P.S.: After writing this particular entry, I will work on a list of my top ten favorite villains for a later blog.