Villains readers love to hate
Published: January 10, 2001
Conflict, complexity and empathy create great antagonists
If Hannibal Lecter were a real person, not many of us would invite him to dinner. Fewer people would accept a date with Dracula or sign a contract with the devil. Yet writers can make these characters sympathetic and compelling enough that they are as memorable as the protagonist—and sometimes more so. By creating a "sympathetic" villain, the writer enhances the character's dimension and allows readers to empathize with the character.
In contrast, the simplistic villain is mindlessly evil or mischievously wicked. This villain bedevils the hero, with or without reason, creating an obstacle—and conflict in the story. However, a one-dimensional villain isn't particularly interesting. His or her actions are predictable—the villain simply tries to thwart the hero. What makes a story's villain truly riveting are the same qualities that make the hero compelling.
Drawing shades of antagonism
Villains can be written as rivals, enemies, obstacles or forces of nature. In fiction, two characters can't have the same thing—whether it's money, a job or a love interest. Thus, the villain may compete with the hero for a job, spouse or even respect. Stanley Kowalski, in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, is at odds with his fragile sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois, from the moment she arrives. They compete for space in his apartment, her sister Stella's affections and, ultimately, for respect. With each conflict, the stakes become higher, until it is clear that only one character will emerge sane. In this story, the protagonists are similar in that they each want the same thing, probably for similar reasons. Blanche calls Stanley an animal; she undermines him with his wife, exploits his friends and would have him turned out of his own home for his brutish behavior. Blanche needs a home, and Stanley is determined that it not be his.
In some instances, it may be more exciting to have the rival need to obtain the goal even more than the hero. How the two go about accomplishing the objective is what makes them different. Whether or not a rival becomes an enemy is played out in his or her actions and motives.
In L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, both Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West need the ruby slippers. Dorothy needs them for protection and, though unaware of it, needs them to get home. The witch wants them to boost her powers. In her view, the shoes belong to her by right. The hero plays it straight, helps her friends and walks the yellow brick road to seek her way home. The villain creates obstacles at every turn: She grows poppies that make the hero fall asleep, writes threatening messages in the sky and sends flying monkeys to kidnap the hero. In this sense, the villain drives the story, while the hero responds to her nefarious actions. And in the final showdown, only one of them can have the slippers.
Antagonists should be psychologically complex. Disregard for the welfare of other characters is only the surface of sinister skin. The reason for the indifference is more intriguing. Captain Ahab's mission to kill Moby Dick overrides the welfare of his own crew. He leads them to their deaths rather than give up his quest to destroy the whale, which he considers a greater evil. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the Creature kills everyone around the doctor who created him. The Creature wants the scientist to suffer as he has—adding sympathy to his character. In Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Alec d'Urberville is a ladies man accustomed to having his way when he takes advantage of Tess. He manipulates her and is determined to own her. Yet throughout the novel, we see him sincerely concerned for Tess's family, disturbed by her backbreaking labor at the Flintcomb-Ash farm. In the end, his offers to help her arise from his genuine regard for her and remorse for his earlier actions.
The hero is an obstacle to what the villain wants—maybe there is a past history of discord between the two characters; the hero has done something the villain resents and in some way he or she serves as an obstacle to the villain. These characteristics also apply to the villain, which makes heroes and villains somewhat alike. Since the characters are alike, we can now take a leap—recognizing that they share some of the same concerns and conflicts.
Showing the adversary's conflicts makes for a multidimensional character. Letting readers see these disharmonious aspects allows them to undergo a more intense emotional experience when reading. This can be deepened by adding elements of surprise to the antagonist's internal discord. The different choices that the villain and hero make will be what causes the reader to identify with the hero. Villainous choices are not generally moral actions. Although the villain's reasons may be sympathetic, the reader will want the villain to fail in the end because his or her goals and actions are not sympathetic.
For example, suppose the villain concludes that the only way to achieve a goal is to kill the hero's mother—a terrible act. A cold-blooded, one-dimensional character would pull the gun, shoot and walk away—goal accomplished. When creating such a villain, a better choice would be to make the character experience conflict about the decision to kill. In varying degrees, he or she could be physically sickened by the prospect of murder; he might try to get another character to talk him out of it or try to talk himself out of it. Now, make the scenario more complicated: What if the mother is a childhood friend of the villain; what if the mother saved the life of the villain's child; what if, while implementing the killing, the villain falls in love with the mother? These complications cause conflict for the antagonist—his choices are as much of a struggle as the hero's. Such conflicts make the villain more interesting than the bad guy who simply grips the gun and pulls the trigger.
For instance, in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Inspector Javert is the villain—hounding Jean Valjean for a lifetime. When he finally is in the position to return the fugitive to prison, he lets him go free. Afterward, the gravity of his decision tortures him. He struggles with his singular belief in the sanctity of the law, his own conscience and his sense of duty. Unable to come to terms with what he has done, he ends his life. His struggle with his choices makes him more human.
What if the threat is nonhuman? No one feels sorry for an asteroid or tornado that sweeps away everything the protagonist owns. But how much more chilling these forces of nature are when they are personalized, as if they were human villains. Often it is the scientist or environmentalist who gives some sort of plausibility to the nonhuman menace: The massive tornado was created because of weather changes caused by global warming, due to human abuse of the environment; the apocalyptic asteroid had been predicted since biblical times, and we foolish humans didn't invest enough in space exploration to confront it.
In Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, a satellite crashes in an Arizona town, releasing space pathogens that kill the inhabitants and threaten the entire world. Humans' intent to conquer the universe backfires, while bacteria does what it has always done since the beginning of time. Since evil requires a moral choice, nonhuman threats or "villains" are more interesting if they are somehow created by human weakness.
Creating unforgettable villains
Sympathetic doesn't necessarily mean we want to befriend the villain. Thomas Harris' character Hannibal Lecter is a fascinating antagonist. He's charming, and despite his heinous deeds, we want to know more about him and what made him what he is. In Silence of the Lambs, his manipulative interest in Clarice Starling engages our curiosity and increases our fear for her. The question "What is Lector going to do?" becomes as important an interest as the hero Clarice's journey to solve the case of the serial killer.
In Paradise Lost, John Milton gives the simile-spouting devil most of the good lines. Jesus Christ, although obviously the hero, has less interesting dialogue. The devil is a more intriguing character because we feel sorry for his plight and, to a degree, sympathize with him as the underdog of the story.
As a child, Heathcliff is the scapegoat in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. He is beaten, denied an education and barred from the only home he knows. When he grows into a cruel and vengeful man who destroys two families, the reader still longs for him to find redemption and love. Only death releases the character's agony and provides emotional fulfillment to readers, who can then imagine the spirit of Heathcliff roaming the moors with his beloved Catherine—a sort of happy ending.
Consider a character who is run out of town everywhere he goes. If he is caught, he faces death. He is shunned, despised and feared. This could describe a hero—Jean Valjean at the beginning of Les Miserables. But what if every time this man appeared, the daughters of the town were found drained of their blood? Ahh, Dracula—a villain. On a subconscious level, we sympathize with vampires because they are hunted prey who will meet a terrible end. Once they were endowed with the sexiness, self-doubt and inner struggle of Anne Rice's vampire Lestat, we could see them as similar to heroes, fighting against their circumstances and fate, and not as complete monsters.
Complexity, conflict and empathetic qualities make a good villain. And a good villain is essential to your story. An unpredictable, untrustworthy villain will keep the reader engaged. What he or she will do next must be as thought-provoking as the plot twists and the hero's actions. Being unsure of the villain's future actions makes readers keep reading and keeps them on edge. Ultimately, despite any empathy they may feel for the villain's situation, readers are forced to root against the villain because of his or her sinister acts—the villain's choices. Deep down, we know Dracula will kill you, the devil will take you to hell and Hannibal Lector will eat you if given the chance.
Cliches and stereotypes
We've all encountered stereotypical villains in stories. When characters are cowboys and Indians, the good cowboys always kill the bad Indians or the good Indians are attacked by the bad cowboys. Stories are weakest of all when the villains are differentiated from the heroes simply by their clothes: The good cowboys wear white and the bad wear black. Serial killers are becoming dangerously close to becoming cliches because they are so prevalent in fiction, and are rarely portrayed as having comprehensible reasons for their acts that connect to the hero's goals. They are simply killing machines.
When in danger of writing a cliche, consider the story from the villain's point of view and try to escape the stereotype. Such villains can have understandable motives. For instance, Malificent, the evil fairy of Sleeping Beauty, curses the princess. Why? She didn't get invited to the party! From our own experiences, we know what that feels like. If we think about it long enough, we might get angry. We might throw our own party, or we might plot revenge. In many ways, Stephen King's character Carrie is Malificent. And the humanity of such villains should be explored in your stories—not ignored.
Villain vs. hero
The ancient god Zeus was said to be Janus-faced—looking in both directions. The villain, perhaps even more than the hero, needs this same quality. By having both a good and bad side, the adversary can more fully test the hero and strive more passionately toward his or her goals.
Additionally, as you can see, the antagonist in a story can be portrayed as being at odds with the protagonist, but not truly a "villain" or evil. These are the foes with whom readers more easily identify. It is the truly evil villain who needs to be rendered as a more complex character. An infusion of humanity changes these villains into worthy opponents. When they try to destroy their protagonists, they bet their life on it—because what is at stake is important to every fiber of their being.
When confronted with uncertain possibilities, readers can't help but become emotionally involved in the story. One of the most important points for the writer to remember is that from the villain's perspective, he is the hero of his very own story.
Illustrations by Kellie Jaeger