There’s always a bad guy in every story: someone has to give your hero a problem that your story works through to resolve, after all. They automatically appear, and it’s up to you to show just why they are the threat your hero sees them as.
However, there is a big difference between a typical bad guy and a true villain. This difference is apparent right in their development stage. Your villain needs to be designed not only to truly live up to that threat he plans to impose in your story, but also that lets you see that yes, he too is human just as much as your hero is. And you know what… its okay to actually like them too.
Let’s look at a few of the more successful villains in popular media:
Sylar from HEROES:
This is the character who wanted to be special in a mediocre life. In the first season of HEROES you are introduced to Gabriel Gray and his fall from grace into Sylar. His hunger for power to be something “more” has him transformed into a mass murderer with little conscious during that time. As the villain, he is killed, tortured, but also given so many chances to redeem himself. Yet even with all the chances, he always takes the wrong path. Sure, he tries to save himself sometimes in the mix, but the lust of his powers always brings him back.
Everyone knows what it feels like to be different and wanting to be special. This is the reason why Marvel Comics is still in business with more mutant superheroes than a wiki can keep track of. As humans who live in what we refer to as the “daily grind”, we can relate to that need, and in most cases much more than relating to a cheerleader who likes to cut off her own finger to watch it grow back.
Sylar is a representation of us. He’s what we could become if we don’t watch our need for power, and what happens if we are willing to do anything for it. And we watch him and want to see if the next time he tries to take the good path, that he will do it and redeem himself. Because we want to think that if we were in that spot, we could too. We love him because we want to know if that was us, we could still be loved and saved too.
The writer’s achieved this in a very simple way – they showed it all to you. You get to see in flashbacks the path that Gabriel took and the manipulations that happened to make him start on the path. They also show that deep inside, he’s just a scared man who just wants to make his mother proud; wants to be accepted by a group for who he is, and allowed to grow into maturity.
And of course, its Zachary Quinto who then takes the writer’s words and is able to translate it onto the screen, using his vocal inflections, acting intentions and facial expressions to expand beyond the dialogue to round out the way Sylar is shown. It’s that final personalization that lets him be embraced by the fans.
The Joker from the Batman Comics:
The crazy, maniacal, gun wielding clown from the Batman comic empire wouldn’t be as well loved of a villain as he is today – Wizard magazine named him the Greatest Villain of All Time – without having had a lot of development into him. And talk about a character with a vast array of backgrounds! His background differs depending on which form of media you look at him in – comic, cartoon, live TV series, or the movie portrayals by Jack Nicholson and of course, the Academy Award winning performance by the late Heath Ledger. But what keeps people coming back to wanting to see this character again and fear the way they might approach him in the new way?
Part of it is history – the Joker appeared in Batman #1 in 1940. He was the first villain, and for some reason the “good guys” have yet to be able to keep him behind closed doors in Arkham. He’s hurt a lot of people in his almost 70 years of mischief and mayhem, including the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, as well as the paralysis of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. His antics have caused a lot of pain to the main hero, and so he’s earned the respect of the audience as a force to be reckoned with.
But then there is the fact that the Joker is a murdering clown! He’s crazy, unpredictable, an underestimated genius who goes into his crime sprees with a painted smile on his face and putting them on all his victims too. The character sees and plans in so many circles and layers that if he wasn’t insane he would be in politics.
It’s the “what’s he going to do now?” factor that keeps the Joker going 70 years in popularity with his audience. He has never disappointed in entertaining, always gives his best performance when the writers bring him out for a job, and we have the knowledge that Batman will tuck him back into the little padded cell with his name engraved over the door at the end of the story. But unlike most villains who have a signature style every time they appear, the Joker consistently changes things up and the tricks will just keep coming until Batman figures out the endgame.
There’s no relation that can be drawn between the reader and the Joker, however. The Batman series pulls its reader relationship in through its heroes. But you are able to respect and even love the Joker because of the feelings that your heroes go through while dealing with him, and knowing that his insanity brings depth and perspective to the heroes that lesser villains would not be able to accomplish. It’s a symbiotic relationship – to love one means you must love the other.
Darth Vader from the Star Wars Saga:
Let’s face it – when Vader first appeared back in 1977 in Star Wars: A New Hope, he was just a flunkie to the Emperor with an old school religion and awesome powers to choke people just by holding out his hand. But he wasn’t interesting then. With just the first movie out, the story revolved around the three main characters – Han, Luke and Leia – and their interpersonal relationships. Vader had no established history shown on screen or in the novelizations to make anyone give a care to him.
It was when Empire Strikes Back did Vader become interesting. You could tell that in writing the second story, George Lucas was starting to plot out the origin story for Vader. Yoda had the secret that Obi-Wan hadn’t told Luke about, or that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru died protecting Luke from. Was it that Lucas didn’t know he would make Vader into Luke’s daddy dearest until then…?
That doesn’t matter when you look at it on screen. Empire is where you have the climactic moment. “Luke, I am your Father.” That is the moment right there where suddenly Vader’s character changes and you’re forced to watch everything again to reanalyze the villain and see him for more.
Why? Because now he’s become humanized. He’s a father. He’s not trying to manipulate Luke – he’s doing what he thinks will save his son. He’s trying in some really unsuccessful fashion to even bond with him. Father and son taking over the universe? Sure, why not Dad!
When you re-watch the first movie, you then start to see the hints of humanity that you might have missed. The little things that Lucas put in that shows that this was once a man who lived and loved and wasn’t completely evil. And it sets up the expectation that now this is a man who can be saved. After all, like Sylar, a part of us always wants to see if the ultimate evil can be redeemed.
Luke is already the hero of these movies, and now he sees his goal. We already know Luke can win space battles – but can he save his father’s soul? It’s that arc in the Return of the Jedi that keeps you on the edge of your seat in that final lightsaber battle, and when Luke is then on the ground screaming in pain for his father to help him.
The prequels, no matter your opinion on them, are then trying to then take you back and show that origin story. Some of the reason why it failed is because Lucas had such a high expectation line from the fans that he would truly never be able to meet it. Everyone knew the story without it needing to be shown on screen. Many would have rather he never showed it at all.
It was that lack of a complete background story that had given the fans had twenty years of their own creativity to make up the missing pieces, pulling things from their own lives and putting them into Anakin Skywalker to make him someone they could all sympathize with.
In conclusion – You need to look at your villains as if they are the most important character in the novel, even more that your hero. They are symbiotic, have had some kind of fall from grace, and there has to be either some hope for redemption or else showing that they are completely irredeemable in order to have them be believable. Then you need to make them human so that your readers can look at them and understand how they work – or think they can try in the cases like the Joker.
You must know their background, even if you don’t plan to reveal it. Know the path that brought them to where they are at the beginning of your book. Write your origins story for them, and keep that in your pile of research or a freebie to give out on your website when it’s published. You already know your hero is going to win, but make it so that your readers may not believe that until you want them to.
And don’t be surprised if they get upset when they lose. And if you kill them off… I would avoid any fan mail with black envelopes and pictures of bloody knives on them. But take comfort in knowing that if you got this response – you did it right.