Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Makes a Good Villain Good?

And by good, I mean bad, right?

Honestly, I have no idea what the answer is to this question. I can only offer observations from my own experiences as a story-consumer (and by consumer I mean that I like stories in all forms — novels, TV, movies, video games, etc).

Hitchcock once said, “The stronger the bad guy, the better the film.” But what does he mean by strong? Does he mean scary? Evil? Repulsive? What makes a villain strong?

For me, the measure of a villain isn’t how many people he kills, how many towns he can level, or how depraved his sense of torture is. Rather, the measure is how strong my emotional response is to him/her. The more I hate/fear/loath a villain, the better villain they are.

Given this criteria, I made a list of some of the villains who have provoked a strong emotional response in me. These are the guys I really wanted to get their comeuppance:

Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter
Commodus, Gladiator
Khan, Star Trek
The Joker, The Dark Knight
Hannibal Lector, The Silence of the Lambs
Voldemort, Harry Potter
This isn’t a complete list, by any means, but what I realized after making it, is that my feelings for these characters tend to be either hatred (Umbridge, Commodus, Kahn) or fear (Joker, Lector), and on the rare occasion, both (Voldemort).

Most of my “fear” reaction has to do with the believability of the villain’s evil. The Joker is arguably the best example of this. He is a man of action. He blows up a hospital! He steals a bunch of money and then burns it! Seriously, I believe in this guy’s evil, and all I want is for him to be stopped as quickly as the Batman can.

My “hatred” reaction to a villain is directly connected to how much I care about the protagonist. My utter and complete loathing of Umbridge comes from how much I care about Harry and his world. Not only is she wickedly horrible to Harry, but she’s also makes Hogwarts an unhappy place to be. This is bad, bad, bad. I love Hogwarts. I want to defend it. I’m filled with righteous indignation that such a pompous, toady old lady thinks she can govern the place and make it as vile as her fluffy pink cardigan and kitty-covered office (Deep breath, Mindee. See how much I hate this woman?).

After thinking about all this badness, I’ve come up with 4 essential  ingredients for creating good (bad) villains:
  1. Sympathetic protagonists whose lives/world is worth caring about it.
  2. Clear motivation. The villain should want something or have some kind of goal, one which must be identified to the reader at some point. Evil for evilness sake is boring. All the villains above have clear motivations in the story. Voldemort wants Harry dead, the Joker wants to watch the world burn, Kahn wants revenge, etc. 
  3. Empower your villain. At some point, the villain should have power over the protagonist or their world. Otherwise, they’re not a viable threat.
  4. Activate the villain. Let them use that power over the world you’ve given them. A villain with no real power, or one who doesn’t use it, is only a caricature and a gimmick. Give your readers an undeniable reason to hate and fear the bad guy.
So there you have it, my take on villain awesomeness. But what about you? Who are some of your favorite (reviled) villains?

Happy writing


  1. I WANTED THE CENTAURS TO SMITE UMBRIDGE. That was a useless comment, I know, but it had to be said lol.

    Great post, Mindee, and so so right. And also something you did REALLY well in FE. HAMMER MAKES MY BLOOD BOIL.

  2. Great post, Mindee! I think Umbridge angered me more than Voldemort, always. I just couldn't stand her self-righteousness. Ag.

  3. Umbridge is quite easily the worst villain ever written! (just to chime in.)

    Great post!

  4. This is a fantastic post! Umbridge seriously pissed me off! And Lector? Its like I couldn't help but like and hate him at the same time. And Voldemort just gave me nightmares as a child. *Shudders*

  5. Umbridge V Voldemort
    Umbridge was seriously more annoying!
    She carved Harry's lines into his skin and wrote them out in blood!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.