So what makes a good villain and why do we even need a villain anyway?
In the world of genre fiction, villains are what make the stories happen. A hero is defined by the villain in many ways and without a good villain, it’s hard to have a good hero. After all, the obstacles the hero overcomes is what makes him a hero in the first place so if his obstacles are easy to overcome, how does that make the hero heroic?
There are a few main points to remember when formulating a villain, it should be a person. Faceless groups, bureaucracies, nameless evil and such all make crappy villains. Why? Because there’s nothing there to fight, it’s fog, you can’t punch it, you can’t have witty banter with it and you can’t kill it with a sword, gun, laser rifle or chat it to death. The hero needs someone tangible to fight against and it’s best if its one person. They can, and often do to excellent effect, represent the faceless group, bureaucracy or nameless evil. They are the face of that bad entity, the tangible person who is making the hero’s life hell and needs to be beaten, killed, incapacitated, dethroned, whatever.
Look at the great movies out there, Star Wars had Darth Vader with the Emperor behind him. Darth was the face of the Empire, which was bad and the Dark Side, which was worse. Can you imagine what that movie would have been like if Darth Vader hadn’t been the evil figurehead? Try the Phantom Menace. Who was the protagonist in the Phantom Menace? Who was the bad guy? Remember how utterly boring and pointless that movie felt? Part of the problem was the total lack of personal conflict.
Lord of the Rings had Souron and while he was the master pulling the puppet strings, but he sent out tangible bad guys for the heroes to overcome, the One Ring itself was a nameless evil, but it wasn’t the main driver, it just complicated things. The Ring Wraiths, the Orcs, Saruman the White, these were the villains that got us through the first movie.
Look at The Day After Tomorrow and the Happening. Why were these silly movies? Because the villains were weather and vegetation! Compare The Day After Tomorrow to Wall-E. The theme is the same, but the movies are vastly different. One is mocked and ridiculed, the other loved and lauded.
Another thing to keep in mind when making a good villain is that a good villain doesn’t think he’s evil. A good villain is the hero of his own story. Yes, he seems bad to us, but he thinks he’s doing something that’s either good or morally justifiable in some way. This is harder, but a good one is to have the world view that only the strong survive and that being strong and requiring humanity to be strong is good for humanity. The ends justify the means type of thing. The best villain I have ever seen is Gerald Terrant from C.S. Fiedman’s Coldfire trilogy. You start that series thinking he’s the worst thing ever and the more you learn about him, the worse you think he is and yet the more you like him. He’s the most twisted and despicably selfish character I have ever seen who is also the most sympathetic and selfless at the same time. I ended that series with him as my favorite character and he’s still on my top 10 characters of all time. I highly recommend checking it out.