What makes a good villain?
Whether antagonist or protagonist, the villain should be in thematical opposition to the hero. The villain should have strong and clear motivations and be actively working towards his goals. He should be menacing. And, by the end of the story, the conflict between the villain and the hero must be personal to the hero.
Unless you want to write a cartoon character, villains don’t have to be all bad. In the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs (based on a 1988 novel), there is a strange, almost kind, relationship between Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling. He mentors her. When Meeks attacks her, he talks Meeks into suicide. And, when he escapes, he takes the time to phone her and let her know he will not be coming after her.
And few villains, if any, think of themselves as evil. At the end of the 1993 movie Falling Down, William Foster asks in surprise, “I’m the bad guy?” He’d left a trail of chaos in his wake and had stalked his ex-wife, yet he’d felt justified or provoked at each act. He didn’t see himself as a villain but as a victim fighting back. And this movie illustrates something else; while traditionally, the story’s villain is the antagonist, there’s no reason why they can’t be the protagonist instead.
There are many reasons why someone could become a villain. They could be …
- under the influence of drugs
- manipulated by someone else
- or something else
… and each of these must be written differently. A villain who has misunderstood the situation will be different from one who is psychotic. Some villains may feel conflicted, while others can’t even appreciate right from wrong.
You must decide what the villain’s POV is, whether it is rational or not, and then determine what the villain would think the right thing to do is, based on that POV.
For the ideal villain, it should be possible to flip the story on its head and tell it from the villain’s perspective (just as, as already noted, in Falling Down). The villain should have their own story arc.
Assuming there is a hero-villain dichotomy, what makes a good villain?
Thematic Opposition Whatever the hero is, the villain must be the polar opposite. If the hero is good, the villain must be evil. If the hero champions order, the villain must champion chaos. And, in the other order, if the villain stands for oppression, the hero must fight for freedom.
Motivation The reader must be able to understand the villain’s goals fully. They must know what and why the villain does what they do. The reader doesn’t need to agree; just understand. Even if they are a crazy psychopath. But whatever they are, the hero and the villain compete for the same goal. Only one can win.
Active A villain must be active. He shouldn’t just sit in his lair waiting for the hero to attack; he should be systematically working towards his own goal or initiating attacks (direct or indirect) on the hero.
Menace The hero must take the villain seriously; he must represent a credible threat. The achieve this, the villain must have more effective power than the hero. This does not necessarily mean more resources; it is common, albeit perhaps lazy, to give the villain an army of minions. But a memorable villain is one, when stripped of resources, is still dangerous. A villain should be both brilliant and highly manipulative.
Personal stakes for the hero are the most memorable. After an escalating series of general attacks, the villain should switch to a profoundly personal, intimate attack on the hero specifically (especially if it ties into the hero’s insecurities).