When I was a child, I could recognize three distinct character types: “the good guy/gal”, “the bad guy/gal” and “the good-bad guy/gal” (what I would refer to nowadays as an anti-hero). What made a bad guy/gal a bad guy/gal? “They did bad things.”
Nowadays, things are a bit more complicated: you can have antagonists who aren’t villainous, and you can have villains that aren’t 100% evil, and you can even have protagonists who do terrible things and yet you still cheer them on, because maybe they did what they had to do, or they had no choice, or maybe it’s just the matter of choosing the lesser evil.
I’ll be honest with you and say that I don’t think I write good villains. My villains tend to either be 100% “kicks puppies” evil or a “they’re a jerkass but they secretly have a fuzzy side” almost anti-heroish type of character. I just can’t seem to find that balance between “this character does bad things” and “this character is sympathetic”.
I’ll come back to my writing in a bit, for now, here are some more random thoughts on villainy:
Bad people do bad things. It always baffles me when someone complains when an evil character does something that’s, well, evil. This, to me, is the whole point of having an evil character, you expect them to lie, cheat, steal, kill innocent people, burn down entire villages, kick puppies, and not look both ways before crossing the street. Now, what is problematic, IMHO, is when the only representative of a particular group of people is cast as the villain (especially a minority). If the only POC in your book/movie/whatever is the villain, Hel yes, you have an issue, because there’s no easier way to say “Hey everyone! X is evil!” than making your villain have X.
There are exceptions to this rule, of course. In a world that is full of people of type X, a villain of type X won’t raise any eyebrows, because type X, in this case isn’t really a defining attribute of that character. Melisande Shahrizai (from Kushiel’s Legacy) is bisexual and kinky, and in the hands of a writer who isn’t Jacqueline Carey, being bi and kinky would be all she needed to be to be handed her villain card, but in Terre d’Ange, practically everyone is bisexual, and the first trilogy is stuffed to the gills with characters who enjoy kinky sex (Hel, the main character is a masochist). Melisande Shahrizai is not evil because she is kinky and bisexual, it’s her actions (committing treason, for one, and that’s not even touching all the crap she does to our protagonist) that make her the villain. This is what I’d like to focus on in my story: making a villain who isn’t a villain because of who they are, but because of what they do. At this point, all I know about my primary antagonist is that he’s male, and he’s done some pretty bad things, but I haven’t worked out the whole story yet so I can’t tell you much more except that it involves a murder and a whole lot of deception.
Sometimes 100% Villainy is Fun Crossing over to video games for a moment, one of my favourite villains of all time is Luca Blight from Suikoden II. (OMFGs that boss battle!) Luca Blight is pretty much completely unsympathetic, so much so that when you hear about his back story, you won’t care (or st least, I didn’t, his mother on the other hand, I felt sorry for her). These are the villains you love to hate, and it feels oh-so-satisfying when they get knocked down a few pegs (unless this is a more cynical work, in which case they never get their comeuppance, because real life is shit like that).
Sometimes, though, 100% villainy is just cartoonishly silly. A good example of this is Dorothea and Hekatah from The Black Jewels Trilogy. There are a lot of [url=http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CompleteMonster]Complete Monsters[/url] in this series, but Dorothea and Hekatah are special, because they are so 100% evil, you have to wonder how fucking stupid the
gullible lemmings townspeople are that they really didn’t catch on to their uber-villainy until it was too late, but, oh well, there are other, much more insidious villains in those books (like Greer, OMFGs Greer).
I mean, sometimes even cartoon villains do it better. Have you watched any episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? If not, why are you still here? GO AND WATCH A COUPLE EPISODES! No, seriously, at least watch the ones with Discord (like this one) in them, Discord is an amazing example of a villain who poses a serious threat to the protagonists–all within the bounds of a children’s show. Actually, while I’m fangirling various popular cartoons, the Legend of Korra is doing for slightly older kids what MLP: FiM is doing for younger kids. Seriously, they managed to depict a terrorist attack and still keep their Y7 rating.
There are other things I want to say, but it’s late so, yeah, this will do.