The discussion on my last Writing Tips article (addressing rationale) descended into an area I should have foreseen: villains. How do villains fit into the rational vs. reasonable debate*?

When considering how a character is rational, keep in mind that this includes the character’s perception of themselves. As much as we like to think otherwise, we’re scarcely aware of who we truly are. There are many factors for this. To others we appear as jerks but inside our own perceptions, we know that we are having a bad day, or everyone else is mistreating us, or we’re not being as bad as we could, etc etc. Therefore, with villains, they too will be as blind to their own actions as any other person. In fact, one of the hallmarks of true villains is high self-delusions. Thus, you almost never hear a bad guy refer to themselves as evil, whereas the introspective heroes will experience angst upon self-reflection. (Example: Paul from the Bible calls himself the chief of sinners, but Satan never does.)

With the basics established, how are villains created? How are great villains created?

Step 1: Make a goal. Bob down the street, working 9-5 and reading the paper every night is not a villain. What separates him from Lex Luthor? The latter has a goal, something he is working toward. A great villain will have a goal which is understandable, even laudable, and all of their actions are efforts to obtain this goal.

Step 2: Give them a motivation. Sure your villain has a goal, but why? Do they believe they’re doing the world a favor? In honor of a particular person? A great villain will have altruistic motivations. The line separating them from the hero, or any of us, is only the width of a hair.

Step 3: Decide the methods. What makes anyone evil? (Nobody just goes around kicking puppies.) The context of their methods. Cutting someone is wrong if against their wishes, but add consent, medical training, and a life-threatening disease, and that same action becomes noble, laudable even. A great villain uses methods that inspire debate, especially if anyone might.

Bonus Points: The hero and the villain actually have the same goal, but are opposed in methods. Example: In Lord of the Rings, Sauron and Aragorn ultimately have the same goal (to unite/rule Middle-Earth) but Sauron wants to accomplish this by abolishing free will.

You’ll notice I avoided any mention of a tragic past. That’s because the tragic past is more of a crutch every day. Who needs to flesh out their villain or add depth to them when a bad day explains it all?

See how everyone’s fallen asleep? Now you know what separates the great writers, from the hacks.

*As always, this is for serious writing. Comedy, parodies and other humorous writings don’t need to heed these efforts. However, staying aware of the basics will serve to improve your humor.

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Comment

  1. Artimaeus on 19 January 2009, 22:55 said:

    I don’t think a compelling villain need necessarily have a sympathetic or altruistic motive. It’s true that a sympathetic villain can be more terrifying; a twisted reflection can scare us more than something truly alien. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only great villain is a sympathetic villain. Heath Ledger’s Joker didn’t have a motive, and his goal was to spread chaos. A great villain? Maybe, maybe not, but he is one of the most genuinely frightening characters I’ve ever seen.

    It’s also happens sometimes that giving a villain a touchy-feely motive makes them weaker rather than stronger. Take Sandman from Spider Man 3. Giving the guy a cute daughter didn’t add an air of tragedy to the story or give the audience an introspective moment; it simply made the character look weak and aimless.

  2. Artimaeus on 19 January 2009, 23:01 said:

    Or rather, just to clarify, I think a distinction should be made between a compelling villain- who simply leaves an impression on the audience- and the “great villain” you talk about in the article.

  3. Spanman on 19 January 2009, 23:48 said:

    This article is especially convicting, Nate. It’s all your fault that I’m not a happy camper anymore.

    I liked this especially: A great villain will have altruistic motivations. The line separating them from the hero, or any of us, is only the width of a hair.

  4. falconempress on 20 January 2009, 01:21 said:

    “I liked this especially: A great villain will have altruistic motivations. The line separating them from the hero, or any of us, is only the width of a hair.”

    Seconded. Good article:)

  5. Addie on 20 January 2009, 01:31 said:

    This is a great article, Nate, and I agree with almost everything in it – all about their goals and methods, etc., and the favorite quote that’s just been cited twice above. ;)

    But I’m not sure about the tragic pasts. Sometimes it does work – the Phantom of the Opera, for instance. His past made him what he was, after all. It (and his attendant deformity) was the root of his whole story.

    And Darth Vader had a tragic past, too.

    Tragic heroes turned villains can be quite extremely interesting, actually.

    However, sometimes it does bog everything down, you’re right. For instance, it wouldn’t have been at all right for the Joker. (Not Ledger’s anyway.) It just wouldn’t have had the right tone.

    Anyway, good work. ;)

  6. Corsair on 20 January 2009, 03:33 said:

    I disagree completely with your ‘Great Villain’ points. Not all great villains are ‘Good People at Heart’. The ‘Knight Templar’ and the ‘Well-intentioned Extremist’ are not the only way to handle a villain.

    Let’s start with the villain you mention by name, Sauron.

    Sauron’s goal is understandable, but it is not laudable. He wants to rule all Arda, even Valinor, and he will crush anyone underfoot who dares try to get in his way.

    Aragorn’s goal is not to unite Middle-Earth under his banner, but merely to claim the throne that is rightfully his and stop Sauron’s conquest. By the end of Lord of the Rings, Aragorn rules only Gondor, retaking it’s lost lands at Umbar and a few other places, and rebuilt Arnor. The Reunited Kingdom does not cover Middle-Earth.

    Sauron’s methods did not inspire debate. He struck swift and hard with everything he had at his disposal to destroy the enemy, using the Nazgul as Shadow operatives prior to their defeat at Bruinen and as field commanders and fast moving agents following their acquisition of their Fellbeasts.

    Sauron’s motivations are pretty inscrutable, determined by whether his loyalty lies with his old master, Morgoth, or with himself alone. However, it’s pretty clear that he is motivated by desire for power and control and will stop at nothing to get it.

    All in all, Sauron is not an example of a ‘Great Villain’ by your standards.

    Satan, The White Witch, Cersei and Tywin Lannister, Blaine the Pain, Palpatine, Arcturus Mengsk, and The Joker are all villains I would consider to be Great Villains, and yet they don’t even come close to fitting on your list.

    Now, there are some Great Villains that you can fit under your criteria – Sarah Kerrigan, Arthas Menethil, Darth Vader, as examples.

    But let’s take a look at a character I consider to be one of the greatest villains I’ve ever seen, a clown with a VERY bad temper and a thing for murder and some very interesting profanity. I’m referring to a man named Kefka.

    Kefka’s Goal: Destroy the world, create a monument to non-existence.

    Kefka’s Motives: The Magitek procedure, of which he was the first subject, was conducted incorrectly and screwed his brain up. He is insane by every definition of the word.

    Kefka’s Methods: Use any means necessary to gain the power to ascend to Godhood and have the power to destroy the world.

    The Heroes’ Objective: Free their homes from the grip of the oppressive Empire so they can live in peace: Later – Destroy Kefka so that the world can one day rebuild.

    Not a lot of parallel.

    You’re accepting one course to a solid villain and presenting it as the only way.

  7. Nate Winchester on 20 January 2009, 07:34 said:

    This is what happens when you try and write an article after a stressful weekend.

    There are other ways to do villains, and you don’t always have to make every bad guy a great one. Sometimes mediocre or poor villains can serve a role.

    Yes, tragic pasts and “just evil” villains can be great in the end, but too many hacks nowadays use these instead of actually putting work into their villains.

    Exhibit A: Galbatorix

    “I disagree completely with your ‘Great Villain’ points. Not all great villains are ‘Good People at Heart’. The ‘Knight Templar’ and the ‘Well-intentioned Extremist’ are not the only way to handle a villain.”

    The well-intentioned extremist is only 1 subset of what I was talking about. A lot of this article is how the villain sees him/herself. Great villains have flaws just like heroes, but their flaws should be just as realistic as any other character.

  8. OverlordDan on 20 January 2009, 07:44 said:

    Great article! Please keep making more. Another positive comment! {Sorry, I’m tired ):}

  9. Lookingforme on 20 January 2009, 15:59 said:

    Thanks Nate! It is very true that often we don’t know ourselves, and it’s difficult for anyone, including villains, to imagine themselves as a villain. To used a really old example, if I may be excused: Hitler did not think that he was a villain. His goal was simple: to restore German pride, and more immediately, the German economy. He truly believed that he was doing what was best for his people. And it is true that in the span of six years, he managed to employ 6 million angry, hurt, depressed workers. But, of course, he also believed that getting rid of the Jews would solve the problem as well; hence the horrific slaughter of millions. This point also fits in with your previous article; it’s not that Hitler was crazy, it’s just that his data set was different from everyone else. But maybe that’s what’s so scary about villains; their data sets are so different from other people’s, you can’t help but wonder if they aren’t just a little bit twisted. Sorry, I’m rambling now. Again, thanks for the great articles (I feel much better about writing a love story now), and keep ‘em coming!

  10. Corsair on 20 January 2009, 18:07 said:

    Sure, most people don’t see themselves as villainous or actively evil, but there are some truly evil men out there who I doubt believed they were truly doing a good thing. Al Capone, for example.

  11. Nate Winchester on 20 January 2009, 18:21 said:

    “their data sets are so different from other people’s, you can’t help but wonder if they aren’t just a little bit twisted”

    Very true, and that can make for effective villains as well. The fundamental key though is that the readers can follow along. They may not agree with the villain, but they can at least figure out his thought process.

    “Sure, most people don’t see themselves as villainous or actively evil, but there are some truly evil men out there who I doubt believed they were truly doing a good thing. Al Capone, for example.”

    I don’t know… Al Capone might have thought of himself as opposing an unjust law (like the underground railroad of old).

  12. CometStorm on 20 January 2009, 19:43 said:

    By blowing up competition and shooting up people who opposed him?

    Maybe Al Capone thought himself a freedom fighter of some of his criminal accounts, but all of them is a bit of a stretch.

    (At least this is what I learned in History class, if I’m wrong please correct me :3)

    Although a tragic past isn’t necessary, isn’t their something to say for being raised on a different palette of ethics then normal? I mean, a person who grew up with the idea that killing anything is evil down their throats, more often then not, without a tragic incident occurring will not end up a murderer. I don’t know, just a thought.

  13. Rand on 20 January 2009, 21:03 said:

    Nate when are you posting your own writing? Just curious. You don’t need to, of course.

  14. Nate Winchester on 1 February 2009, 19:29 said:

    I’m nearing in on the first year of my story while I’m also working on my wiki and background details about the world.

    Also, I found this “support” from partially clips of this article. ;-)
    http://www.partiallyclips.com/index.php?id=1591&c=1#strip