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Constructing the Perfect Villain

Updated on March 9, 2013

For people who have read some of my articles, it's probably no secret that I am fascinated by villainous characters and the complexity and diversity they come in and add to the story. I know that I'm not alone in this and I believe it is because villains, unlike heroes, can be so much more complicated to understand and just what is prompting their actions. They usually peak our interest right from their first appearance and by the things they say and do.

As a I writer, I quickly realized that my favorite characters to write are villains because of the aforementioned characteristics stated above. However, I also learned that to construct the "perfect villain" is something that can be quite difficult. What a perfect villains means to me is a character that not only excels at doing evil and horrendous actions, but also has a good level of personality and unpredictability that draws the audience to like him or her. I will go into certain areas which make a great villain in my opinion and use a couple of examples that personify my feelings well.

The first area I like to tackle is the stereotype of a perfect villain that may be misleading; that a villain who is pure evil with no compassion or emotions is perfect. I do not agree with that at all because those types of villains become very boring and used after a while in my opinion. Their lack of personality and emotion aside from evil makes them very predictable in not only their actions, but in their thoughts and words as well.

For example, look at Lord Voldemort. Now don't get me wrong, this character is a great villain and truly embodies the idea of evil, even the devil himself, but notice something about his character; he doesn't actually make that many appearances. He is built up immensely by other characters, but whenever he appears, he says a few words of hatred and performs the killing curse to kill others. Not much reason is given for his evil and it is implied he was quite the evil child with no moments being shown of him being genuinely nice or having emotions.

Now this is great for making a good villain, but this frankly becomes quite stale after a while and this is why I think he doesn't make all that many appearances. I can't speak for J.K. Rowling of course, the amazing and talented author of the books, but I believe she may have segmented the villain's appearances to keep him fresh and engaging. After all, Voldemort does say very similar words in all his appearances and kills others with the same spell over and over again, and doesn't really show much personality aside from hatred and anger. Again, I think he is a great villain, but is not perfect because he lacks true character and personality, which is also why I believe his appearances are limited and built up more.

One character with many aliases and faces; one of the many factors that contribute to his fresh and engaging inclusion as a villain within the series.
One character with many aliases and faces; one of the many factors that contribute to his fresh and engaging inclusion as a villain within the series.

I think perfect villains also have to be great characters with an immense amount of personally, more than enough to make just as many appearances as the heroes, and have moments where they do show other emotions. After all, I think that a villain that demonstrates he or she is actually capable of feeling other emotions, yet does not let them interfere with torturing or taking lives, is even more disturbing than simply a monster who cannot feel much of anything.

One villain that I thought particularly did this well, though many have not heard of, is Count Olaf from Lemony Snicket's (Daniel Handler) A Series of Unfortunate Events book series. In these books, Count Olaf is full of personality and shows many moments of great emotion and even dark humor. He makes an appearance in every book, almost from the very start, and has almost as many appearances as the heroes. He is a sadistic, cruel, mass murdering villain who has no qualms over abusing children and even attempting to murder them, even if an infant is among them.

The character later on in the series even demonstrates a capacity for genuine emotion, love, and the ability to do good. The character actually, spoilers for those who may be reading these books, does a good deed right before his death. The good deed does not redeem all the horrible crimes he committed throughout the series, but adds a true layer of complexity and depth that cannot be shared by villains who are simply evil with no other sides to them.

I think Daniel Handler did a fantastic job at constructing a villain so inhumanly brutal and evil, but also acknowledged that the man was not always this way and was still a human capable of feeling love and emotion. Count Olaf, in my opinion, was a perfect villain with plenty of personality to accumulate likability from the readers and plenty of evil moments to make him a thoroughly disturbing and heinous villain.

So basically, villains certainly need to be evil and embark on horrible and violent exploits at other's expenses, but they also need a good deal of personality to make them have true staying power and allow each appearance they make to be memorable and unpredictable to a certain degree.

Another important factor in constructing perfect villains is to add a lot of mystique and mystery to them; don't outline every little aspect of their character and leave some or even a lot up to interpretation and speculation from the audience. A villain whose origins like let's say the Joker is shrouded in mystery and unknown circumstances makes the villain truly mysterious and thought provoking.

In a way, unknown origins are also indicative to what villains really bring to the world of fantasy; intrigue and mystery. We will never truly understand some villains completely, but to understand just enough to provoke us to speculate on the missing portions of their origin is more that enough to make villains truly compelling and mysterious.

One last aspect I like to discuss is one that can summed up in this statement; make villains hateful as people, but lovable as characters. A perfect villain should be someone the audience would hate in real life, but will continue to love as a character. This can be a tricky balancing act as I do think some limits should be drawn before the villain begins to insult the very lives the audience members live.

To this end, also make villains hateful, but not to a degree where many audience members will eventually find too distasteful to handle for years. For instance, lets say you have a villain who is brutal and kills for sport, but also detests racism, homophobia, and sexism, or shows no signs of being racist, homophobic, and sexist. I think those almost admirable traits will let that villain stay in the media for much longer, but it is also still not nearly enough to outweigh his true malice and evil.

When you truly think about it, some of the best villains who have been around for decades also have these traits; they really don't care if someone is white, black, gay or straight, they just do what they do to whoever they please. I think that this goes a long way in allowing all audience members to enjoy the villains without having their own ideals or lifestyles insulted and torn apart in front of them. The villains are still incredibly evil, but do not strike a chord to the personal lives of the audience, at least not in a manner that would insult an entire lifestyle or race.

Villains are great characters and constructing perfect ones can be a little difficult. Of course, "perfect" is a very subjective term and this is only my personal opinion about what makes perfect villains; evil, personality, emotion, unpredictability, mystique, and likability. Many of my favorite villains and those that have become legendary icons for villains seem to embrace these traits, which made me believe in all this. Of course, everyone will have different opinions on what makes villains great and perfect and they are all right of course, I would never argue against someone else's opinion, but I hope you enjoyed my article nonetheless. Take care everyone.


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    • thejokethatkills profile image

      thejokethatkills 5 years ago

      Especially when the things they say make so much sense. Heath Ledger's Joker said many things that were actually hard to argue against really. He is saying thoughts we all have from time to time.

    • Deep Metaphysical profile image

      Deep Biswas 5 years ago from India

      I like the bad guys who outperform the good guys with their cool dialogues and ultra badness. One such example I can think of is probably Heath Ledger's 'Joker' in 'The Dark Knight'.

    • thejokethatkills profile image

      thejokethatkills 5 years ago

      Thanks a lot and I agree. Seeing their justifications really adds a layer of realism to them, which is also important to a certain degree to making them powerful in the media. Thanks for the comment.

    • mejohnson profile image

      mejohnson 5 years ago

      Good hub. I like villains who have great ego fueled personalities and twisted ideals that justify their actions. I think that's what makes them believable.