6 Thoughts on What Makes a “Good” Villain

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Every great villain encounters a precipice that determines their future, whether for good or further evil.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch the CW’s Vampire Diaries, you may want to watch a few seasons to appreciate the character development. If you really don’t like supernatural creatures I can understand hesitance to watch the series. I happen to love supernatural “lore”, as I call it. Werewolves, witches, and vampires…oh my!

If you don’t plan to watch the series, this won’t spoil anything for you, but if you are watching the series and are watching it through Netflix like I am, this may contain some spoilers, so fair warning.

One of the original vampires is Klaus. Klaus is one of the best villains I have encountered. Much of this has to do with the cinematography as well as the script. Both the cinematography and script combine to form a sympathetic picture of the villain. The show has other villains who are not given the same treatment and therefore leave the impression that they are 100% evil. Klaus, on the other hand, has a lot of depth. There is a history that he can’t seem to shake and which controls how he acts. The choices Klaus makes, while frustrating, are completely understandable given the context of his history.

Contemplating this likable villain made me think more about what makes a “good” villain, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron.

1.       History—any sympathetic villain also comes with a history. Part of what makes a good villain is the blurring of right and wrong; that fuzzy area which others identify with based on their knowledge of the villain’s past. The villain is often a victim first which clouds their judgment of right and wrong. The villain makes us all admit that right and wrong sometimes seems to blend into a gray area.

2.       Story time—in order to create a “good” villain, you have to spend a portion of time in the villain’s shoes. If you don’t devote enough time or background to your villain, the fight between good and evil won’t be as memorable, or as important. This part is much more than “history” and has to involve enough time to witness how the villain acts and reacts in a lot of situations. In this way we usually discover a weakness, flaw, or emotion that can change the villain for better or worse.

3.       Logic—even villains are logical. Their logic may not be guided by the moral or popular precepts, but does follow a logical thought pattern. Even certifiably crazy people have a certain kind of logic that works for them, even if they are doing something “voices” tell them to.

4.       Believable—this coincides with the point on logic. A believable villain needs to act in accordance with their history unless there is sufficient reason to change. A villain will not suddenly turn nice when he falls in love with a good person, but it is sufficient explanation for a few uncharacteristic decisions. This is wonderfully illustrated with the relationship that Klaus has created with Caroline.

Klaus recognizes that he has shown a certain amount of mercy, but still doesn’t understand that a couple decisions do not make him a “good” creature. Had Klaus suddenly flipped and done everything right, we would wonder why he didn’t do that sooner to win approval. Klaus’ biggest problem is that he truly doesn’t understand relationships. He believes everything in life is based upon bullying and power, yet he yearns for the relationships that he sees around him without realizing these are based on love and not fear or power. Therefore he acts in accordance with his beliefs, and consequently doesn’t win anyone’s approval.

5.       Defining moment—once a character fully understands that they have reached a point that requires a final choice, right or wrong, it becomes the defining moment for that character. They either change for the good, or continue in evil. Any good villain has that defining moment.

6.       Intelligence—no one respects a dumb villain. We don’t sympathize with them because we want to believe we are much smarter. “Good” villains need to be intelligent so they at least earn our respect on that level.

These are just a few of the characteristics that I’ve noticed with “good” villains, or more aptly termed sympathetic villains. Snape is another excellent villain, but Klaus seems to have more depth of emotion because you can feel his deep need for acceptance and love, and it’s almost painful to watch him hurt himself with the decisions he makes. If you’re going for a sympathetic villain, Klaus is a great choice.

For great villains, the struggle between good and evil become more and more difficult as time progresses. The reader (or moviegoer) needs to feel as though the villain can teeter either way, towards good or evil. Sometimes the villain will continue in evil, reaching a worse depth as they shut out the guilt they have been struggling with throughout the story. Sometimes the villain will find hope and choose to try and become better. The actions must be reasonable for the story and the character, and sometimes one of the most powerful situations is when the evil person’s final decision about good and evil comes at the price of his or her own life; a redeeming sacrifice.

There’s so much to ponder about villains, because the really great stories would be much shorter without them. Harry Potter would not be the same without he-who-shall-not-be-named. Feel free to add to the characteristics of great villains in the comments! The more facets a villain has, the more interesting the story, in my opinion.

Have an awesome rest of the week and happy writing! 🙂

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