Note: This was originally published on January the 13th, 2014. This time however, I have added the appropriate tags.
Yes, yes, that is the title of the new post after I’ve been quiet for well over a week. Because that’s how I roll, edgy, unhinged, and utterly heedless. Well, I have returned from the dark void of inactive and obscurity to talk about something that Alec brought up a few days ago. It was a fleeting thought, or so it seemed, as many of our thoughts and conversations are but he brought up an interesting question.
“What should a villain be?” I paraphrased that a bit, but you get the gist of it. Alec was of the opinion that the Governor from AMC’s and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead was not a terribly good villain whilst his friend son his college campus were often of the opposite opinion.
Now, crafting heroes is great fun, don’t get me wrong. It’s delightful to create fully-fleshed out champions of light and justice and then horribly eviscerate their ideals and turn them into the monsters they have been trying to defeat this whole time only to be dragged back from the precipice in the eleventh hour.
Or maybe that’s just me and my love for putting my heroes through hell. But villains are fun, too! Indeed, villains can be even more enjoyable to create because of the challenge they represent. How can you make a living, breathing plot accelerator? Furthermore, how can I make him/her/it powerful while keeping them believable?
Well to completely not answer that question at all, I’m compiling examples of four categories of villains that popped into my head in the last hour or two. I won’t exactly say that one villain archetype is “better” than the others, but it really just depends on your situation, world, plot, and hero. It’s important to remember that last criteria because if you have a hero and a villain that don’t blend well (this goes deeper than just being “Hero = impatient, Villain = patient as there are still plenty of dynamics to be made off of contrast), then the story might suffer from a lack of cohesive conflict.
Good: (Fable 2. Yes, it is a video game, but I defend the idea that video games can tell amazing stories)
A “Good” villain is a man/woman/thing that, if only they were on the other side of the Good-Evil spectrum would be considered a kindhearted hero. However, madness, desperation, or a combination of the two has indeed forced a Good villain to eventually be fully landed on the evil side of the morality spectrum. Something to note about this kind of villain is that they are not the kind of characters whose evil is debatable (Suzaku Kururugi from Code Geass comes to mind as a “not-really-villain-villain”). They are very clearly evil, but their reasons for doing their evil actions give pause to the readers/players/viewers, thus making them potentially pitiable or even relate-able.
But turning to Mayor Lucien Fairfax now…
With his beloved mother and daughter dead by mysterious (and potentially devious if you think very poorly of Theresa) means, Fairfax rebuilds the Old Kingdom’s Tattered Spire almost literally on top of all of the bones and blood of thousands of slaves and practically mind-controlled guardsmen in order to do, what else? Bring back his dear dead family. After some incredibly spoiler-heavy damage that Fairfax inflicts upon you, whatever his intentions or desires are, you as the player probably won’t give a rat’s ass. However, in an interesting deviation from a usual “Good” villain is that Fairfaxs’ intentions do not get corrupted the more the story goes on. Quite the opposite in fact. While it’s true that he does become more evil over time in his methods, his goals become a bit more noble. He evolves his goal from wanting to resurrect his dead loved ones to a goal of ending the chaos and pain of the world. What the latter entails is, thankfully, only speculation but you have to admit, for the main villain of the game, he’s got a pretty strong noble streak.
So, zooming out a bit and looking at a Good villain a bit more closely, we can star to examine just how effective they can be. I think effectiveness is a very important part of a strong villain, after all. An effective villain manages to be a strong rival to the hero, thus creating tension between the hero and us audience members, and the villain. An incompetent or weak villain, regardless of intentions or methods, will almost never be feared or respected. A Good villain, however, often has the makings for a very strong antagonist.
“Good” villains are often driven by actions that could be justified as being “for the greater good,” or actions that are seen as acceptable to them (and possibly the audience, if it’s done really well) in order to mend a past wrong. Such conviction will often push a good Good villain into making choices that will eventually alienate those who once believed in him/her. As such, the emotion of pity can find itself getting applied to a villain, which when applied together with the hatred and respect already felt for their actions, can make a Good villain extremely complex.
As we will see in a “Bad” villain, Good villains are considered strong because of conviction, skill, and personal power. Unlike Bad villains, however, a Good villain is often more complex in nature, making the audience feel a wide variety of emotions, turning them less into an indefatigable antagonist and more into a human (or, “human” if they are actually not human beings) being who has made some poor decisions in their life. Really, a Good villain can have a certain amount of respect attributed to him/her and make the audience question what side they’re rooting for.
Bad: King Claudius (Hamlet)
“Bad” villains occupy a dangerous place in the world of villainy. Unlike Good villains, they are not bound by conviction, honour, or admirable goals. Unlike Ugly villains, they often retain their composure and never have to resort to bloody or more “chaotic evil” tactics to get their way. Instead, a Bad villain occupies the “neutral evil” area of an alignment chart. That is to say, the most evil. A Bad villain will make an alliance with the full intent of breaking it later, or lying to gain a new ally, and generally doing everything in their power to make their nefarious (and usually complex) goals a reality while holding nothing back.
To me, a Bad villain represents the middle ground between a Good and Ugly villain. They can be respected, like a Good villain, but are often more respected for their intelligence and skill in executing their plans. However, an audience can still be afraid of them or hate them for the same reason.
For this type of villain, I turn to King Claudius in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Killing his own brother just for the sake of power, turning Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern against him using misdirection and lies, and (debatably) hardly batting at eye when his new wife drops dead, Claudius is one evil man whose actions amount to nothing but pure, concentrated evil. Hamlet’s guise of insanity is adopted to shield his actual intentions from his newly-crowned uncle, which seems to have Claudius and his Lord Chamberlain spook Polonius thrown off, until Claidus manages to wrangle Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do his bidding. This manipulation of the good-hearted or gullible is something that a Bad villain can do very well and will often try to do. Again, it is seemingly in their nature to choice which laws to follow, rather than a Good villain who often adheres more strictly to a set morality that they themselves follow. Either way, the audience’s hatred and respect can grow simultaneously out of the actions of a Bad villain. Frankly, it would usually be so much easier to just hate these evil guys/gals if they weren’t so damn good at what they did.
Ugly: King Joffrey Baratheon (A Song of Ice and Fire)
An “Ugly” villain gives absolutely zero schnikies about what you or anybody else on the face of the planet (or several planets if it’s Sci-fi) and they will do what they want when they want to do it. The incest-born boy king Joffrey Baratheon of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series really seems to follow a very Chaotic Evil sort of path. His actions are brash, abrasive, cruel, and often don’t even serve a purpose outside of satiating (albeit only temporarily) his ego and malicious intent. Whether it’s abusing his previous wife-to-be, publicly humiliating his uncle, or threatening to mass slaughter the populace of his own capitol city, Joffrey is an Ugly villain, and is ultimately, extremely hated by pretty much everyone everywhere in-universe and in real life.
Now, like the other villains we have examined thus far, we need to look at just how effective and Ugly villain can be, looking at Joffery as our poster boy. An Ugly villain is often hated and reviled by most characters not allied with said villain, i.e. the heroes. I think this allows us as audience members to share in their hatred. After all, if Joffery started to kill off random lords from the host of his uncle Stannis Baratheon, we would likely care much less than if he took an axe to, say, dear old Eddard Stark.
However, as Joffery has shown throughout the series and as many Ugly villains have shown overall, their castles of domination are built atop pillars of sand. Fear and loathing keeps the allies of the villain from disrupting the established order and the villain’s wild, bloodthirsty ambitions keep the heroes from getting too close. However, without allies, eventually Ugly villains show their true colours, often being spineless or weak. This is particularly true with Joffery when his mother Cersei exhibits many traits of a Bad villain and his uncle Tywin exhibits plenty of traits of a Good villain. The other two styles of villain are, much more often than not, frightfully competent. When they act as the stability that an Ugly villain cannot provide to the rest of the villain’s faction, they become a terrible trio. I think this is why Joffery’s death was met with much more satisfaction than Tywin’s. By rights, Joffery shouldn’t have lasted so long in the cutthroat, quintessential game of thrones. He is an easily cowed, manipulated, and angered child who only survived because of other villains willing to take the blows for him. In other words, we hated him all the more, because the heroes could never get at him, even once they figured out how to get past his murderous schemes. But I don’t believe he carried nearly the same respect as the last two villain types, nor do many other Ugly villains. They are random forces of detestable violence and hatred and we wish the same on them in return, but that’s as far as we tend to go, because behind their bravado, they’re usually not packing a lot of personal firepower.
So, looking back on all of these wonderfully evil villains, when wanting to create a villain for your own work, or when examining any other such characters, the Good, Bad and Ugly, can be a great guide (and not just a Sergio Leone reference). A “Good” villain can inspire doubt in the audience, leading to some very complex emotions about the story’s characters and their actions. A “Bad” villain is usually the most “powerful” of the villain types. They make or break laws, alliances, and wills as they choose and can create a sense of both respect and hatred for their devious actions. An “Ugly” villain is an untamed force, a wildfire growing out of control or a raging storm on a collision course with the world of the protagonist. Their actions are often unjustified and the villains themselves make almost no effort to amend that.
So that’s it, really. I always underestimate how much time these will take to create, even when I’m just offering my one-and-a-half cents on a part of the great machine that is creative writing, even when what I saw it pretty much entirely improv. Oh well, hopefully this was at least somewhat interesting to read. And who can ask for anything more than that?! A lot of people. A lot of people.
-END TRANSMISSION. GOOD MORNING, GOOD AFTERNOON, GOOD NIGHT-