What makes a good villain?

I’ve been thinking; A lot of the best stories, the ones that are really remembered, aren’t just well told or simply have great characters, they have a really good villain at the centre of the story- someone who sticks in your head and has the ability to send shivers down your spine long after the story is over- Someone who strikes fear into the hearts of people everywhere. you know the ones I mean, the likes of The Joker, The Child-catcher, Davros, Miss Trunchbull, Moriarty… I could go on and you probably have your own ideas about the best… But what separates the most memorable and terrifying villains from those that are just damp squibs? Here’s my thoughts:

-Must be Evil… Not just bad… EVIL!

A fundamental requirement… And quite an obvious one really. A good villain is just not nice. There’s a reason the likes of Voldemort are never seen surrounded by fluffy kittens and baking brownies… It just isn’t bad. They won’t ever apologize, that’s how bad they are. The only way that sort of thing works is when you encounter the ‘Sarah Palin/Kathy Bates’ strain of villain, but even then they’re bad to the bone and they won’t hesitate to hurt the hero when it comes down to it. The thing is a good villain just isn’t good. They aren’t nice and they won’t give you a hug- They’ll kill you, they’ll hurt you and they’ll wear their badness like a trophy, parading it around for all to see. If it’s a Disney Villain you might also get a song about how bad they are, Cruella De Ville and the guy from the Princess and the Frog are the two that immediately spring to mind. There is no redemption for a good villain… You can guarantee they’ll be bad to the end, usually going out whilst laughing like a lunatic and screaming that they can’t be beaten. Although then again you do have a few villains who earn their redemption such as Darth Vader… But then again you could use that evidence to argue the true villain of the Star Wars universe is actually Palpatine, which does make a bit of sense when you think about it.

-Everything they do is just nasty.

A good villain has long descended from humanity, as i mentioned above they’re bad to the bone… But that means they do some really nasty things like disembowel babies and chop the heads of puppies. Take Voldemort- At the beggining of Harry Potter he fires a killing curse at a one year old baby just because it’s prophesised that he’ll one day stop him. And killing a baby is probably up there with chopping the heads off puppies. Then you have the ones who just stab and maim and just plain kill people when they don’t get their way/ they outlive their usefulness- the likes of The Sheriff from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and the Devil from Time Bandits… Usually they’ll do it with glee as well. For instance, Scar as he kills Mufasa in the Lion King. And if you’re one of the good guys you can guarantee they’ll find an unusual way to torture you before death… Strapping you to a table and cutting you up with a laser whilst gloating that they expect you to die for instance. A good villain will go out of his way to make an opponents life and death as uncomfortable and as painful as possible for everyone.

-Their name is inherently sinister

A good villain will always have a name that just oozes evil. You’ll never see a good villain with a name like Barry Smith because that just isn’t evil. If anything it’s too mundane to be the name of a good villain. Certainly villains can have ordinary names but then it’s got to be something that can still sound evil. For instance Barry Smith doesn’t sound evil but a name such as Jack Cutter would be a little better. A good example would be Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor. It’s a reasonably normal name but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like the name of a man who adores children. You should be able to say a villains name as a curse and Lex Luthor is definitely one of those names you can curse. Then you have the villains who have more unusual names, the ones that just ooze unbridled evil- I’m talking ‘Darth Vader (Ironically, Vader, means ‘Father’ in Afrikaans…), The Child Catcher, Moriarty. etc. They are all names that stick to the tongue like a foul glue and you remember them because they sound so evil.

-Their Name is also memorable

Again, we can point to Barry Smith here. Barry Smith is not a memorable name. Look at all the names above, not only are they sinister but they stick in your head. You remember Lex Luthor and Darth Vader and all those others because not only are the villains themselves memorable but their name also. You’re going to remember those names as much as you remember the villain, perhaps even more so. There’s a whole host of memorable villain names floating around… From Lord Voldemort to Thaddius Vent (That last one might sound familiar but you may have to look it up 😉 )

They are barking mad/ a lunatic

Comes with the territory really. As a general rule villains are mad, psychopathic and not quite right in the head. You don’t plan world domination or destroy an alien civilization whilst sane. From what i can gather there are no memorable villains who are sane. The only one i can think of who might be sane is O’Brien from 1984 but I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be the villain or just a henchman and Society/Big Brother is the real villain. But the best villains are mad. Some might not seem like it at first but they are mad. There are some who seem normal at first and then as the story develops  the madness becomes clear, EG: Norman Bates and his distant cousin Kathy. Then you have the ones with more subtle madness… The Trunchbull from Matilda for example. You just have to look at her and the way she treats children (sticking them in an Iron Maiden etc) to see that she isn’t quite right in the head. The thing is, no sane person would do half the things the most memorable villains do. No sane person would ever kill their brother for instance… Even though most of us would probably like to at times.

They are self righteous

A good villain has to believe whole heartedly in one thing and one thing only… themselves.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that they love themselves. Self righteous would be an apt term to describe most good villains. They’re vain, self centred and always want to be the centre of attention. In their own mind the world pivots around them and they deserve to rule the world. Not all memorable villains are self righteous but it helps.

They get all the best lines

‘Do you expect me to talk?’

‘No Mr Bond… I EXPECT YOU TO DIE!’

Those lines are perhaps some of the most famous in movie history. I alluded to it earlier in the article and it’s fair to say that scene is a great example of hero/villain interplay. The line delivered by Goldfinger is the icing on the cake and the thing is, no matter what you think of the film, it’s definitely the best line in it. What I’m trying to get at is that whenever these lines turn up it’s always the villain who get’s them. Case in point being the above.

-A Good Villain never gives in… Not even when they’re beaten.

A good villain will always come back for seconds, they’ll do anything and everything they can to stop the hero even after their plans have crumbled to dust. Take for instance Cruella De Ville. Even after all the Dalmations had escaped and humiliated her she still went after them in order to complete her plans for a puppy skin coat. They can have tall their limbs chopped off and they’ll carry on fighting, even if means biting the legs of the good guys. They will do anything to complete their plans, even if that means having a backup that involves blowing everything up in the process. They aren’t just going to shrug it off and go home if you get my drift. A real life example would be Rasputin who as we all know just wouldn’t die even after he was poisoned, shot, beaten and then rolled up in a carpet and thrown off a bridge… And even if they die some villains will try and find a way back to life in order to have their revenge. I’m thinking mainly of the Master in Dr Who who by my reckoning has ‘died’ five times and come back from that four… He’s never given up his plans for universal conquest even though he’s been well and truly hammered on many occassions. The same with Davros… He never gives in either.

Their end is spectacular and usually way over the top.

A good villain never dies in bed surrounded by his henchmen. It just doesn’t happen. Most of the time they go out screaming against the world in a spectacular over the top fashion. Even if they don’t die their ending can still be quite spectacular… Even if it’s a mega police chase followed by a stand off they don’t go out very easily. Take for instance Shredder in the early 90’s version of TMNT, he ends up trapped in Dimension X for all eternity and is forced to suffer the ignominy of a less memorable replacement in Lord Dregg. Then you have Magneto in X3 (possibly!) he ends up being just another harmless old man, which I’d guess was very humiliating for him. Usually however they die and for the best villains that death is as memorable as they are. Take Moriarty. His death at the hands of Sherlock, tumbling over Reichenbach falls, is just as iconic as he is. Goldfinger getting blown out of an aeroplane is a nice memorable moment as well. The thing is when you think of a memorable villain you can always remember how they went out and it’s usually an ending of the kicking and screaming variety.

I know some of these seem rather obvious when you think about it but if you look at far weaker/less memorable villains out there (and there are many) you can see that they either lack most of these qualities or they just don’t implement them well enough. There’s a reason why all the best villains are so memorable and when looking at them you can see they all fit snugly into the above categories.

And what of my own villains? I think they fit quite well into these categories. Take Harris. You know from the beginning that he’s a mad, nasty, self righteous bastard. Already in the first volume of Dark Legend we’ve seen him drown one of his henchmen for failure as well as order the brutal deaths of Will, Dan and Greg when he had them at his mercy. He’s attacked people whilst dressed in a wedding dress and he’s attempted to murder every child in Worton by giving them a boxed up mutant as a christmas present. And I’ll tell you this for free: Harris is never going to give in. To take volume 1, again, he’s already been smacked about the head with a metal pole, gone on the run from the police and fallen down a chimney. He’s even been bested by Randy, RANDY, and he still hasn’t given in. In volume 2 he’s madder than ever and even at the end of that he’s showing no signs of giving in…  After Harris we have the disgusting letch ‘Francis Bowen” from The Rebels. He’s not necessarily mad in the same sense as Harris but he could probably be classed as criminally insane considering how vile and disgusting he is. He’s evil, self righteous and gruesomely repulsive like any good villain should be. I wrote the thing and he sends shivers up my spine… I hate to thing what he’ll do to everybody else! He also gets the best line in the entire book in my honest opinion. I don’t want to spoil the story but I am very sorry… You’ll never look at a spatula or Dr Dolittle in quite the same way again. And although only one of these villains goes out howling like a mad banshee but still, they both have rather dramatic endings… I’ve said too much already and I don’t want to spoil the surprises.

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