This is Part 7 of the Mythic Guide to Heroes & Villains.
Constructing a proper story without an excellent villain is almost impossible. Their absence from a story is almost always limited to plotlines in which the hero is his own worst enemy, and the story focuses on him defeating inner demons.
More commonly, the hero’s path is being blocked by an external force. Enter the villain. Not only does this opponent seek to hinder the hero at every turn, but at first he often succeeds.
In almost any story, the villain plays just as vital a role as the hero. The antagonist is often the primary reason why the hero’s story is even worth telling. Without the villain, good has nothing to triumph over, nothing challenges the protagonist, and everyone just goes about their average lives.
Without Darth Vader and the collective Empire, Stars Wars would have been about A Galaxy Far Far Away, in which Luke Skywalker helps Uncle Owen with the harvest. Without the evil step-mother, Cinderella would have been a story about a peasant girl going to a ball without resistance and marrying her prince without a hitch. Without Sauron, The Lord of the Rings would have told the epic tale of fuzzy footed individuals sitting around on peaceful grassy hills, and doing nothing.
Some stories can exist without villains, but they are often weaker for it. Take The Wizard of Oz for example. Without the Wicked Witch, this particular story would still have a plotline and an ultimate goal that would need to be accomplished. But what made the story epic for many of us as children were all the scares and suspense. We remember the witch conjuring fire, and we remember her creepy minions flying down and ripping the scarecrow apart. Having a source of danger and uncertainty gave the story most of its power. Sure, there would still be some interesting visuals and the setting would maintain its creativity. But few of us would ever come back to the vanilla plotline as adults, as we do for the story as it is with its iconic villain.
Writing a Great Villain
Not only is it important to have a villain, but you must have a great one. A boring villain does give your protagonist something to do, but it is all done in a lame and predictable fashion.
Some of the greatest icons in literature and cinema are villains. Far less people could tell you who Jim Hawkins is, as opposed to Long John Silver. The story of Treasure Island has withstood the test of time for it’s extremely ground breaking villain. When we think of pirates, we think of snarling black-toothed thugs, stupid and violent in nature and serving no purpose beyond some generic opposing force for the hero to vanquish. But when we meet Long John Silver, he is not introduced to us as some illiterate evil beast. He is initially portrayed in a positive light and we learn to love the character. Only gradually is his true nature exposed, and when it hits us we take it as hard as the protagonist. Long John Silver is also unique in that he does not pay for his crimes in the end, but actually achieves a rather happy retirement as speculated by the protagonist’s narration. What’s weirder still is that we don’t feel particularly bad about it; we’re actually glad that the villain got a happy ending in this instance.
The story was groundbreaking at the time, especially for a children’s story. People crave more of that golden storytelling now. Your readers want originality. They don’t want the same two-dimensional villain that they’ve already seen far too many times.
Your best bet is to give your villain’s construction the same dedication and care that you give your hero. Don’t make your villain an extension of your hero, i.e. a generic force whose sole purpose in life is to make the hero more interesting. Instead, make the villain his own character. The villain is a real person, treat him and write him as such. He doesn’t oppose the hero’s objectives for the sake of antagonizing him. He just happens to have his own views and opinions that collide with those of the hero.
An intricate and well-written villain can make the difference between an excellent novel, and an outright terrible one.