This week, one of the foxes asked, “What do you think makes a good villain in a book or story?”
Back when I was young, the definition of villain would have been “the bad guy” in a western or crime drama, or the monster in a horror movie. But now I write and read romance, so I suppose my definition has shifted a bit. Generally speaking, my idea of a villain is anyone who stands in the way of the hero reaching his goal. This person doesn’t necessarily have to be evil – he just needs to have a goal that’s at odds with the hero’s goal (or heroine’s). The villain could even be a nice person (I’m thinking of the grandfather in The Boxcar Children – he is thought to be mean, but he’s not).
So what do I like to see in a villain or antagonist?
I guess I need to understand a little something about what makes him or her act that way. I really have a hard time getting invested in a story if someone is just destroying people and things for no reason at all. Why is that spoiled brat so determined to get the guy? Why is the wealthy real estate mogul trying to buy the entire block and tear down the historic landmark? I know there are villains for whom the answer is “just because” – but I have trouble getting invested in those stories. What makes a true conflict for me is when I have a little bit of empathy for the opposing side. Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada treats Andrea horribly, but we see Miranda’s insecurity when it comes to her relationship with her daughters, her hurt over her divorce, and her position as editor-in-chief of Runway magazine and we understand – but can’t quite forgive – her actions.
I also prefer it if the villain has some smarts. If he bumbles his way through the entire story, then it seems he’s operating more on luck than motivation and drive. An opponent with enough smarts to keep the protagonist on his toes is much more interesting to read about or watch. Back when I watched television, one of my favorite series was M.A.S.H. Several minor characters stood in the way of Hawkeye’s plans, but Charles Emerson Winchester III was my favorite. Though Dr. Winchester was annoyingly pretentious, he was unquestionably intelligent and he often showed he had a heart. On the other hand, Sergeant Rizzo was simply annoying, Major Burns was bothersome, and Colonel Flagg was unbearable.
Of course, the villain has to fail – at least to some degree. But I’ve seen several series in which the antagonist in one book becomes the hero or heroine in another. That means the villain has to have some redeeming qualities or else we won’t be able to accept him/her as the protagonist later on. It also means that the villain has to survive through the major conflict. Unless it’s a ghost story…