First order of business — to those of you who get email updates, I sincerely apologize for publishing earlier this morning my idea for a blog post: writing a good story without a villain. Call it a preview of coming attractions. (And also picture me smacking myself on the forehead repeatedly. Doh!)
Second order of business — I’m still looking for guest posts to run in mid-June when I’m away getting married and stuff. So, if you’re reading this, let me know if you’d like to see your own content here. I will owe you cookies and/or a future guest post.
On to Freudian Friday madness. I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been talking a lot about difficulty connecting with a show or a book if it lacks a good villain.
That’s not quite the oxymoron it seems—villains are people, too, you know. They had parents (usually), birthday parties, first loves… and a really intriguing villain gives the audience glimpses of that past and the personality it created.
So if you’re looking to raise—I mean, write—a good villain, keep the following traits in mind:
Part of what makes Joss Whedon’s work so great is his love for a comedic villain. We’re rooting for our hero, sure, but the villain is just so damned funny we can’t help but like him a little, too. Take Captain Hammer. He’s a smarmy, self-involved jerk, sure, and apparently frightened of geese, but he’s frickin’ hilarious.
Even though we’re rooting for Doctor Horrible, it’s hard not to love Captain Hammer—his fists are not the hammer, he doesn’t need tiny cue cards, and he’s played by Nathan Fillion. How could we not join his groupies?
(Note that extreme good looks didn’t make this list… but they certainly don’t hurt.)
While we’re on Doctor Horrible, let’s talk about the man himself. He “has a PhD in Horribleness,” so, even though he’s our hero, we know he’s looking to become a Big Bad. But his other name is Billy, he wears slouchy-hoodies, he’s too scared to talk to his crush, and he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris: he just screams sensitive soul.
We also know, though, that he keep stalker-photos of his crush and feels wildly inadequate compared to his aforementioned nemesis, Captain Hammer. The fact that he’s vulnerable makes him likable, easy to relate to—he really is a good villain. It’s the exploitation of that tragic flaw that pushes him into the Evil League of Evil.
3. Real Concern for Something or Someone
I’ve mentioned before that I think Mayor Wilkins is an awesome villain. He’s got the humor, and his concern for Faith makes him vulnerable: it’s what enables Buffy to kill him. The Mayor’s love for Faith shows that he’s more than just an evil dude looking for ascension and life as a big snake-demon. He’s also a man with fatherly impulses, someone who wants to sponsor and protect young people.
We occasionally get to see him through Faith’s eyes as the only person who ever truly believed in her. And that makes him far more interesting than a villain who only wishes to destroy everyone he touches.
4. A Little Bit of Crazy
One of my personal favorite Buffy villains is Glory, the exiled Hell-God who wants to kill Buffy’s sister Dawn and use her magical Key energy to open the doors back to home-hell. As a god, Glory operates on a completely different plane than the human characters, and Her Sparkling Luminescence is completely batshit crazy. One of her powers is draining humans of their sanity, turning them into some kind of sleeper-agent mindless zombies who eventually activate to do her bidding.
Her madness makes her alien, and she’s more frightening because of it. Someone who neither understands nor cares about our “rules” and works completely outside of them is more difficult to beat—and more outrageous to watch.
5. Belief They Are Doing Right
Finally, a convincing, near-likable villain believes she is doing right. While I could talk about Marnie/Antonia from True Blood or the Lord Ruler from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, let’s stick with the Joss Whedon theme, and get Willow into the mix. No, she’s not a true villain, rather more of an antagonist (which nebulous difference I won’t get into), but she is a Big Bad at one point, with an endgame first of vengeance and then of destroying the world.
Willow turns evil because she wants to avenge Tara’s murder, and she’s driven to destroy the world because she can’t stand the pain that fills it. Dark Willow has a point: the world is a terrible place, especially in the Buffyverse, and sometimes it does seem like a supervillain would be justified in destroying it all and starting over from scratch. We feel for Willow, even as we’re rooting for Xander to stop her. A goal we can understand makes a villain reasonable, and makes the hero’s triumph more difficult and more bittersweet.
What do you think makes a good villain, readers?