What makes a good villain? What makes Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege or Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter so intriguing and yet so bone-chilling to watch? Obviously, these two gentlemen are supremely talented actors, but there has to be more to it then that. Without the right ingredients even the best actor in the world can only do so much to bring a character to life. IMO, the qualities that help create a good villain are the same ones that make a good hero/heroine: A solid goal, motivation, conflict and a sharp intelligence.
Just like you don’t want your hero or heroine to be too stupid to live, the same holds true for your villain, unless you’re writing a cartoon. We may get a kick out of Dr. Evil’s antics and cluelessness, but that’s part of what makes the Austin Powers movies so funny. Take Dr. Evil and put him in a dark intense murder mystery and it all falls apart. You want your protagonist and your villain to be on a level playing field intellectually. You don’t want to make it too easy for your villain to be captured, stopped, etc. You want your hero and villain to match wits with each periodically gaining the advantage until the bitter end.
The next piece to the good villain puzzle is a solid goal, motivation, and conflict. If your villain is seeking world domination that’s fine, but he needs a solid reason for wanting world domination. Being mentally unstable is not good enough IMO. I’m not saying that your villain can’t be insane, but that insanity should be a trait that makes him unpredictable and ups the creep factor. It shouldn’t be their sole motivation. Think of Tommy Lee Jones’s character in Under Siege. Sure he’s crazy and he’s greedy. But his betrayal by the government is so deep that it pushes him over the edge. Pushes him to finally turn against what he once defended. He’s highly skilled and very smart and as you watch the movie you see that battle of skill and wits play out until the final battle at the end.
Sometimes the sympathetic villains are even more fun then the irredeemable ones. First because it gives you the potential for another story, but also because you can really ramp up the internal conflict in this character. Think 0f Darth Vader. He starts the Star Wars trilogy on one path, but by the end he’s deeply conflict and winds up turning away from the dark side. Another great example, are the heroine and villain from Maggie Shayne’s book Infinity, a particular favorite of mine. Throughout the whole book you see the villain as mean, spoiled, and selfish. Then you come to learn that everything she did was because she wanted the hero’s love and attention. She was used by both her father and the hero as a means to form a political alliance and all she really wanted was someone to love her. She never had it from her father and when she realized she wasn’t going to get it from her husband either she lashed out. As abhorrent as her behavior was there was something about her that a reader could understand maybe even connect with. This is why it wasn’t that hard to switch gears when she became the heroine in the next story.
Well I’ve rambled on long enough. Why don’t you share with us what you think makes a great villain? Who are some of your favorite bad guys?