5 Characteristics of an Epic Villain

Darth Vader as depicted in The Empire Strikes ...
Darth Vader

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.

Powerful

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.

Intelligent

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.

Immoral

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.

Wounded

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.

Determined

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 sights on a goal, nothing short of annihilation will stop him from accomplishing it.  This makes the defiance of the hero that much more perilous.

Other Characteristics

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?

Antonio del Drago is a writer, philosopher and professor. His latest book, The Mythic Guide to Characters: Writing Characters Who Enchant and Inspire, is now available.

23 Responses to 5 Characteristics of an Epic Villain

  1. Thanks for the article ! After a sci-fi and a young adult book, I’m struggling with defining a another great villain for the next one (fantasy). This should help.

    I’m not so sure about the immoral part though. Sociopathes don’t even see the difference between moral and immoral as long as their actions serve their goals, right ? My question is: can an enemy without any empathy for anything be great ? (Nolan’s Joker tends to prove a point…)

  2. As a writer, people tend to hand advice to me like it’s water and I’m in a desert. However, I had someone once tell me, on the subject of characters specifically heroes and villains – that villains were just the heroes of their own stories. There is something fantastic about a villain who we see from point A to point B and we realize just how they came to be a villain and we realize that could be us or we realize that the hero could just as likely have been the villain. The villain doesn’t have to be a victim to be redeemable. He has to be human. He has to have made bad choices that real humans would make. That’s what sets the real villains apart.

  3. First off, thanks for the article. It has helped me so much with many of my characters.
    Second, I think the thing that makes a villain great, and you kind of touched upon it, is that they could so easily be the hero. Given a different situation ad the absence of their emotional wounds, I think a truely great villain could be seen by the reader as a hero themselves.

  4. Hello. Im a young Iranian Game Writer and Im Writing My Second Game Book Named “Fade To Black : The Loop Of Evil”your posts and this site’s been so helpful to me and I Managed to create a Standard Villain in my story , but im not satisfied with it … my villain has all these characteristics in him but my hero sucks … I Cant even relate to the hero . i need a spark to continue. how can I get your book in my country?

  5. Hi do you know the Publisher/sponser of this article on the website so I can include it in my works cited if you get back to me ASAP that would be nice

  6. Hi! I’m using this article as a secondary source in my essay and I was just wondering if you could tell me when this article was written and published

  7. This isn’t so much a trait of a good villain but, rather, an observation I have made regarding sucessful ones time and time again. Seasoned villains, while clearly sinister and self-centered, tend to have likeable auras about them. Call this having charisma or, in some way, being genuinely polite with no strings attached, but a good villain is nothing without his pawns, and in order to get them a good level of diplomacy and interpersonal appeal must be used.
     
    Perhaps this would ultimately fall into the deceit and cunning you wrote about, but depending on the followers and resources in question, a villain might be completely honest yet well-spoken to his pawns. Being in the name of maintaining trust and loyalty under the understanding that the hero and the values/institutions he or she stands for is mutually hated, or that a common goal must be reached either way.

  8. This is a good basic summary, but thing you really want to have in a villain is a good hook, be it a catch phrase, a gimmick, or some aspect of their appearance that makes them stand out from other villains.
     

  9. A important characteristic I realized in some villains is that they disassociate themselves with their old identity and memories. For example: Voldemort. Voldemort used to be known as Tom Riddle, but he removed himself from his old life in order to evolve into a “greater being.” Villains who would separate themselves from their most human memories are evil to me.

  10. I believe that the perfect villain is the one that is a more ‘mature’ reflection on the hero. If the hero and villain are exact opposites then, yes, the story will be moderately interesting, but what I mean is the bad guy with a philosophy. Maybe a story could have the reader figure that the villain is the root of all evil, while over time exposing them to the likeness between him/her and the hero. They could have even been the hero of their own time, but through years of futility exposed to the vile that is evil they adopted a new philosophy; “The world is full of harmful bacteria called “sin”, and I must eliminate all to starve it.”

  11. for me i like two kinds of villains the absolutely insane monster he cares not for the laws of any thing he doesn even care for death just any thing and every thing for no reason hates order and is purely a force of chaos, no motive no goal just chaos the joker is a prime example. and the other kind is like is as tom aka dusty said the villain that you can relate to the person who is human and does human things but is committing acts of horror, showing that mayby all of us are capable of such things the opposite of the hero a human that is capable of good

  12. For me, part of what can make evil memorable or chilling involves not the larger than life but the banal.  Think about Rosemary’s baby. What makes the satanist so creepy is that they are so damn normal.  Ordinary.  If you can inject a sense of the normal, the averagely faulted, even the odd passion (like a love of horticulture for instance) make the bad guys less epically larger than life in a way that almost removes them from scary by their very bad guy perfection, and makes it something we can see in ourselves or people we have met.  The banality of evil.

    • Personally, my favorite villains are the ones that start out cool, controlled, in command and slowly fall into a darkness, madness, despair or rage and their empire falls more from their own lack of control than their enemies.

  13. I’m not too keen on romantics: those who have a genuine vision to create a better world and don’t really care what atrocities they commit to achieve it. I don’t mind immorality so much – I view truly evil characters as rabid dogs. I have a tougher time understanding the mindset of those who commit evil in order to do ‘good’. This kind of villain isn’t so common in fantasy fiction, but when he does crop up I find him more disturbing than the monochrome hate figures many writers employ.

  14. I have a one more trait of a good villain:

    Persuasion: In order to become powerful or formible at all, a villain must have the power to persuade people to the cause he or she has.

Leave a reply

CommentLuv badge