Dark reflections or terrible omens, wonder-pots of laughter or horrifying nemeses; villains can play a decisive role in enjoying a story.
Villains we hate, love, love to hate, hate that we love. Villains that make us shiver or laugh or question. For every cheer and concern brought out for the trials of the hero there must be a counterbalancing emotion placed on the story’s villain.
But, if you’re making a story, what kind of villain do you need?
The short answer in all its obvious yet undeniable practicality is get the villain that’s right for your story.
Get one right for the tone, length, audience, and setting.
There are many types of villains, many too much to cover here, but I’ll cover a fair swath in the abstracts to lay a foundation for your decision.
First, and likely the first many ever come across, there’s the Cartoony/Simple Villain. Every cartoon I watched as a kid had these villains by the shovel-full. Which is an accurate statement considering how disposable they were.
These Cartoony Villains often have very little depth to their motivations and just want the jewels or to take over the world or crash the party.
Not to say these villains can’t have depth of character. I’ll point to Smaug from The Hobbit as a great Simple Villain. A big mean dragon that wants treasure and will kill to protect its horde. (Maybe there’s more in some other Tolkien text but not anything I’ve seen.)
Smaug, however simple his motivation is, vapidly embraces Bilbo’s compliments and dishes out imposing threats as freely as he does charming conversation. His short appearance is dense with wit, laughter, suspense, and terror. This works perfectly for the chapter-a-night children’s book The Hobbit was meant to be.
The Simple Villain generates interest through action. That’s about the simplest way it can be explained. Not felt or enjoyed but that’s not why I’m on this circuit.
The best I’ve heard it put was by Mr. Plinkett in his Revenge of the Sith review summarizing Emperor Palpatine.
“Whether he’s just filled with pure hate or he’s doing manipulative things to less smart people or he’s being plain old silly. The man seems to find such joy in being pure evil, you’ve gotta respect that.”
“He’s fucking evil and he loves it. And he’s got a goal he’s working towards obtaining.”
For the more mature villain for the (sometimes) more mature audience, there’s the Other Side of the Coin Villain. Or the Justification Villain as I like to phrase it.
These evildoers can range from out of date cornball black leather on black leather edgelords to hero upstaging terrorists. The one thing Justification Villains share is that at some point in the story there’s an attempt to rationalize why the villain’s actions are righteous in some fashion.
This reasoning often follows the overused line, “A good villain is one who sees themselves as the hero.”
The problem here is that virtually no person in the real world sees themselves as a villain so the applicability gets stretched wafer thin. By the “sees themselves as a hero” logic: Mao, several iterations of the Joker, Genghis Kahn, and John Doe from Seven are all good villains. Sure there are those you hate, for many reasons if not a few, but having the villain say, “No I’m helping you by killing you,” doesn’t make them compelling or give them depth.
My yardstick is the villain’s reasoning should match the complexity or logic of the hero’s. At least in substance if not also tone.
This creates a stalemate and gives the hero a true challenge. Perhaps, the villain can even give the hero a mirror to strike at.
Then, above the Justification Villain, I’ve spotted on rare occasions the bend round the villain horseshoe. There are some villains who can turn the hero into a Cartoony/Simple Hero.
Upfront it’s an easy concept but it is skull crushing in practice.
The only clear instance I can point to this is the episode Eddie from Louis CK’s show Louie. In that episode, alcoholic comic Eddie (Doug Stanhope playing a near true to life version of himself) confesses to Louie how dower and hopeless his life is and his plan to commit suicide. Initially confused, Louie combats Eddie on his want to end his life.
This is met with Eddie’s line, “And why can’t I [commit suicide?]” Louie’s only answer is, “Because!”
Eddie further probes this reasoning, daring, “Louie look me in the eye and tell me I have one good reason to live.” This is met with a protracted silence.
The villain (perhaps not in the traditional sense) has such a well-made argument that the hero diverts to circular logic backed up by a general sense of morality. The hero must now build a new case, find reason in the world for why they’re right. Breakdown and expand their honed character. Terrifying work for any writer.
Perhaps the villain is right, maybe they’re wrong. That scarcely matters in the end when the fires are out and the blood is dry on the bedsheets.
Did you enjoy the villain? Did they make you laugh? Tremble? Did they reduce you to square one on your finely crafted shrine for your morality?
Good, use it.