Last month I talked about what makes a great hero. This month I decided to look at the other side of the coin. What makes a really memorable villain?
If the hero’s job is to give you somebody to root for, to invest in, then the villains job is to provide the motivation for that hero. The villain drives the story. Without a villain, our hero has no chance to show his growth, his virtues, his strengths. He has no obstacle to overcome, no wrongs to right, no murder to solve, no world to save, no kidnapped children to rescue, no family to avenge.
Without a villain, there is simply no story.
In addition to the essential function of providing a conflict, the villain also sets the tone and the stakes. How violent and dark the story is, or how light-hearted and funny, all hinge on the villain. If the villain is the hero’s rival in a romantic comedy, it will be a very different story than if the villain is a Gestapo officer hunting the hero. The villain might be the opposing attorney, trying to convict an innocent man. That’s bad, but it’s not Sauron or Voldemort bad.
Are the stakes who gets to be employee of the month or head of the PTA, or the survival the world?
Likewise, the tone of the story is dictated by many things, but by none so much as the villain’s behavior. How far will he or she go to obtain his or her goal? Is the antagonist a professional rival who will fight hard against the hero, but fairly? Or will he cheat? Will she destroy evidence? Blackmail or intimidate officials or witnesses? Torture suspects? Exterminate villages? Destroy a planet? Is he a cold, unyielding tool of the State, enforcing draconian laws, or a moustache-twirling caricature tying innocents to the railroad tracks?
This will also help to decide how far the hero should go to oppose the villain. How hard our protagonist is willing to bend the rules, and what that does to both the reader’s opinion of him, and his own, are heavily influenced by the forces stacked against him, the focus of which should be our villain.
The final job of the villain, and the one that makes us remember the great ones, is the villain’s relationship to the hero. The best villains have a chemistry with the hero. It’s just as important as the relationship between the hero and a love interest or a partner in crime. The best protagonist/antagonist pairs push one another’s buttons, get under one another’s skin. They get invested in one another. This isn’t just another case to be tried or race to be run, or even a battle to be fought. This is personal.
So while it is the function of the hero to carry the reader through the story, it is the villain that gives the hero a story through which to carry us.