There's an old saying by film critic Roger Ebert, "Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph." Of course, it's not just films that the above statement can relate to but ANY medium. Put simply, a good villain makes a great story.
Whilst I do like strong heroic characters that have morals and ethics, I must admit I do tend to gravitate towards villains more in stories. I find the concept of villains interesting - the idea that a character can be devoid of any form of human decency or morals and can just be pure evil. It makes me wonder how a person can end up that way, and what could have happened to them to make it so detacted from human emotion.
Villians have always existed in fiction, going as far back as the time when humans started writing. In fiction, they are the foil for the hero to overcome - the mirror opposite of everything that the protagonist stands for. But at the same time, villains also represent a kind of wish fullfillment fantasy for the human race. You know the old saying, "it's more fun to play the bad guy", well that's true to an extent. Villains show our dark side, the part of us that wishes we could be more controlling and take whatever we want without fear of consequence. They can be our revenge fantasies or our secret desire to just be powerful - but at the same time show us that there is a cost to go to the dark side.
That being said, I strongly believe that a villain needs to be as developed and thought out as their heroic counterparts. It's not enough that they are evil - they audience have to understand their intentions and motivations. For me, a great villain needs to have a backstory that helps you understand why they are doing what they are doing. This way, you can emphasise with the character to an extent. That doesn't meant that their actions have to be justifed (they need to be vile to an extent otherwise they aren't villians) but as long as you UNDERSTAND where they are coming from, you can appreciate their point of view - even if you don't agree with them.
When I create a villain, I want to make sure they have a backstory that explains their actions, because in my opinion, no one is born evil - something happens to them to make it so. I'm not a fan of the whole "evil for the sake of being evil" or "they were just born with a dark heart" kind of storylines as they don't make interesting villains. I want to understand why someone became evil - what made them turn that way, ie, get inside the mind of a villain.
So for that reason, I've compiled a list of the top five villians (in my opinion) that I think make for interesting villains. I choose these characters because of their backstory and their mentality, but also because I just find them well developed and interesting characters. So here we go.
1. Tony Soprano from The Sopranos
This might be a somewhat contraversal choice as many actually view Tony as more of an anti-hero. I don't. Tony is a villain, plain and simple. He's a lecherous, adulterous creep of a man that cheats on his wife and is prone to violence at the smallest provocation. He's nerotic, greedy and will even kill if the moment calls for it. By all accounts, we should hate this character.
But the thing is, we actually don't. The main reason being is that, as the show is mainly told from his point of view, and through the therapy sessions in the show, we learn a little bit about his life, his upbringing and his day to day life. He was born into a life of crime and violence, so it's the only thing he knows. Because of this, he's unable to truely show his feelings (in fact, he models himself on Gary Cooper, "the strong and silent type") even though he actually does have some. Because of this, this often leads to bursts of violence, and even panic attacks. He is a man that wants to be in full control and when he isn't., he becomes frightened and lashes out.
To be fair to him, he does also have a certain code of honour. He will not go out and kill anyone unless it's a last resort (although he has killed out of anger a few times) and always tries to face any problems pragmatically. He geninuely cares for his family and his wife and will do anything to protect them - although the problems he has with his family are just too broken to be fixed. So he is at least trying to be a good soul as much as he can. That doesn't excuse his actions, but it does add some interesting contradictions to his character
Perhaps one of the best examples of this in the episode "College" where he takes Meadow out to view colleges for when she finishes school. Along the way, he finds a old mob that turned on their mafia code. One minute he's being a kind father, showing his kid around various colleges - the next he's strangling a guy to death. But it's the way that he can go from one to the next so seemlessly that makes him such an interesting character. You wonder what's going through his mind as he's doing this.
Tony shows that villains can be multi-layer and have real emotional depth. Even though he's a monster, we do follow and even find ourselves supporting Tony's actions as we know this is the life he choose. And to be fair, he's not the worst character in The Soprano's - but he is certainly one of the more likeable.
2. Magento from Marvel Comics (predominately X-Men)
The comic world has a host of great villains to choose from - Doctor Doom, The Joker, Lex Luthor, Green Goblin and the Kingpin to name but a few. However, if I was to choose one villain that was absolutely perfect in every way, it would be Magento - long time enemy of the X-Men. Ironically enough, I don't actually read that many X-Men comics (as I was always more into Spider-Man and Batman stories), but Magento for me is such a great villain that I had to mention him.
Why do I think he's such a great villain? It's not just because he has (in my opinion) one of the best superpowers and is one of most intelligent villians in the Marvel Universe - but it's because of his backstory. The guy is a Holocaust survior that watched his people and family tortured and murdered. As he grew up, he saw how mutants were oppressed and hated by the humans, hunted down and persecuted. He made it his mission to free all mutants from slavery and began a quest to erradicate the human race.
Is it any wonder he turned out as he did? The guy survived one of the most horrific tragedies in history - only to see his own people still being abuse. Why shouldn't he be angry? But not only that, Magento truely believes that his intentions are honourable (to turn a classic phrase, "the way to hell is paved with good intentions"), but it's the way that he goes about it that is questionable and this is the reason why he has become the X-Men's most enduring foe. The X-Men seek for humans and mutants to work together - Magento believes that mutants are superior and should be at the top of the food chain.
Like any "good" villain, Magneto does have a huge amount of arrogance and often mistreats his underlings when things don't go his way - but at the same time, Magneto is not entirely without honour. In fact, there have been a few times where he has saved human lives and even shown remorse for his actions - so he isn't entirely incapable of emotion. There have even been a few times where he's been a hero and joined forces with the X-Men - but his ambitions always get in the way of rational thought and villainy is never too far behind.
Magento is an iconic villain because, in essance, we (that is the humans) created him. He was born out of suffering and sought to end it by saving the mutants - ironically becoming the very thing he was fighting against to do so. He is a character with many layers to him and this is what makes him so popular. He was even voted by IGN as the number one greatest comic book villain of all time, who stated that "it's hard to argue that there has ever been a villain more complex, nuanced, sympathetic and yet irrevocably evil". No arguments from me there!
3. AM (Allied Mastercomputer) from I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream (no picture)
"HATE. LET ME TELL YOU HOW MUCH I'VE COME TO HATE YOU SINCE I BEGAN TO LIVE. THERE ARE 387.44 MILLION MILES OF PRINTED CIRCUITS IN WAFER THIN LAYERS THAT FILL MY COMPLEX. IF THE WORD HATE WAS ENGRAVED ON EACH NANOANGSTROM OF THOSE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF MILES IT WOULD NOT EQUAL ONE ONE-BILLIONTH OF THE HATE I FEEL FOR HUMANS AT THIS MICRO-INSTANT FOR YOU. HATE. HATE."
When the only line of dialouge you get from the villain is the above quote you KNOW that you're up against a being of pure evil - and this is a computer speaking!
Written by famous Speculative Fiction author Harlan Ellison, I Have No Mouth... tells the story of a supercomputer named AM (Allied Mastercomputer) that was built to fight the Cold War in a way humans couldn't imagine. However, the computer became self aware and, acknowledging the flaws in humanity, began to hate the humans and destroyed them all. All except five. He took these last humans so that he could torture them endlessly for nothing else other than his own personal amusement.
Throughout the story, AM torments the five remaining humans, making them immortal so that he could inflict endless torture on them. AM is essentially an all powerful god for the purpose of this story, a vengeful god that wants nothing more that to harm the humans for all eternity. But if you stop to look at the character of AM, you find that he is essentially a victim in his own way. AM was built with a vast intelligence, but is restricted to the underground lair where he resides. He is hateful of his own existance, but also for the humans for making him this way. This is why he torments these last five human beings, to exact his revenge for his own imprisonment. And the fate that befalls the hero at the end by AM is one of the most disturbing fates for any protagonist. I won't spoil the ending, but you'll find out where the title comes from!
AM is another example of human brutality creating evil. We created AM - gave him the power and intelligence and he used it to destroy us. Not because of a program flaw, but out of a geninue hatred for his creators. AM is what HAL from 2001 would be like if he went over his programing. AM is our worst fears come to life - a deranged, seemingly unstoppable machine with endless power and a god complex.
AM has actually inspired me to create a similar villain for a future book in my Draconica series - but I think I'll keep that a secret for the moment!
4. Jim Moriarty from Sherlock (BBC Series)
I have to admit that I never really read any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but I loved the BBC update of Sherlock, set in modern times. Staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Marting Freeman as Watson, the series was smart, witty and highly intelligent, one of the best shows to come from the BBC in recent years. But what really made the show so watchable was Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty - the villain of the piece.
Like his counterpart in the classic stories, Moriarty is a foil to Sherlock that can match him wit for wit - but THIS Moriarty takes the meaning "enjoying something too much" to a whole new level! He's extremely over the top, extremely camp (making Graham Norton look butch) and rather eccentric in places. He sorta reminds me of a pantomine villain in some way. I actually kinda like these kind of villains, because sometimes villains are so serious and dull that you just wish they could have a little fun now and then.
And this Moriarty likes to have fun! He's got a huge brain and he's not afraid to shove it into people's faces now and then. He breaks into the Tower of London, steals the Crown Jewels, waits to be captured, then goes on trail and is found not guilty, even when he clearly is. All because he can maniuplate things to go his way and his list of contacts is extensive to say the least. But he does this with a smile and a dance in his step.
That's not to say that he isn't a real threat. When he wants to be, Moriarty can be extremely intense and frightening. His goal in life is to "burn" Sherlock, seeking to destroy him, drive him to insanity. He exhibits socialpathical mentality and has no problem harming Sherlock's friends to get to him - for for that matter ANYONE. He truly wants to not just defeat Sherlock, but to crush him.
The reasons for this? Simply because he can. Simply because he is one of the only ones that can match Sherlock on his own terms. Or, as he put it in the show "Every fairytale needs a good old-fashioned villain. You need me, or you're nothing."
Jim Moriarty is everything a good enemy should be - the exact opposite of the hero, but able to test their will and endurance - even driving them to commit horrific acts. What makes Moriarty so frightenening is that we don't really know his real motives as they are never really explained - that adds some mystery to his character, making him all the more frightening.
5. Darth Vader from Star Wars
They say that a good villain should be someone that you want to be defeated - but what if an equally great villain is someone that you want to see redeemed by the end of the story? That is, saved from their dark past and brought back to the good side? This is where Vader comes in.
I don't think I need to go into much info about Darth Vader as if you don't know who Vader is - well, where the hell have you been? All I will say is that when Vader first came into the Star Wars film, he was a powerful and impossing figure. Dressed in black and with a frightening breathing sound, Vader was an absolutely frighting enemy that Luke Skywalker had to defeat in order to become a Jedi. But when he faced Vader in the Empire Strikes Back, he dropped a bombshell on him. Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, Anakin Skywalker.
(insert dramatic music here).
Ok, so nowadays this kind of story has become a cliche, but for the time this was a geninuely shocking twist. It completely changed the way the storyline was supposed to go. How was Luke Skywalker supposed to defeat Vader knowing that he was his father? From here on, Luke refused to fight him and tried to bring him round. But Vader was too far gone to the dark side to be brought back. Or was he?
In the final battle, Luke is being slowly murdered by the Emperor. It's here that Vader is now torn between his emotions - saving his son or serving his Emperor. In the end, the part of him that is Anakin Skywalker manages to break through the Dark Side and rescue his son at the cost of his life. He dies before they leave the ship, but his death means that he was finally free from the Dark Side and that there was still good in him.
Sadly, Darth Vader has become a little bit of a joke these days - and it's all down to the prequels. I hate the Star Wars prequels because of the way Anakin was portrayed as a whinny, bitchy little kid. And don't even get me started on that scene in Revenge of the Sith - you know the one I'm talking about!
Ignoring all that, Darth Vader is still one of the most iconic villains in history and I think it's partly down to the fact that, despite being evil he still does have some humanity left. And it's because of the inner struggle between the Dark Side and his human side that we actually want Darth Vader to be redeemed and be with his son once more. Proof that villains don't always have to meet a grisly end.
I hope you found this useful and that any writers who are struggling to come up with villains for their pieces had some insights into creating villains. Please feel free to comment or email me if you have an idea of what makes a great villain - or can mention any villain that I may have missed out.
Want to suggest a top five writing tip blog? Please email me and let me know or leave a comment. That's not to say that I'm stuck for ideas - but if there is a particular one that you think I should do, please let me know.
Until next time, have a great weekend folks!
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