The Best Types of Villains

I think villains come in a variety of types and the best types of villains are those who do more than tie pretty Pauline to the railroad tracks and then stand back while twirling their waxed mustaches.

There is the type of villain who is inexplicably evil and does horrible things because he/she is an insane monster. These are the serial killer type of villains. Kevin Spacey played a brilliant serial killer in Seven named John Doe that would be a good illustration of this type of villain. Serial killers get a selfish pleasure from stalking, hurting, and finally killing their victims.

There is the type of villain who manipulates the situation and may believe that what they are doing is the right thing all the while that they victimize others. Con-artists, heart breakers, and abusers are of this type of villain. The people who send out phishing schemes and bilk the elderly of their retirement money might illustrate this type of villain. Another example would be the emotionally abusive boyfriend who always manages to selfishly twist the interpretation of events to benefit himself, doesn’t have the emotional maturity to be able to handle the pressures of relating to a woman in an adult manner, and inflicts harm upon someone who tries to love him. Businessmen who justify making decisions because they feel an obligation to their stockholders even though they know the decision will harm others would fit into this category. Watch the Yes Men Take Over the World if you do not think that such business men exist.

Some villains are only villains because they are on the wrong side of history. Attila the Hun is one such villain that springs to mind. In reality while Attila the Hun invaded across Asia and into Europe, he was a very skilled leader. I am sure that the Celts would have written a different version of Julius Caesar than what we all believe.

Two truly frightening types of villains are those that are in some ways opposites. The villain who is like a child and is out of control, cannot see the value of the lives of others, and violently reacts is very horrifying to watch. Lil’ Ze from the City of God would illustrate this type of villain. The opposite of this type of villain is the sociopathic bad guy who knows full well what he is doing, uses the emotions and motivations of others, and very intentionally spreads his doctrine in such a way as to inflame things and cause others to do violence for his benefit or according to his plan. Adolf Hitler and Jim Jones spring to mind as examples of this type of villain.

A more complex villain is much more interesting. If the character has ambiguities and is someone that is multi-faceted then the reader can sympathize with him or her and this makes the story have much more impact. A villain is not necessary to a good story, only a conflict is necessary. However some of the best characters are the villains and they are the ones driving home the themes. Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner utterly upstaged Harrison Ford’s character and brought home the point that he just wanted to live and be free as any other man.

Heath Ledger’s Joker caused organized chaos in the Batman’s world, but the chaos showed the motivations of people and the meaning behind accepted thoughts. He did what he did intentionally and made a mockery of anyone who would think to sympathize with him because of the disadvantages of his past.

Villains can be those characters that cause us to look inside ourselves and examine our own shadows. Would we act more virtuous in the same situation? What choices might we make? They help us to define ourselves as human, who is within our culture group versus who is other, and what constitutes the bounds of humane. The darkness of villains illuminates what is most bright about humanity and how evil we can be.

The Best Villains

Villains are tough.

I don’t mean tough as in hard to harm or able to endure– although many are. I mean in the sense of creating a good believable villain. A bad guy who is just bad is one dimensional and not terribly interesting. If there are no ambiguities or reasons for why the bad guy is doing what he is doing it is just random. The villain is left a caricature of bad and can come across as not as effective. His or her villainy is without motivation or passion. It is also hard to care about the hero’s plight and struggle if the villain is one dimensional and appears as not a serious threat.

Consider the Wicked Witch of the West. She kidnaps Dorothy, she sets the scarecrow on fire, and she threatens to drown Toto. And those monkeys of hers are seriously scary. And she lives in a monstrous scary castle with enslaved guards. When I was a kid she and her flying monkeys terrified me. At first glance, the Wicked Witch of the West comes across as some personification of evil. She is willing to go to extreme ends to get the ruby slippers. She appears one dimensional.

But the Wicked Witch of the West is not one dimensional. Dorothy dropped a house on her sister and then Glinda the Instigator magicked the ruby slippers onto Dorothy’s feet. Those slippers and whatever powers they hold are not Glinda’s property. Or Dorothy’s. Further, from the Wicked Witch of the West’s perspective no court in the land of Oz is going to give the Wicked Witch of the West justice in the instance of Dorothy killing her sister. The Wicked Witch of the West has plenty of motivation to try to pursue Dorothy and get her sister’s shoes. Gregory Maguire in his book titled “Wicked” turned the story of the Wicked Witch of the West around and considered her in a sympathetic light. The designation of villain may be more a matter of perspective.

Voldemort is another big time bad guy. He kills Harry Potter’s parents and terrorizes the world of the Harry Potter books. He would have killed Harry but Harry was protected by his mother. Obviously a guy who attacks babies is pure evil. He appears at first as the one dimensional He Who Must Not Be Named.

But consider that Voldemort’s humanity is taken away at every turn initially. His name is not to be spoken. He has no body. As the Harry Potter series unfolds Voldemort becomes more human both in the flesh and in terms of what is revealed about him. His campaign to control the wizarding world and the muggle world grows as his humanity grows. He becomes scarier as the reader learns of his childhood and background. He was a child wronged who had great talent, intelligence and power and he grew into an adult who wanted to control the world. Voldemort does what he does not because he is simply evil. He is pursuing his course of action from deep conviction and desire. And hurt.

One person’s villain can also be another person’s hero. Vengeance and hurt are only two possible motivations for a character to be a “villain”. What if the “villain” is a disenfranchised group who has been excluded from resources like food? What if the villain fights the hero of the story to claim a stake out of need? Yes, the hero is being attacked, but perhaps it is out of desperation or necessity. How many times in history did not only the spoils go to the winner but the ability to claim virtue and designate oneself as the culture hero group? The Romans did this. They considered all other groups to be “barbarians’. The Romans were the heroes of their own history.

The best villains have a certain degree of ambiguity about them. If seen in the right light, there is something to sympathize with about them or what they are doing. This makes them more of a threat and more believable.