What makes a villain?
Oh god, let’s start this with, WIKIPEDIA! We know it’s the A1+ best source ever for knowledge.
A villain (also known as the “antagonist”, “baddie”, “bad guy”, “heavy” or “black hat”) is an “evil” character in a story, whether a historical narrative or, especially, a work of fiction.
The villain usually is the antagonist (though can be the protagonist), the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters. A female villain is occasionally called a villainess. Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”.
Did you see the picture of Snively? Go back and look again. I mean, it could be any vaudeville villain, but we’ll pretend it’s the Hanna Barbara character instead. A terribly one-dimensional villain.
So, “What makes a villain?” means more than “What makes them bad” and closer to “What makes them real?” – pretend the question is “What makes a plausible villain?”
Yesterday, I was watching the first episode of the latest Doctor Who season. In it, the current Doctor (whose name I have yet to memorize) said something that stuck with me. I’ll badly paraphrase here, Bill (the new Nurse or whatever her role is, sidekick) asks if there’s a lot of evil in the universe.
The Doctor replies “no” and goes on to explain that it’s “hunger” – which looks a lot like evil when you’re on the dinner plate, or some such. Now, Doctor Who is full of an amazing mix of creepy, humor, cheesiness, and insightful bits. I’m constantly amazed by bits that are put together in the various seasons (Some, naturally, are less enthralling than others)
I found this brief exchange absolutely awesome. A lot of Doctor Who’s villains can easily be given this ‘hunger’ or ‘drive’ rather than being evil. Weeping Angles are a good example. They are hands down my favorite villain race, simply because of how they present.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Weeping Angles only move when you’re not looking at them. They’re source of food is all the potential connections of your life – which they devour by sending you back in time to a place where you won’t make a difference. I mean, time loopiness is one thing, but the idea of a creature who moves when you blink and ‘eats’ you (demonstrating “hunger” as a form of evil) – is amazingly interesting.
Doctor Who does other great villain races and people, most of them are doing what they think is right or operating on instinct. This is a far better form of Evil than say, Gamer’s main bad guy. Admittedly he’s absolutely hysterical in action, but he’s also two dimensional. He’s closer to “evil” for what he does and how he acts.
Gamer, for anyone who doesn’t know, is using live prisoners in first person shooter games. Imagine that, as a method of both relieving a crowded prison system (which has its own flaws that I don’t want to touch) – but turns this form of control into entertainment. It is, essentially, a dark look at classism in the future.
It’s worth noting that there’s another portion in Gamer which is self-subjecting to what most would consider Evil – that is, body humiliation for money. I find this interesting in that people turn themselves into a “pawn” of what might be considered Evil. Thus they are their own villain. Still, for as shallow a bad guy, Michael did a great job with the unhinged madness.
But is it a good villain? For an action fiction, I’d argue that it is. Action isn’t about character depth, the people are plug and play – gritty hero, sinister overlord, world encompassing conspiracy, it fits.
This doesn’t work well with a longer storyline. I’ll use my own work Continue Online as an example. It did not feel right to have a singular villain of any sort. The Jester was as close as I dared get. Even it (he, she, undefined) was not intended to be a villain, so much as the person who simply fills a needed role. One who wears a mask to help disguise themselves, not from others, but from themselves.
Grant’s villain was himself – ultimately. Even those who were against him were simply making their own choices. I find this way more interesting, especially if it’s possible to manage insights into the other characters. It’s why I have trouble with bandit style enemies, or some genres overwhelming obsession with the knights are secretly stuck up jerks obsessed with honor and oppressing the main character – who is poor born.
Almost got off track there.
Other villains –
- Hercules’ Hades character in the Disney movie. A great character, a pointless villain that makes little sense. He could have slept long enough and watched the kid die but instead gets ‘Hell bent’ upon revenge against his brother through the man’s child. As a motivation, this implies the character is so twisted by rage that he’s blind to logic.
- The Wheel of Time’s main villain cadre are people forced by the big bad to help bring an end to each cycle. This always struck me as weird because he could probably sleep another eighty years and Rand would have simply died of old age. Villains who create their own heroes while trying to prevent the hero from succeeding are also strange.
- Hellboy’s big bad is a cult bent on bringing ‘Old Ones” into earth, because the dude is like a starving man locked outside the only Pizza hut in the universe. This implies a “hunger” – which is a bit more base – and is good, for him. The question becomes “why are these other guys helping?” – giving them a bad guy / villain status. Power is the typical answer. We can see this same action in the recent release of Dr Strange, where the main bad guy is also an “outside of reality” creature who wants in.
As far as bad guys go, both of these are the same sort of style, essentially creatures beyond the understanding of mortal man who are simply driven to, I don’t know, break into Pizza hut and gorge on all the pineapple in the freezer.
I do like how Hellboy handled it. The Cthulhu vibe is super interesting to me. Still, this leads back into the earlier point, that “hunger” creates good villains, whereas “for power” is kind of stupid and hollow on a larger scheme – in my opinion; it does not make a bad guy worthwhile.
Now I have to retract my steps, it depends on scope and style of tale being told. For a single book or first person, “power grabs” by the enemy can be a really useful motivation. However, the longer the series goes on, the more pointless it seems.
I’ll pull up another example, the Belgerad and Belgarion series. Both of these have two great forces trying to figure out the fate of existence by playing a game with people; essentially treating the good guys and bad guys as chess pieces. There’s no hunger as a motivation, but it does create enough for the plot to stand on – and our concern ends up being the good guys defeating each plot of the bad guys in order to make their “great force” win.
The bad guys in Hellrazor, creepy as hell (ha, ha, ha) but they’re almost instincts attached to pseudo intellect. This can make for a really interesting story, once you get past the messed up horror scenes. It’s fun to note that all these bad guys were once human (In the Hellrazor series, last I checked)
I’ve tried to approach a bad guy scenario in many of my stories. Some, don’t form well (Continue Online), and others are still being wiggled together (Royal Scales) – but none of them revolve around “one person” against the good guy. Not yet.
Anyway, today’s ramble, short. Not full of a ton of insight but mostly trying to point out that “Hunger” – as stated by Doctor Who, is a prime reason for us viewing someone as “evil”.
And, as I always try to do, some questions for anyone daring to read at home.
- What are some examples of bad guys done well?
- What do you think their motivations are?
- What’s your favorite reason for a villain?