Bill is currently watching a Netflix series about a Columbian drug lord, which has led to several conversations about what makes a good villain. Since I’m currently brainstorming ideas for my next novel, this is a very timely discussion.
A good villain is one of the main pillars of fantasy storytelling. In many stories, the villain drives the plot. She puts some nefarious plan into action, which disrupts the hero’s normal life and forces him to take action. The villain usually starts out more powerful than the hero–and may remain so at the end of the story–so the plot is shaped by the actions needed to close that gap. The villain has flaws, and the hero must find a way to exploit them, often by facing and overcoming his own, similar weaknesses. Many times the villain and the hero want the same thing, but for different reasons, and they’re willing to do different things (or ARE they?) to reach that goal. This leads to an exploration of motives and morals, a comparison that explores basic questions about human nature and experience.
For the most part, in the fantasy genre the hero and the villain have reverse story arcs. The hero’s arc has setback dips, but in general it’s a rising trajectory with an eventual triumph. The villain will rack up victories along the way, but he is destined for defeat. The hero learns and grows, which is interesting, but the villain’s rise to power has already occurred. This is one of the reasons why the villain is often more compelling, at least at first. He is usually older, more experienced, with skills and knowledge beyond the hero’s grasp. There’s a complicated implied history. The reader’s desire to gain some insight into all of this keeps the pages turning.
Stories provide entertainment, but on a very deep and fundamental level, we read to learn. We want to experience other points of view and see how certain decisions play out. The notion of a “fatal flaw” is particularly powerful. We want to know what makes things go wrong. A villain starts out holding nearly all of the cards. Logically speaking, he should win. And during the course of the story, he should almost win. The reason why the villain loses is every bit as important as the reason why the hero wins.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be spending a lot of time contemplating villainy. As part of the thought process, I’ll be posting about some my favorite villains and antagonists, and why I find them so compelling.