Essays

What Makes a Good Villain?

Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this before:

“Marvel doesn’t have very many good villains…”

Yeah, everyone’s heard or said that at least once. In the last year or so, I’ve heard dozens of people defend Hela, the Vulture, Ego, Killmonger, and especially Thanos as “good villains,” only to later backpedal their arguments and claim that those villains were actually kind of weak. I’m not going to be delving into the Marvel villains in particular right now (that’s a lie — but I do have reviews of the MCU films planned), but some of the recent reevaluation of Thanos and his plan in Avengers: Infinity War has got me thinking, what the heck is a good villain?

 

On Villains

A good villain is a sort of an oxymoron. Most people use “good” to refer to the villain’s quality as a story component, but “good” is such a bland, subjective term that I’ve encountered more than a few English teachers with a vendetta against it. Someone might consider a villain good as long as they look the part, with a sinister outfit and a voice to match. Others require the villain to be more complex.

For my purposes, I think it’s useful to figure out what exactly a villain is doing in the story so that we can assess how well they do those things and how well we need them to be doing them.

“But Hat,” you might say, “isn’t it obvious? The villain is the bad guy. They’re what the hero needs to stop by the end of the story.”

Actually, in a nutshell, that’s a pretty succinct summary. The villain is an obstacle in the hero’s way that needs to be moved in order for the hero to complete their journey. However, that description can also apply to any antagonist, and most writers don’t like to call all of their antagonists villains because the word “villain” implies some unique connotations. So, for our purposes, we’ll say a villain has these qualities:

  • They are a person or a distinct being (as opposed to a force of nature)
  • They stand between the protagonist and their goal, meaning the villain and the protagonist will act in opposition at some point
  • They intentionally harm others for selfish reasons

A non-villain character can act villainous if they fulfill these criteria, but a villain will be doing all three most of the time. Their character is defined by some form of cruelty, whether baseless or, in their mind, necessary. Other characters can be cruel too, obviously, but the villain is usually some order of magnitude worse. At the very least, the villain of the story, for structural purposes, is not the protagonist even if they lead certain scenes.

There are numerous other ways to define a villain and many characters that might fit into that fuzzy gray rat of an area between “antagonist” and “pure villain,” but setting all that aside for now, our working definition is simple. In fact, it’s kind of boring. It’s the bare minimum of what makes a villain, but you wouldn’t necessarily call a character a good villain just because they’re good at being mean, or legitimately frustrating to the protagonist, or a person. Right?

A villain has to be an obstacle, but a good villain has to be more than that. Plenty of idiots around the internet have tried to come up with broad ways to categorize villains. As an ordained idiot, I feel obliged to do the same. Some of the common methods of categorization involve villain tropes, occupations, and motivations. Most, if not all of these methods, could sort villains into categories something like these:

  • I’m Not a Bad Guy — A good person who does bad things and would totally be the protagonist in another story
  • Boss Baby — Has power, shouldn’t
  • Evil Monster — They’re bad because the writer says so
  • Flipflop — Switches sides or otherwise shows capacity for good and evil
  • Grunt — Less a force of evil and more just target practice

Those groupings can be useful in their own right, but I’m interested in how villains function in the story’s structure. You can get some idea of the potential roles of each of these archetypes in some manner, but whether or not a Boss Baby or Evil Monster villain is well-suited for the story they’re in depends heavily on the story. We often think of morally gray villains as better written than villains whose role is just to yell at everything, but thinking back on Thanos, a lot of the character’s divisiveness comes from this assumption. Thanos is not a very complex character — he just has an emotional motivation for what he does. How relatable his character is depends largely on how much you sympathize with his motives, making him either a deeply flawed human being mourning for his home or a mass-murdering raisin with a glove fetish. I don’t think the simple existence of such a strict dichotomy supports the idea of Thanos being a well-written villain, especially when a much simpler villain like the Joker gets nearly universal praise.

A villain can be thematically resonant, a mirror to the protagonist, and a compelling character in their own regard. The stronger they are in any one of these three areas, the more connected they’ll be to the plot and the more memorable they’ll be as well. A good villain, in my mind, is one who’s so inseparable from their story that you can’t imagine them being anywhere else. If we want to sort villains into groups based on the role they fill in a story (and we definitely do because we humans love sorting things for no damn reason), then let’s use those criteria I mentioned. The three story structure villains would therefore be Iconic, Foil, and Character Villains.

 

Iconic Villains

What do Darth Vader, Sauron, and Voldemort have in common? If you’re familiar with their stories (which you definitely fucking are, let’s not kid ourselves), they’re pretty different in some significant respects, but you can probably still recognize similarities in the main antagonistic role they each serve in their respective stories. They don’t have to be complex, they don’t have to be sympathetic, and they don’t even really have to talk for you to know that they’re the big bad. They each have grunts to do their dirty work, but once the hero wades through the progressive hoards of level one enemies, these villains are the final boss waiting to be defeated at the end of the game, usually through some epic magic battle of some sort. These are Iconic Villains.

Iconic Villains often don’t go much further than being basic villains, or at least they don’t have to in order to still be Iconic. These villains are the ones that define the trope, and they’re probably the first thing you think of when you hear the word “villain.” They often aren’t complex studies of the human condition or deep reflections of societal failings. They’re just kind of assholes most of the time.

The reason they can get away with this is because of their character designs. An Iconic Villain is much like an icon associated with anything else; they’re a product, carefully constructed to be simple and elegant and fit a given trope, while still being instantly recognizable as unique. If you’ve ever wondered why a villain might have unusual scars or tattoos on their face, this is often the reason. In order to be iconic, the villain must have a presence that includes their means of motion, appearance, and sound or voice. These aesthetic features are what convey most of their villainy — yes, we’re told Sauron is bad many times, but the way we know he’s bad is because he’s a giant scary fire eye on a big pointy tower next to a volcano. We’d be pretty damn suspicious if The Lord of the Rings told us Sauron was just a helpful merchant.

An Iconic Villain has to look like every other villain out there, but also has to be somehow distinguishable from every other villain out there. They’re the very definition of generic, but the reason they work is you remember them before you remember anyone else. Darth Vader wasn’t the first big scary guy in a black cloak and mask, but the little details like his lightsaber, how the red light contrasts with his outfit, how the outfit is reminiscent of a World War I German helmet, and especially his classic mechanical breathing, adds up to make him memorable. It also doesn’t hurt to be the bad guy in one of the most famous film franchises of all time.

Like with logos and corporate icons, which Iconic Villains often become in their own respect, you can’t pin all of their success on their design alone — it’s not a coincidence that most major Iconic Villains come from multi-million dollar franchises. It’s also not a coincidence that a lot of comic book movie villains look pretty much identical and often the first one to do something or the one that ends up in the better film is often perceived as the better villain. No one goes on about the merits of Apocalypse’s plan, even though there are a lot of similarities between him, Thanos, and other movie supervillains. The delivery contributes to the villain’s memorability, or lack thereof in Apocalypse’s case, but Thanos isn’t that much deeper of a character when you distill down his actions. We consider Thanos to be the better villain of the two largely because he’s interacting with characters we’re invested in, because he’s been built up for eight years, and because Avengers: Infinity War is regarded by most people to be a better film than X-Men: Apocalypse.

An Iconic Villain’s success can’t be fully uncoupled from the success of its franchise (I think that’s why better Marvel films tend to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to villains, unless they’re unusually bland). Creating an Iconic Villain from scratch is difficult, and even if you come up with a good character design, there are almost certainly already a dozen or so well-known villains that will bear some resemblance to them. If you’re a new writer, you can’t rely solely on coming up with a unique Iconic Villain. However, villains are a bit different from logos because they contribute to what the company is selling. It would be wrong to say that the success of the Batman comics or Star Wars has nothing to do with the villains. There’s likely a give and take that kind of helps escalate certain villains to the forefront of public consciousness. A good Iconic Villain coupled with a moderately successful narrative is a force to be reckoned with.

Here’s what I’ve often seen in a well-crafted Iconic Villain:

  • Its design is simple, but leaves three to five focal points. These can include scars, masks, hats, capes, hair styles, eyes, expressions, weapons, gear, and so on. The design can also include accessories or whatever else is constantly at the character’s side, like a henchman or a pet monster. The henchman or monster should likewise have a fairly simple design that compliments the villain somehow.
  • The focal points of the character’s appearance tell a story. Think of how Darth Vader’s lightsaber is a different color from the Jedi’s lightsabers, or how he always wears that mask. The author doesn’t have to explain what the story is for the villain to be iconic, but they should make the audience wonder about it. If the audience is clamoring for more information about the villain and unsatisfied if it’s left ambiguous (*cough*Snoke*cough*), that’s probably a good sign the villain isn’t interesting enough.
  • Simplicity overrides contrivance. A good Iconic Villain is one a person who’s seen or read the narrative once can easily describe to another person.
  • Iconic Villains don’t worry about clichés. Clichés can be your friend if you lean into them enough.
  • The protagonist will probably know of the villain before they know the villain personally.
  • The villain is evil. The audience doesn’t necessarily know why the villain is evil, and, ideally, they shouldn’t care. The villain is there to look evil and sell Halloween costumes above all else. They killed people, probably. That’s evil enough.

 

Foil Villains

If you want to integrate your villain into the story more than just as some bad guy to be toppled, the conventional route is to make them important to the protagonist somehow. Villains are frequently used as foils to push the protagonist and emphasize their key traits. A foil doesn’t have to be a villain, but because a villain is already going to come to blows with the protagonist over something, making them a distorted reflection of the protagonist can enhance their effect on the protagonist’s character struggles, especially if they’re fighting over a similar thing.

Foil Villains have to be more complex than purely Iconic Villains because they bear characteristics of the protagonists. The minimum they must be is “like the hero, but somehow different.” Often this comes in the form of the villain having abilities comparable to the protagonist’s, but different moral limitations on how they use them. Moriarty is as smart as Sherlock Holmes, but uses his powers to commit crimes, while Holmes works to solve them. Both the Joker and Batman work outside the confines of the law and hide their identities, but Batman embodies a drive for order while the Joker is chaotic. Sticking with the theme of superheroes, because villains are almost vital to the superhero trope, many Marvel characters face corrupted versions of themselves, their powers, or their technologies.

The bare minimum isn’t all you can do with Foil Villains, though, and seeing an evil twin of the hero can get old quickly. Abilities and mentalities aren’t the only things that a foil can highlight; often, they’ll have a connection to the protagonist through shared interests or history, maybe even being part of the protagonist’s family. The stronger the emotional connection between the protagonist and the Foil Villain, the more of an impact the villain’s actions will have on the story. Some random jerk destroying a town is easy to stop as long as the protagonist has the necessary skills, but if that random jerk is replaced by a loved one or someone the protagonist has a personal interest in, fighting them incurs an emotional cost. Even if the protagonist is connected to the villain by way of having a vendetta against them, the fight stills bears that cost because now there’s an additional weight to the protagonist losing. Emotional attachment raises the stakes, and if you can tie them to the villain, the stakes are going to remain high until the villain’s defeated.

The key to the Foil Villain is fear. Unlike an ordinary villain, the protagonist has good reason to fear them, and much of their fear is tied up in their mind. The protagonist is not just afraid of what the villain can do in general; they’re afraid of what the villain can do to them personally. A Foil Villain reflects the psychology of the protagonist as much as their physicality. The similarities between the protagonist and the Foil Villain automatically draws the protagonist closer to them, meaning that however good a hero is, they often have a lot more in common with their villain nemesis than they do with the average person. This intimidates the protagonist, making them question their decisions and role as a hero, and if they are indeed a hero at all. Often, the Foil Villain is a corrupting force, changing the protagonist to make them closer to themself. Their relationship with the protagonist might not even be fully antagonistic — similarities go both ways, after all, and the more the villain tugs on the protagonist, the easier it is for the protagonist to try to turn the villain to their own side. It doesn’t often work, but villains who switch sides are often Foils in some capacity.

A Foil Villain has a lot of sway over a protagonist, and can be interesting in their own regard, unlike the Iconic Villain who is often only as interesting as their weaponry. What keeps them from being fully fleshed-out characters is their link to the protagonist; there are far more character traits than any one person can have, so a pure Foil Villain is limited to traits that are either like or unlike those of the protagonist. This means that the Foil Villain’s biggest hurdle as a structural device is how well-crafted the protagonist is. If a story has a dull or difficult-to-characterize protagonist, its Foil Villain won’t be much better. Foil Villains thrive on simple, elegant protagonists with clear-cut goals.

With that in mind, here are the hallmarks of a good Foil Villain:

  • They have a personal relationship with the protagonist, often a shared history or one that develops from frequently running into one another. Because of this, the villain and the protagonist become foils of one another and reflect each other’s traits, either directly (showing similarity), or inversely (showing dissimilarity).
  • Foil Villains are moderately complex and have some distinct personality traits beyond just being evil and scary, unlike many Iconic Villains. They’re generally more complex than Iconic Villains, but simpler than Character Villains.
  • The villain is only as complex as the protagonist because their contribution to the plot is their connection to the protagonist. They usually can’t be a foil to more than one character and they won’t be involved in subplots unrelated to the protagonist. This keeps Foil Villains streamlined as story components.
  • Foil Villains deal in psychological pain as much as physical pain, especially where the protagonist is concerned. They cause the protagonist to dredging up parts of themself they don’t like.
  • The protagonist grows with the villain and often must accept their similarities or recognize the importance of their differences in order to defeat them.
  • Destroying their Foil Villain means the protagonist must destroy a part of themself.

 

Character Villains

The merit of Foil Villains is that they’re complex enough to offer questions beyond “I wonder what that gun is for,” but the criteria necessary to denote them means that they’re kept simple enough to serve a utilitarian purpose. They’re in the story as a villain, and that’s all they need to be. Sometimes, though, villains have to do more than just oppose the protagonist. That’s where the third type of structural villain comes in: the Character Villain.

As the name suggests, Character Villains are fully fleshed-out characters. They go beyond just having a handful of traits to make them intimidating or reflect the protagonist; these characters have a whole life outside of their tussles with others. Often, their motivations are complex, built upon their life history, personality, and morals, rather than a singular event or goal. They’re not just trying to kill the protagonist or take over the world. They have plans and reasons for doing what they do, even if those reasons still don’t justify their actions.

Character Villains are probably the most difficult sort of villain to manage, not necessarily because they’re harder to write, but because it’s harder to keep them villainous, especially in stories where the protagonists fit in a morally gray area. The line between a Character Villain and a non-villainous antagonist can easily become fuzzy and some stories don’t even bother to keep their Character Villains villainous indefinitely. Because they have established personality traits of their own, Character Villains often make for good Flipflops, either growing out of established non-villain characters or lessening their cruelty to join the protagonists. It’s not necessary for a Character Villain to switch sides, but stories that bother to create Character Villains tend not to hold as firmly to the idea of good and evil being clearly defined in the first place. Creating a Character Villain requires giving them some humanity, which is somewhat at odds with typical villain conventions.

If a Character Villain doesn’t become more aligned with the protagonist over time, they’ll often trend toward becoming one of the other two types of villains (think Cersei Lannister at the start of Game of Thrones versus later in the series). Character Villains have a track record for starting out as somewhat sympathetic, often perceived as lesser villains because they have non-villainous characteristics and motivations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better people; they might kill, steal, and lie just as much as a Foil or Iconic Villain — maybe even more so in some cases — but the audience is likely to be more perceptive to them as characters if they’re sympathetic outside of their villainy. Framing has a powerful effect on perception, and can even make the audience overlook heinous crimes if they’re given a personal enough reason to do so. That can be a problem whether you want people to walk away liking your villain or not — the audience becomes numb to the villain’s cruelty and simultaneously perceives them to be small fry where villains are concerned. If a villain starts out sympathetic, but the author wants to make them feel more powerful or intimidating, they’ll often opt to remove some of the character’s sympathies.

One of the most popular ways to keep Character Villains what they are is to make them humorous. Their role as villains can still stand if a series adopts a gallows sense of humor and juxtaposes their cruelty with otherwise lighthearted actions. Character Villains seldom pose as much of an obstacle to characters as Foil Villains, but a villain’s failures in defeating the protagonist often comes with some inherently light material that can be easily worked into a joke. The audience can stay invested in the villain’s personal problems that have nothing to do with them standing in the way of the protagonist or come as a result of their inability to do so. Villains fail frequently, especially in comedies, and their contribution to the stakes of a confrontation may be artificially inflated by the tone a narrative takes. Usually the hero is fighting for something personal and it’s their potentially losing said personal thing, rather than the villain specifically being responsible, that gives the story stakes. Accepting a villain’s failure to contribute to the story and turning them into comic relief might seem like it could diminish the threat they pose (and, yeah, okay, that might happen sometimes), but a writer who’s careful to keep the villain’s potential danger active but masked can also use that apparently low threat level to their advantage. A Character Villain that seems benign for the bulk of a story then becomes a serious hazard at the last moment can deliver a punch to the gut that feels like both a betrayal and a morbid joke.

Of course, not every story needs villains to have backstories and personality and whatnot, but for those that do, here are what tends to make a good Character Villain:

  • A Character Villain has all of the crucial features of other fully fleshed-out characters, namely a clear personality, goals, motives, interests, and a history of some sort that has shaped them.
  • Because they’re complex characters, they often elicit sympathy. This allows them to easily switch sides or collaborate with the protagonist against a worse villain, and it also allows them to develop character arcs that can include adopting non-villain roles in the story.
  • On the flip side of things, they can also use sympathy to their advantage to get other characters and the audience to drop their guard.
  • Character Villains can easily fill other roles in the story in addition to being villains. They can be sources of information, temporary allies, comic relief, love interests, emotional centers, enablers, and even training partners. Much of their contribution to the plot can comes from their role outside of just being villains.
  • While many of them adhere to their own tropes, the amount of potential characteristics and combinations in these characters makes them varied and less bound to archetypes than other villains. They tend to be more memorable, more engaging, and more compelling than other villains when their traits are well-balanced within a story.

 

At this point, you might be wondering, what about villains who fit into two or more of these categories, like Hannibal Lector, or the Joker, or Loki? Some villains aren’t easy to pin down, especially ones with long, varied histories. Most characters are written for discrete plots, at least initially, so stories that use villains tend to have them serve just one of these roles. However, things can change, and sometimes writers like to get creative (weird, I know). To be honest, almost every villain has aspects of each of these three categories. The categories have soft edges and don’t exist in a vacuum. Even characters who are popularly known for being one sort of villain may in fact be two or three (Darth Vader is a good example — in the first Star Wars film, he’s mainly an Iconic Villain, but he becomes a Foil Villain and something of a Character Villain in the next two).

I still think it’s useful to define these categories because they have direct consequences for the villain’s role in the plot. I wanted to figure out what makes a good villain, and while that remains pretty subjective, knowing that a “good villain” typically nails any of one these roles makes the question worthwhile.

 

Limitations of the Villain

As an end note, I just wanted to broaden the discussion on the use of villains in general. When I was planning out my first novel, I talked the idea over with a friend and the first thing she asked me after I summarized the plot was, “Where’s the villain?” This particular book didn’t really have one, and it still doesn’t. It doesn’t even have a single human antagonist. Villains are so prevalent in major narrative media that I think we tend to assume they’re mandatory. Even when when we realize they aren’t mandatory, we often assume that not having a villain is kind of like not having falling action or some other foundational story component — yeah, you can go without it, but it’s pretty pretentious of you to try.

I don’t think that’s the case, though. Cast Away, Juno, Amelie, La La Land, Groundhog Day, and Life of Pi all lack villains or human antagonists of any sort, and don’t have to go to great lengths to tell a story without them. The same could be said of many television comedies and plenty of romances. Even narratives like Toy Story or Spirited Away that have clear antagonists and villains still don’t center their major character conflicts around the villains directly. Instead, these stories are about people overcoming personal roadblocks, while the villain is mainly set dressing to instigate plot points or add tension here and there. Every story needs an antagonistic force of some sort, but villains are only one way to provide them.

Just as there are a lot of things villains can provide, they can also be harmful to a story if used carelessly. Villains are a trope, and as such, they often send stories down predictable paths the same way common tropes like the chosen one or prophecies do. There are only so many times the galaxy can be threatened by a big orb with a laser before the audience grows tired and wants to see something new. Because many genre stories are already bound by other tropes, adding a villain can make these stories nearly indistinguishable. Marvel’s insistence on using villains — especially villains with similar constraints — for all of its films is part of why it struggles when it comes to villains.

When you introduce a villain, you make a promise to the audience that the villain will be destroyed by the end of the story. Even if the story has an unhappy ending, 99% of the time, the villain still fails. You have to fulfill the promise to get rid of the villain somehow, and if the core conceit of your story doesn’t directly involve stopping the villain, you’re going to have to divert resources at some point to do so. Even just changing up the formula a bit, like making the villain a side thing the characters intentionally disregard, or giving a story a series of small villains that contribute to character growth can make a world of difference. Some of the most profound character moments in television series like Breaking Bad come from one-off villains who only appear for a few episodes or less.

The big thing that gets to me about villains, though, is that they feel like a blanket thrown over a much larger issue. A villain is supposed to be evil. They do evil things, they act evil, and they’re the opposite of the protagonist, who is good. But the good versus evil dynamic has always frustrated me because it’s undefinable. There are certain things that hypothetically our society can universally agree are bad, but you can walk into any Philosophy 101 class and not find any two people who fully agree on what those things are. Murder, for instance, is usually pretty high on everyone’s list, but then you could easily argue over whether lethal police and military force or corporal punishment or accidental manslaughter or other sorts of things constitute murder, or should be treated the same way from an ethical standpoint.

After a while, it gets pretty pedantic and you have to choose some general line in the sand that dictates evil and not evil things, and hope that you don’t have to work out exactly which grains are on the not evil side of the line. All definitions are kind of like this, but imagining evilness in the form of fictional villains, especially Iconic Villains, creates the problem of people internalizing bad things that villains do with a particular reference image. Rather than associating murder with being bad, especially in the United States, we think of murderers as being bad. Even when it comes to doing bad things ourselves, we don’t think of ourselves as bad guys. No one does. My friend is a nice person, therefore they can’t also be a criminal. Either the person accusing them of the crime is wrong, or they were never a nice person to begin with. That’s how we think.

Thinking of the world in simple terms like good and evil, and thinking of those as mutually exclusive discrete things is simple. It’s easy. It’s what allows us to cheer for protagonists that gun down droves of random strangers and tolerate games that tell us to kill non-aggressive people simply because we’re told they’re “bad guys.” It’s also the sort of mindset used by monsters to commit genocide.

I’m not saying that putting cartoon villains in your Disney films is going to lead to mass murder. However, I do think that traditional evil villain versus good protagonist dynamics are limiting and make it harder for the public to recognize when actions we might call villainous are happening in the real world. Villains don’t really exist, but their actions do, and whether we like it or not, public perception is heavily influenced by narratives. Part of the reason for the rise in anti-villains and non-villainous antagonists in stories in recent years is an increasing awareness of how these sorts of characters are more interesting and often more relevant to the audience.  Their presence challenges your understanding of the protagonist and what it means to be a moral person, and they can even challenge the way you look at your own morality — what you would let people get away with and under what circumstances, and where you draw the line. How a person defines evil for themself can be compelling if it’s integrated into the right story. Perhaps then the question shouldn’t be, “What makes a good villain,” but “Why do we need a villain in the first place?”

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