For a fantasy story to be truly great, it needs a memorable villain. In some cases the villain is so compelling that he or she overshadows the hero. That’s not always a bad thing. During my childhood every boy on the block wanted to dress as Darth Vader for Halloween. No one wanted to be the whiny farm boy from Tatooine.
So how do you craft a villain so fascinating that he can sell a million Halloween costumes? Looking at some of the villains whom I most admire, I have narrowed in on five common characteristics.
Great villains are staggeringly powerful. In other words, they have a way of making things bend to their will. In fantasy stories this often takes the form of magical powers. Perhaps the villain is a mighty sorcerer or a fallen Jedi Knight. In some cases, though, the villain’s power lies in his resources. He may possess vast wealth and influence. Or he may have a highly trained army at his command.
In some cases, though, the villain’s power is less obvious. A classic literary archetype is the femme fatale: a woman who uses her charm to control those around her. Some villains posses keen acuity and cunning, which is far more dangerous than raw might.
Effective villains are intelligent. This does not necessarily mean that they are intellectually gifted. Rather, it means that they avoid making stupid decisions.
New writers sometimes make the error of crafting villains who are so drunk with ambition that they make dumb moves. While such a character may make for an entertaining caricature, he or she is not a compelling villain. A truly great villain is always two steps ahead of the hero, and carefully considers every option.
This does not mean that they are above making mistakes. Otherwise they would be undefeatable. But they certainly don’t make the obvious ones. Great villains pose a real challenge for the hero, and they do so by being on top of their game.
True villains are immoral. This is what makes them villains. It’s not that they lack a sense of right or wrong. On the contrary, villains often subscribe to a moral code. But they are willing to violate accepted moral principles in order to accomplish their goals.
A prime example is Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. He knows that he has violated every principle of human decency. Yet he justifies his actions by saying that they are “for the greater good.” Fulfilling his vision of the ideal social order is so important that, in his mind, it necessitates doing terrible things.
This is a common theme with many great villains. They believe so strongly in the rightness of their own cause that they no longer see the normal standards of moral conduct as applying to them.
Memorable villains are usually wounded individuals. Sometimes this is manifested as physical wounds or disfigurements, such as the scarred face of the Joker or the missing limbs of Darth Vader. More often, though, the most defining wounds are emotional or psychological.
This reflects the great truth that no human being is born a monster. Rather, people are made into monsters by the damage and abuse inflicted upon them. Something must have happened to transform an innocent child into a homicidal adult. Even if the character’s tragic backstory isn’t fleshed out in the narrative, it is often hinted at.
Having a wounded villain also prevents him or her from becoming a caricature. Villains who are driven by a lust for power is a fantasy cliché. Giving the character a reason for this lust makes it credible.
This is what separates the great villains from the lesser baddies. A truly formidable villain is possessed by an unstoppable drive to achieve his or her goal. Under no circumstance will he ever give up (unless he is somehow redeemed, which will be the subject of a future article).
Perhaps the most striking example is the Dark Lord himself, Sauron of Mordor. He is so driven to dominate Middle Earth that even the destruction of his physical body is only a setback. When a great villain sets his sites on a goal, nothing short of annihilation will stop him from accomplishing it. This makes the defiance of the hero that much more perilous.
Together, these five characteristics make for a formidable villain. However, this list is not intended to be all-inclusive. There are likely other characteristics which I have left out.
This is where you come in. What characteristics do you see as essential to a great villain?