What makes a villain?
A good villain is the embodiment of that which makes you feel helpless.
With that in mind, three types of villains emerge:
Inhuman forces of nature
Shadows and hordes
Inhuman forces of nature that run rampant are always scary. A few examples include:
- John Carpenter’s The Thing
- Various plagues, nanites, etc.
These types always make an unstoppable force to battle. It is the conflict which showcases the strengths and weaknesses of the human heroes.
More human is less iconic
A warning, though, the more you humanize a villain, the less iconic they become. Darth Vader is a good example. He was the looming, iconic dark father throughout the original trilogy. When we followed his backstory in the prequels, he became whiny and ineffective.
Consider this: if we were to learn about Sauron’s childhood trauma – that which made him turn to evil – his evil quotient would be greatly reduced. He would not be so menacing as the fiery eye above Mordor.
Subversions of human qualities
Human villains that subvert the nobility of humanity always stand in sharp contrast to the hero. Examples include:
- Hannibal Lecter. He would not have been such a clear villain if the “hero” was a dirty cop.
- The scorned woman. All she wants is love, right? But her desire for love transcends moral boundaries. Compared to her opposite (usually the unaware wife), she embodies the dark side of this emotion.
- The charismatic cult leader. His effectiveness comes from his twisted faith, or at least his outward expressions of said faith.
Only by contrasting the villain and the hero can you highlight the darker, twisted aspects of humanity and see them clearly. When there is not a hero that demonstrates the good virtue to contrast the twisted virtue, the story gets muddy and the villain does not stand as clearly.
Takers of humanity
Picture a villain that takes away humanity from the hero or heroes. Got one? Good. This is actually an easy villain to spot.
This type of villain can take different faces. Examples include:
- The Silence (from Doctor Who) that remove human memory.
- Little gray aliens that remove conscious control, abduct, and do horrible experiments.
- Horror masterminds that pit the heroes against each other in escalating puzzles that remove their humanity a piece at a time.
- The Borg, which remove free will from those assimilated.
This villain type can also include predators. Those who prey on the weak, helpless, or fearful to inspire fear are always villains.
Darkness needs Light
Villains provide shadows to contrast the light of the heroes. Good storytelling comes from building a villain to inspire helplessness in people and then showing the hero standing against that dark shadow.
Do you have any favorite fictional villains? What made them powerful to you?
This post was inspired by “Who are the scariest science fiction and fantasy villains of all time?” on PJ Media.