Villains are fun, or they should be. Even if they make us physically ill there is entertainment from loathing their very existence. So why is it so many villains end up cackling mustache twirlers? The answer is the same as why so many protagonists end up reading the same as others, writing a role and not a person.
As I was typing this up I almost wrote that the mistake was making characters evil for the hell of it, but I realized that has never been a problem. A well written villain can just enjoy being wicked or flat out evil just like a protagonist can enjoy being good for compassion’s sake. Some of my favorite villains have been those who are just quite simply evil. In my opinion one way to make these characters work is by giving them the illusion of having other motives and complexities. Another way is by making the villains motives unknown until the protagonist gets to ask. I don’t remember what show this was, but years ago I remember this exchange between a protagonist who’d just been captured and the villain of the show. The hero basically asked why, and ,without a single laugh or any other stereotypical sign of insanity or wickedness, the villain just said “Because its fun for me.” That moment always stuck with me.
The reason that stuck with me is because so often villains are just evil to fill the role of being evil without ever convincing you that they are the villain for a reason. Often there are mitigating forces writers mistake for backstory such as insanity, which is borderline offensive in most cases, or not being loved. But those traits and a thousand others don’t automatically make a villain complex. Those traits like any plot element become cliches when you fail to understand how to use and portray them well.
Why do people love Loki from the Marvel films?
Putting aside Tom Hiddleston’s acting(And face) Thor begins by showing Loki as an outsider not because of who he is, but because he is a methodical intellectual more than a traditional fighter. He is constantly compared to his brother who is more traditionally handsome, more of a warrior, and the first born. Thor is arrogant, but light in all places where Loki is dark. Thor’s arrogance came from entitlement, while Loki’s arrogance came from his actually being smarter. Loki’s most complex relationship comes from a father, Odin, who is moderately detached, set in his ways, and quicker with punishment than with a kind word. The great irony of their interactions is Odin, in trying to bring out the best in his sons, often brings out the worst…and the funny part is Loki’s worst parts are in many ways the parts that make him most like Odin. Does he hate Thor? Does he hate Odin? Yes…and no. He is a man who would gladly kill them both…and we constantly get glimpses that despite that he still loves them…and hates that. He is in conflict with his actions, wants, and feelings which are shown to be somewhat justified. All of these things make Loki a complex character and a protagonist in his own head.
When you watch him these things aren’t just thrown out to the audience. The complexities of his character play out in how the characters move, how they respond to traumatic events, and what brings them together just as much as what pulls them apart. Loki doesn’t spend all his screen time being the caricature his comic book persona really is(trust me on that). Loki isn’t just a villain, but a whole present person in a world where he chooses to antagonize the common good. Those traits are elevated because Loki doesn’t just act like a boring villain whose one purpose in life is to be in Thor’s way. He has his own goals…and Thor is just the one in the way.
Our villains can be simple, but that doesn’t stop them or their motivations from being complex. Another example? Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. He is a complete bastard who gets away with everything because he is a “man’s man” with good looks and supposedly little fear. Why does he fascinate people beyond his inflated sense of ego? Gaston thinks he is doing everything right. Everyone thinks he is. Belle is the problem, not him. In his eyes she should be fawning over him because that’s how it should be. His entire view of the world isn’t just based on him, but on a value system of how everyone should and should not be. In his mind every passive aggressive “compliment” at Belle is legitimate help, and he is doing her a favor by even speaking to her at all. Why be smart, he wonders, when you are a woman…and a beautiful woman.
I love the picture below because it captures everything about him and how he sees himself in an image. You understand him the moment he comes on screen because the moment he strikes that pose you learn everything. He is arrogant, self-absorbed, and superficial. Oh and a jackass. But the movie takes the time to situate him and those traits in his world. It’s not just him, but the whole village who is superficial because they all hold the same values. He is just the embodiment of every wrongly held value of that village. He is still a person with insecurities that make him lose all of his senses. Insecurities he probably never knew he had. He isn’t like the wicked step-mother from Cinderella who just is evil. Side note: the film Ever After does an amazing job of conveying why she is so cruel. Gaston is a product of toxic masculinity, of hubris left unfiltered, and of a world where pretty things become trophies even if they aren’t things at all.
Some of you may be wondering what is the solid difference between a villain having traits of substance and not. I said earlier I hate when insanity is used to justify a character’s evil actions. I am an advocate for mental health, but I will tell you that I still disagree with people who say mental illness should never be a part of a character who is evil. The problem with mental illness is that it is just glued on. All traits tend to be exaggerated in fiction, but mental illness is exaggerated to the point of mockery without any nuance. The villains run around talking to themselves doing crazy looking things because crazy. That’s just fucking lazy. It’s poor writing. It’s a cliche. And it sure as hell ain’t your average mental illness. There is a way to craft a character with mental illness as an aggravating factor to their actions. The trait has to be there not as an excuse, but as part of the character. No mentally ill person is defined by just being mentally ill. The problem too is plenty of mentally ill people are perfectly regular members of society, but we rarely see that portrayed. Instead we get a lot of mustache twirling justified because…evil.
When you are creating your villains don’t ever say “Ok here is the villain” because you should be creating a person with goals, dreams, and insecurities. Unless you intend it to be so don’t make your characters just be empty roles with traits glued on. Make those traits have real weight. Portray them as being individuals who are no less fully realized than your main character. It may take some time, but your story will be all the better for it. My dearest hope is people will take my advice, and I will never have to see a shitty villain again. That won’t be the case, but a girl can dream.