Good villains aren’t born they’re created. Chilling as this sounds, it’s nice folks like you and me who are responsible for some of the most heinous characters in fiction. If you’re looking to write a story with staying power, a tome to remember, you need a great villain.
Iago from Othello
Moby-Dick from Moby-Dick
Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca
What do these characters have in common? They’re more than mere bad boys and girls. More than the simple villain of old who tied innocent girls to the railroad tracks while twirling a long black moustache. Each of these characters is a symbol for a force that exists inside a dominant culture.
When you are beginning to craft your villain, it’s best not to think of that character as a villain at all. In John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story, he understands the antagonist (or villain) as “opponent”. He says, “[. . .] don’t think of the opponent as someone the hero hates. He may be, or he may not be. The opponent is simply the person on the other side. He can be a nicer person than the hero, more moral, or even the hero’s lover or friend.”
Opponents aren’t trapped into being the bad guy; instead they are free to express other facets of the same issue the hero is exploring—but in a very different fashion, and for a specific reason. A good opponent is the personification of a base human state and/or a cultural system (and good protagonists, too).
Let’s look at that list of villains again:
Iago from Othello. For centuries literary critics have pondered the slightness of Iago’s reasons for wanting to destroy Othello and everything he loves. He is a character that stalks the souls of everyone who reads or sees the play. He is honest, yet pure deceit. When I read this play, I see not a man consumed with human envy, but the personification of Lucifer standing before the throne and refusing to bend the knee. He is the pride of life that every child of Eve wrestles.
Moby-Dick from Moby-Dick. That great white whale is so much more that a defiant fish. "The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them." Here is the story of a man made to confront his own actions when faced with a foe as large (speaking in a literary sense only) as God. He is all that is wild and unpredictable about life.
Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. This woman drives a young bride nearly to suicide, and is consumed by flames in the end (or is she?). She is the personification of the establishment that leave no room for the dreams of the young and that imprisons us within our own doubts and try to keep us from rising above our circumstances.
I recently saw a staging of Wicked: The True Story of the Witches of Oz. In it, we discover that the Wicked Witch (Elphaba) isn’t wicked at all. In fact, she is a brave, deeply principled young woman who is fighting the forces of the Wizard and his minions. That makes the Wizard the villain. But he’s no ordinary run of the mill bad guy whose mother didn’t love him. If he were, the story would be ho-hum, a passing distraction instead of one of the most enduring and successful musicals in modern history. The Wizard is the personification of racism. He is the force in our dominant culture that smothers voices of smaller groups within the culture. He stands for something that is as real and powerful as what Elphaba stands for. And when he falls, every member of the audience prays that this piece of hatred they carry within has died a little more too.
That’s why it isn’t enough to have a character that is mean, petty, vindictive, or murderous just for the sake of needing a bad guy. And that’s why it isn’t enough to have an excuse or reason for why your opponent is “bad”. A writer understands that ‘evil’ is a descriptive, not a character type. It can describe an action, but it is never a trait for a character. It must be more layered than simply saying, “He is evil.” The opponent must be intricately connected to a large construct that exists in the human psyche and/or the dominant culture.
Who is your favorite villain? What does she or he personify? Or what about a character you’ve created?