Just in time for Halloween, Steve and I are joined by Nathan Bodell of wednesdaycomics.info again to discuss villains (cue maniacal laughter here): the greatest, why they’re great, and what we can do to add great villains to our fiction. You may listen below, or download the file here. As always, we welcome your feedback. Leave us a comment here, or on our Facebook Page. Or, you can send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to subscribe on iTunes or listen to us on Stitcher. We welcome your reviews (all reviews help us grow our listenership). Lastly, Firsts in Fiction would like to thank Raw Stiles for the use of their creative common license song E.M.F.H off the album Fantastique, which we feature this week. Steve did some great work on this episode for your listening pleasure, and I hope you enjoy it as much as we have.
The best villains have a depth and complexity to them that rivals that of our protagonist. Remember, they need to be characters as much as our heroes. Think of Darth Vader. While powerful, he’s still conflicted. He’s evil, no doubt, but he’s also misguided. He’s almost a tragic character in that way. He loves his son, though he’s forced to fight him. Also, there’s a big mystery surrounding him. How did he get in that suit? How could he have fallen so far from grace. Sadly, the prequel movies removed that mystery in an unsatisfying way.
In the same way, Golem is an interesting villain in the same way. His inner conflict manifests itself in a schizophrenic kind of way. And as bad as he is, he’s a pitiable character. We root for him because he’s an underdog, overwhelmed by a power beyond his control. In the same way we want Darth Vader to find redemption (as he does in Episode Six), we also root for Golem to overcome the power of the ring that has turned him into the pitiable character that he is. But (spoiler alert) poor Golem never finds that redemption.
It’s also important to remember our villains should not be evil for evil’s sake. They should have a motivation for what they’re doing (other than megalomania). Resist the urge to have your villains be the cardboard cut-out power-hungry no-conscience evils. Yes, those people exist, but they’re not nearly as interesting as villains who believe they’re doing something good. It’s often said that everyone is the hero of their own story. If your villain told his or her story, how would they be the hero? Think of the Borg from Start Trek: The Next Generation (one of my all-time favorite television series, btws). Though they’re little more than cyborg zombies, their insatiable desire to assimilate the entire galaxy is rooted in a quest to attain perfection. In fact, they believe what they’re doing is for the benefit of those whom they take over. They are benevolent dictators, so to speak.
Remember, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Think of someone like Venom. He’s driven by a hate for Spider-Man and wants to enact his revenge. At the same time, he avoids hurting innocent people. He goes out of his way to protect bystanders. In many ways, he is a hero.
Magneto is another great example of the freedom fighter. Both he and the X-men are working toward the same goal, but the means by which they go about accomplishing that task is very different. While the X-men want to achieve peace and demonstrate that mutants and humans can live together, Magneto believes the only way to ensure rights for mutants is to destroy the humans.
Not all villains are easily relateable. Specifically, the Joker is a prime example. He’s the ultimate chaos character. He thrives on destruction and macabre humor. While Batman deals with different forms of mental illness hyperbolized and personified into villains, most have solid motivations. However, the Joker really is evil for evil’s sake.
Nathan points out that Batman villains specifically are great foils to the hero. Some of the best villains end up being pieces of our hero’s personality.
Don’t be afraid to have your villains succeed with their plans. They don’t necessarily have to win and kill the hero, however, if they’ve got a plan of action, let them achieve several of their steps. Remember, the darker the circumstances, the greater the victory for the hero. Think of Voldemort (sorry! He Who Shall Not Be Named). His ultimate goal is to eliminate the muggles and bring the wizards out of hiding. He has several steps to accomplish this plan, and he succeeds in most of them. In fact, he eventually (SPOILER ALERT) kills Harry! How much cooler is it when Harry comes back to life to win the ultimate battle?
Your villains should be good at something, they should be powerful or have some sort of skill. This is one thing that makes Lex Luthor so interesting. He often goes toe-to-toe with Superman, and he’s woefully over matched. However, he’s got this incredible intellect that allows him to not only survive, but also trap Superman on many occasions. Powerless villains aren’t super interesting. If there not powerful in some way, there’s not much conflict.
Steve mentioned how this principal works in a manga called Deathnote, which pits an incredible villain against a gritty hero, but he refused to spoil the ending. You’ll have to read it on your own.
Another fantastic villain is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Though she’s not necessarily powerful or bright, she’s wickedly insane. And she’s complicated. She has no problem cutting off someone’s feet at the ankle, but she never cusses. The horrors that she enacts, for her, are justified. She does them for the good of the writer she’s kidnapped, she believes.
Of course, the ultimate super-smart, super-scary villain is Hannibal Lecter. He’s incredibly intelligent and perfectly normal, until he cuts someone into pieces and serves their brain to his friends.
Another layer of complexity you can add to your villains is to give them something to lose. Rather than the villain who is working to take something, the villains who work to keep something are equally (and sometimes even more) compelling. The Lich King sacrificed his good to save his people, but it cost him his soul, and he turned into an oppressive dictator. Mr. Freeze is working to save his dying wife Nora, and he’ll stop at nothing to make sure she survives.
If you’ve got some great advice about villains, or if you think we missed one of the greats, feel free to let us know. Would love to hear from you!