My Theory on Villainy

All good stories need a villain, or, more properly, an antagonist.  (“Villain” is so judgmental, really — not to mention classist, since its origins lie in the Anglo-French and Old French vilain “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel” (12c.), from Medieval Latin villanus “farmhand,” from Latin villa “country house, farm.” As always, the city folks write the books.)

An antagonist is simply one who opposes the main character, also known as the protagonist.  They’re often “the bad guy,” because readers like to identify with the main character, and prefer in most cases to identify with someone they can think of as “the good guy.”  It doesn’t necessarily need to follow that the antagonist, in their role as “bad guy”, also has to be a bad person; all that’s required is that they present a strong and believable opponent for the protagonist to, in most cases, overcome.

What’s primarily required in an antagonist, then, is competence — or, barring that, the kind of sheer unpredictability that makes them hard for an orderly protagonist to comprehend.  They can’t be insane, or at least not the kind of insanity that precludes an ability to function in the real world, and they can’t be stupid.  Otherwise, they become pushovers, and pushovers are boring.

On the other hand, an antagonist shouldn’t be endowed with the kind of supernatural intelligence that lets them make elaborate plans with lots of interlocking parts that somehow never fall prey to sheer bad luck, unforeseen acts by random bystanders, or the incompetence of minions.  (I see more of these than I’d like, especially in the visual media but also in books, so it’s possible that a lot of people disagree with me on this.  But I’m right and they’re wrong, so there.)

And finally, an antagonist should be a fully-developed character, with virtues as well as flaws, because nobody in the real world is ever all of a piece.  This means that as a writer, we have to inhabit our villains — empathize with them, if you will — as much as we do our heroes.  We have to know what it is they dread when the lights go out; we have to know their petty vices and their secret good deeds; we have to know the source of their greatest sorrow and their greatest happiness; in short, we have to love them even as we bring our protagonist in to destroy them.

If we don’t do this, we risk turning our antagonists into mere mustache-twirling marionettes, when they should be human beings.

(Or aliens, or elves, or self-aware computers, as the genre requires.  In short, people.)

6 thoughts on “My Theory on Villainy

  1. For me, the key quality of an interesting villain is that they be a protagonist in their own story: witches who want to eat children because witches eat children work in fairy tales, but lack the depth to be interesting in a complex world; so, I much prefer witches who want to eat children because they have bound a great evil into themselves to stop it ravaging the land and need to feed on youth to prevent themselves dying. They are still horrific, so provide a great contrast to the protagonist’s mostly virtue, but don’t cause any moments of asking why someone would be evil for evil’s sake.

    1. We’re pretty much on the same page, there. Very few people get up in the morning and say, “Today I am going to be evil” — and few who do aren’t usually very interesting. Shakespeare managed it with Iago, and came close with his version of Richard III, but most of us aren’t Shakespeare and even he knew better than to try it more than once or twice.

      1. I don’t see Iago as deciding to be evil with no reason: I read his character as love turning to hate when he feels Cassio has received the job that Iago wanted (and beleived he had earned).

        Even Richard III, who does actually decide to be a villain right at the start of the play, might be said to do it as a rejection of the society that considered him always lesser.

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