This is an idea that I’ve been bouncing around in my head as to what makes a great villain or even a good villain. It came from having watched Black Panther recently. Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger was a very effective villain and in my opinion is what a good villain should be like. To contrast that, Ares from Wonder Woman could have been a good villain, but ended up being a pretty weak villain. I’m not going to spend my whole time comparing and contrasting the two or contrasting Marvel movies vs DC movies, but I am going to use them as examples.
I think one of the strongest ways you can create an effective villain is to have a character who doesn’t think what they are doing is wrong or to have some more motivation than just being a villainous character. This will be one of the biggest points for Killmonger versus Ares. Ares, as a villain, is the god of war. As a villain, that isn’t that strong a motivator other than that is literally who he is. He wants there to be war. Compare that to Killmonger. Killmonger is also trying to set-up war, but he’s doing it for more reasons than just wanting war. Killmonger is seeking out war as a way of revenge, but also to change the world. There is a piece of him that knows how he’s going about stuff is wrong, but he doesn’t care, as the ends justify the means. He wants to create a world where those he views as oppressed can now rule and likely be the oppressor, but he doesn’t think about it that way, he thinks that he is doing something good.
The best villains often believe that they are doing something good. It’s hard to see a lot of the time, but when twisting it from their perspective, they see something as good. Even the right to rule for a villain is often them seeing it as the good and right thing to do. They’d do better than who is there right now. Granted, it would be worse for everyone else, but they don’t see it that way, they are thinking about what is good for themselves and don’t see what they are doing as evil. It’s an interesting way to look at things, but going back to Killmonger and Ares, it is something that gives Killmonger a lot more depth than Ares.
I’ll give DC some credit though with Ares. I think he’s one of the first DC villains that they could have had an interesting take on and made him someone who really manipulates from the background and only does that. Instead, they tried to make it that first, and then turn him into whom he is in the comics, with his armor and the big battle and basically made him an ineffective villain. Killmonger is instead of a villain who is trying to create some sort of change because they think it will be better and the ends justify the means, and there is also a large piece of hatred and revenge thrown in.
But, beyond those, why does it matter so much to have a villain that thinks they are doing good? I’ve already talked about it some, but it really is the crux to having a great villain. Sure, you can have memorable traits for a villain, like the Joker from The Dark Knight, but when it comes down to it, the Joker is a character who is crazy who does crazy things. His motivations aren’t that strong, but when you have a villain who has strong motivations from a place where they are seeking for something, that makes a great villain. They don’t have to be the muscle, they don’t have to always be on the scene, but someone who has a plan and is looking to complete it for the betterment of themselves or a select group of people or for revenge is a lot of fun to see or read about.
What else is important for a villain? I think one thing that often gets overlooked is having a backstory for the villain. Now, this is something that a lot of writers do well at, but there are a number of times where the villain doesn’t seem to have the background that they should. Even if the whole thing isn’t laid out, as a writer or dungeon master, you should know something about who the villain is. This can tie into them thinking that they are doing the right thing, but another way to look at it is it determines how they do things. A villain who grew up on the streets and is leading their own personal army to get into power might be looking at power as a way to say, I told you so or for riches, versus control over people, because they had nothing, and now they want things and everyone to see that they have things. Other characters might seek power for the ability to rule because they believe they can rule better or deserve to rule.
Keeping with the example of wanting power, it can be broken down in different ways besides the end goal. How someone gets to that end goal can also vary a lot. From the backstory of the villain, you are going to know if they are leading the charge, controlling things from the back of the battlefield, waging a war of mind games, or seeking all the attention that they can get. All of these things make your villain feel unique. Unique is probably the word that I should have started with in terms of backstory and why it matters. You don’t want your bad guy to feel like just another bad guy.
A great example of someone who creates unique villains is Stephen King. In Under the Dome, the villain is truly horrible in terms of what he does. It’s still probable that he sees himself as a good guy, though it’s hard to know how. He does so many just horrible things to the other people in the town all with his desire to have power and rule and be right. You feel dirty in many ways after reading his character. That character is unique to It where it’s a much greater being that almost toys with people. However, there’s the human villain in It, who is again a horrible character, but he’s driven as a kid as being a bully, and as an adult as trying to relive his glory years in many ways. You can see how the character grows over time.
I do want to talk about one last type of villain. I don’t know how to describe it and it’s a character who is so heavily steeped in doing the right thing that they lose focus but seem like they can regain focus on it. It is really the antihero character, where you’re watching the hero be a villain. In Code Geass, Lelouch is trying to make a safer world for his sister and get revenge on his father, the Emperor of Britannia. His methods can at best be described as suspect and his power to control other people ends up causing as much trouble as you’d expect. His power ends up with characters you like way more than him being killed, and he keeps on going further and further down the villainous pathway. While I have issues with the show, and I’ll likely write a review on that soon, it’s interesting to see someone become a villain and have a level of awareness at times that they are a villain and how that can create an interesting story.
The above example is probably harder to pull off. By the time Lelouch is really headed down the villainous path, I was too far in to stop watching, I might have. There are certainly plenty of shows, books, and movies with anti-heroes or no clear cut good character, but there’s a balance of weight that you have to go with when making a villainous main character as it’s very easy to drift into something that is too dark or only depressing. I think you could make an argument with the book The Magicians, that the main character is practically a villain and he really doesn’t have redeeming qualities or ever get redeemed, the book ends up just being negativity piled on top of negativity and is a weak book because of that whereas Code Geass does a better job balancing out that weight with some levity and not just having the main character be bad.
What are some examples that you love of a character who is unique and believes that they are doing the right thing? Who are your favorite villains in books/tv shows/movies?
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