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The Rules To a Good Villain
Ah, villains, you can't have a story without them. True, sometimes you couldn't care less if they dropped dead or ran off to Bermuda, but other times you may find that you care more about the villain than the main character! Love them or hate them, there are a number of different aspects that determine whether a villain an interesting part of the story, or simply a plot device.
Probably the first and foremost attribute of an interesting villain is their motive or goal. What they're doing and why their doing it are not only important in the story, but to the villain's character. One of the most commonly seen goals is conquest. Take over the world, find the ultimate power, cover the lands in darkness, etc. are all variations of this. Why? Often, simply because the villain wants too, or feels that they should be in control. This can often be a rather boring goal and motive. It's been done, we know the drill. Another popular motive is revenge. Revenge can either be an excellent goal, or a rather boring one. If it's revenge against a large group, or the world, it generally simply becomes conquest, or "wipe out the entire population". But revenge against a specific person, or perhaps a small group is most always a good thing. It means that there will nearly always be some interaction between the villain and the protagonist, and a history. Usually, when a villain is bent on exacting their revenge on a particular person, it means that things are going to get interesting. Personal vendettas are usually great fun to read (or watch, as in a movie). There, are, of course, many other goals and motives to be seen. Vanity, lust, or greed can make for a refreshing villain. Ublaz was one of the few Redwall villains to have vanity as a motive, as opposed to conquest. He didn't care what happened to Mossflower or Redwall Abbey, he just wanted the pearls called the Tears of All Oceans to complete his crown. This actually could be seen as greed for the Tears, but as they were for his crown, it points to vanity as the true motive. But by far, the best motives tend to be those that delve deeply into the villain's personality, such as a misunderstood young girl who just wants a friend, and only thinks that it's all a game, or someone only seeking to protect the one they love. There will also be times when a villain's goal or motives are relatively "good," but they're simply going about things in the wrong way.
Another equally important facet of a villain is their history or background. To effectively explain a motive, you almost always need some kind of history. It can be simple, explaining how Cluny the Scourge roved the land causing destruction and misery until he set his sights on Redwall Abbey, or it can be the long history of how someone like Anakin Skywalker fell from grace to become a great evil in the world. A villain's history should be detailed enough to at least give a rough idea of how and why they got to where they are, but usually, the more you know, the better.
Personality is just as important for a villain as it is for any other character. Some villains are cold and aloof, leaving everything to their lackeys. Many villains will become aggravated with their lackeys and quite frequently kill them off themselves. Other villains trust only themselves to the job, and will do everything (or nearly everything) themselves. Or maybe they're not even villainous at all (or not completely villainous). Some of the more interesting 'villains' are those who aren't necessarily all that villainous. And don't forget the "not really villainous at all, often loveable sidekick who's just stuck with the evil guy" characters, like Blaggut. His sort are a staple of many Disney movies.
So, if one were to make a set of rules for creating an excellent villain that's going to be not only a villain, but also an interesting and memorable character, it would go something like this:
- 1. A villain must have a fairly unique goal
- 2. A villain must have a deep motive that is fairly well explained.
- 3. A villain must have a history which has been well-described
- 4. A villain must have a complex and unique personality
Or, as some might say "Rules are made to be broken."
Nearly always, you can break the "rules" and still have an excellent, memorable villain. One way this is done is to add an element of mystery or terror to a villain. Fears are often based on the unknown, so an excellent way of making the viewer (and characters, of course) afraid of the villain is to keep them largely in the dark. If this is done right, a villain doesn't always need a personality (in fact, a personality could hinder the "big, bad, utterly and completely evil" effect) nor do they even need to have any dialogue. A prime example of this would be Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. He has no personality, no dialogue, and little of his history is explained in the Lord of the Rings, and yet, he is an excellent, memorable villain. Even with a rather generic motive. A similar example of this is Arawn Death-Lord from the Prydain Chronicles. Adding mystery to a villain usually means giving them a veiled past, where some of the details are revealed, but not enough to piece together completely what happened, just enough to keep the viewer on their toes.
Another way of making a villain a little more interesting is giving them some kind of quirk, or unique feature. For example, Gabool the King of Searats is a fairly cut-and-paste villain, except for his behavior regarding the Bell. Just that little quirk turned a rather poor villain into a much more acceptable and memorable character. Or, in the example of Urgan Nagru and his mate Silvamord, there's nothing particularly special about either of them, but when you include the fact that they're both just as eager to kill each other as their enemies, it makes them a lot more interesting. Giving a villain unique looks can help as well (although this is much more of an issue in a visual medium) as seen with Cluny the Scourge. Cluny would certainly be greatly less interesting without his unique description.
And finally, it is also possible to make a villain more acceptable by compensating for lacks in one area with another. If a villain has really different goal, it doesn't as much matter why he's doing it, it can simply be chalked up to his being a psychopath. The same goes for having a rather boring goal, but a very interesting method of obtaining it. A villain with a good personality (or at least a good attitude) and boring everything else is going to at least be a bit better than a villain that's boring all around.
Everyone is going to like different things, but it seems that villains who are at least little bit different and well thought out are generally the favorites. So, in all, following rules or breaking them, all it takes to make a good villain is a little effort and good dose of imagination.