Last week we talked about how villains can be constructed along the same line as heroes. (See part 1.) Goals and motivations are just as important for bad guys as for good guys – maybe even more important. So, now we know what evil deeds the evil-doers are trying to do…evilly. And we have a grasp on their motivations (evil though they may be!). What else is there?
The villain’s background often ties in closely with his or her motivation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all bad guys have to have some childhood trauma in their past (which is an interesting but overused theme). But take a man born to privilege, whose riches are cruelly stolen away…might he not turn to crime and bad-guy-ery to regain that which he lost? Just a thought!
Rene Belloq (Indiana Jones’s nemesis in Raiders of the Lost Ark) – His motivations are unclear, although we do get the idea that he was brought up in a state of privilege. Remember how he laughingly refered to the spirits he and Marion were drinking as “my family label”? This again supports a motivation of pride, since a man like that could easily feel that the world and its riches were his for the taking.
Darth Vader (who needs no introduction!) – In the original Star Wars trilogy we don’t get a good taste for Vader’s background, except to know that he was Ben Kenobi’s apprentice until he was seduced by the power of the Dark Side. In the prequel trilogy, we find out that as a young man he was intelligent and capable, yet filled with pain and anger at the death of his mother.
Hannibal Lecter (the penultimate villain) – When he was a child, he and his sister Mischa were happy and inseparable…until World War II brought the deaths of their parents, the occupation of their family estate by cruel and starving soldiers, and the brutal death of little Mischa. This is a classic example of background playing into motivation and goals. (Although it bears repeating that authors should play the “childhood trauma” card with extreme caution, as it’s been used to near-cliche status in the past few years.)
Just as a well-rounded hero should have a few faults, a well-rounded villain should have some redeeming – if not endearing – traits.
Belloq – Aside from that snazzy linen suit, Rene Belloq also possessed a sense of humor and a love of antiquities. More importantly, he had a soft spot for Marion Ravenwood. And mutual admiration/affection (in other words, our villain likes/admires someone that the audience also likes/admires) can be a truly endearing trait.
Vader – Until Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader seemed to have no redeeming traits whatsoever. But then we saw him kill the Emperor to save Luke, our hero. And afterwards, when he said to Luke, “You were right about me. Tell your sister, you were right,” we saw that he did have a redeeming trait, and it was love.
Lecter – First thing that comes to mind is this sentence: “I’m having an old friend for dinner” A sense of humor is Hannibal Lecter’s greatest redeeming trait. That and, of course, the fact that some of the people he killed were jerks. “Mutual enemies” can be as endearing a trait as mutual affection. And that brings us to….
GREATER EVIL (THE “BIG BAD”)
Introducing a Greater Evil into your story is a tried-and-true method for giving your villain more depth. We think that the villain is the greatest evil in our story-universe, but then we introduce the super-villain, and we see that the villain is just the Little Bad – the super-villain is the Big Bad. Sometimes the hero and villain have to work together to fight the Big Bad, and that always a produces a fascinating dynamic!
Belloq – Although Belloq was a thorn in Indy’s side and a real threat to both his life and his mission, there was a bigger bad than Belloq: the Nazis. Whereas Belloq’s motives were pride and greed, the Nazis soldiers’ motives were pure evil, and they were the true villains of that piece!
Vader – Although Darth Vader was the villain of Star Wars (or for the sticklers: Episode IV, A New Hope), during both Empire and Jedi we saw that he was mostly the evil enforcer for the Big Bad – the Emperor.
Lecter – In Hannibal, the Big Bad was really Mason Verger. After all, Lecter may have been a cannibalistic serial killer, but Verger was a pedophile – and there is really nothing more evil than that.
It’s interesting to note that in the latter two examples above, the villain was responsible for the death of the Big Bad. Darth Vader killed the Emperor, of course. And in both the book and movie versions of Hannibal, Lecter convinced someone close to Verger to murder him. In a way, those villains were heroes – at least to the extent that their evil acts benefited the greater good. Even Belloq was partly responsible for the death of the Nazis, since his pride convinced him that he could control the power of the Ark.
A well-crafted villain is one of the most entertaining aspects of fiction. Remembering that the villain really thinks of himself or herself as a hero, and addressing their actions from the direction of “why is this right?” can help us to create villains who are realistic and memorable. And after all, don’t our heroes deserve great adversaries?
Do you have a favorite fictional villain? What are his or her most redeeming traits?