What Makes a Good Villain?

Posted: August 19, 2013 by writingsprint in Essay
Tags: , , , , ,

The sign over the desk lights up: editing in progress.)

Welcome back behind the curtain, dear reader.

As I was working on the short story Choices, I knew that I was in trouble with the villain, the tyrannical dance teacher. Miss Graha is a voice that spits fire and hate. She can’t stand the main character. She isn’t fair. I couldn’t find myself hating her or sympathizing for her, though, because I hadn’t given her enough depth. In my defense I did have some ideas on that. In my disfavor, that’s no excuse as a writer. You don’t get credit for your good intentions; you only get it for what’s on the page.

When I think of good villains, there are three people I think of: Darth Vader from Star Wars, Hans Gruber from Die Hard, and Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. What makes them special? What is it that makes me think about rooting for them, rather than the whiny farm boy, the grizzled cop, or the rookie investigator?

Here’s a hint: there are three people I think of. Not characters. Not bad guys. People.

Each of them gives us reasons to like them. Vader, Lecter and Gruber all made us laugh at some point during the movie. Vader has his own sense of honor: he faces Obi Wan Kenobi one-on-one like a true warrior, rather than stacking the deck against him. Lecter and Gruber are gentlemen, intelligent and charming, people that you wouldn’t mind having polite conversation with at a dinner party. And all three of them love being bad so much that we enjoy it along with them. Laugh and world laughs with you, even if your laugh sounds like, “Muhuhahahahaha!”

A good villain is the person we would become if we wore the villain costume on Halloween night. We know that it’s us behind the mask. If we do something we wouldn’t normally do, hey, it’s only make-believe. A good villain makes being bad fun. Secretly, we wish we could do what they do. (Well, except for the part about eating people.)

Do we sympathize with them? I’ll say no. A classic villain is someone we root against. Villains do bad things, knowing they’re bad and that people will be hurt by their actions. If some part of them is noble, they’re not completely a villain.

I think I know what I need to do with my story. First, Miss Graha needs a first name, and a better last name. Let’s say she’s still an exceptional dancer. She’s also exceptionally vain. She came from a different kind of privilege, and that’s what she resents in Jeana. She hates seeing what she no longer has. She makes Jeana’s life miserable, not because she has a good reason to, but because she can.




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