Party Talk: What Makes A Villain?


BigBad2We’re a week away from the release of The Big Bad II!  It’s available for preorder now, if you don’t want to waste even a second of valuable reading time.   Some of the best fantasy and horror writers in the business bring you 24 thrilling tales of vampires, demons, ghosts, zombies, and the most terrifying monsters of all – humans.  You know you want to read this book!

Once again, I’ve asked some of the writers from The Big Bad II to answer a question for you.  This week, Party Talk wants to know:
What makes a villain a villain? What would it take to transform the villain in your favorite story into the hero?

 Sarah Adams: Being on the wrong side of history? (And isn’t that a loaded phrase.) Broadly, I’d say a villain is the person who’s willing to hurt other people to get what he or she wants, who somehow believes the harm they do to others doesn’t count or is excusable, but the harm others do to them is unforgivable. And that means we’re all the villain some of the time. I don’t mean that in a moral equivalency way, but as a reminder that real people don’t exist as Bad Guys and Good Guys, but as complicated bags of conflicting desires. We have to keep choosing to be the Good Guy, by doing what is good instead of labeling ourselves the Good Guy and then using that label as an excuse. That would be exactly what the protagonist has done in my Big Bad story. He’s sure his intelligence and secret knowledge make him special, a sort of intellectual hero, when really he’s just a boy pulling wings off flies to see them hurt, but on a larger scale. (This is also, by the way, why I’m not a fan of anti-hero heroes who are really just scumbags who happen to be the protagonist, but I am a fan of heroes who have to roll their eyes and sigh a bit before they go do what they know needs doing.)

Jay Requard:  I think the best villains are heroes to themselves. They can find a justification for something, no matter how horrible it is, based on the idea that it is for the “greater good” of something they find to be more important than anything else. You can see this in so many things: Jamie Diamond of JPMorgan Chase truly believes he helped save the economy (even though he continues practices that will one day lead to another crash.) Emperor Palpatine, to use him again, believes that the only way the galaxy can be safe is if there is total order (even though it happens at the cost horrible human rights abuses and the denial of self-determination for people not named Palpatine.)
My favorite villain is Matron Malice Do’Urdon from RA Salvatore’s Drizzt books, who puts her ambition above everything else. I think what would redeem her to me and possibly turn her into a hero is if she suddenly recognized that the culture she relishes in was as cruel as many believed, that her actions were reprehensible, and she worked to make things better in the opposite way. I believe strongly that everyone deserves a chance at redemption and forgiveness, so even she could save herself.

Gail Martin: A villain is villainous because he/she is completely self-centered and place no value on anyone else—very end justifies the means. Even if they are doing what they do for a ‘cause’ rather than to just get money/power for themselves, the villain is indifferent to suffering or death in the service of the cause.
In order to become a hero, the villain would require enough of a degree of empathy to value other people/living beings and to recognize that the end does not justify the means. That also requires a capacity for humility and some degree of self-sacrifice.

Edmund Schubert: What makes a villain a villain is a willingness to cross certain lines. No matter how good or understandable or even noble someone’s intentions may be, there are certain lines that should never be crossed. Murder, torture, taking lollipops from babies—these are all on the no-no list. If you want to be the hero in my story, you have to get creative, work a little harder, and find a way to accomplish your goals without crossing any of the lollipop lines. Like, thinking your daughter was a total babe, for instance.

Nicole Givens Kurtz: A villain is a person who believes her cause to be just and will do whatever it takes to make it happen or to achieve her goal. Moral, ethics, and religious beliefs be damned. Once a character has discarded the crux of their humanity/self, they dissolve into villains. Darth Vader is perhaps the best, most popular example of this.
Another example of this is Marvel’s Ultron, DC’s Brainac, or Watchmen. Good intentions often spring from a real desire to protect, to monitor, or to watch, but once the “good guys” began to embrace those darker emotions (fear, paranoia) and sacrifice their beliefs and ethics, they dissolve into villains. If they do not become outright villains, they create so much anarchy and chaos under the guise of villainy. The heroes believe they are doing what’s right for the greater good, but in reality they are feeding into their own black emotions and thus creating chaos/anarchy/outright villainy.
This is also illustrated again in my favorite novel, A Separate Peace. Gene, the protagonist, actually is a bit of villain because he allows his jealousy of his friend seep within him and at the end, forces him to cause the death of that person he claimed to admire and love the most. Once Gene, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps not, allows his jealousy to corrupt those good and wholesome parts of himself (loyalty, friendship, honor), he ends up hurting Phineas and ultimately causing his death.
In a word, Gene embraced the dark side.
My other favorite story is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What would it take to turn Victor Frankenstein into a hero would be for Victor to have empathy for the creature he creates in the novel? As a protagonist, Victor is consumed by hubris and arrogance. So, for much of the novel, he is presented as a flawed man, with vices and thoughts that run counter to those of the establishment, his family, and his best friend. Nevertheless, he too, like Gene and Anakin Skywalker, choose to see their deeds as noble and as necessary to promote their agendas for the better good.

David B Coe: For me, the best villains are those who are considered “villainous” because they are at odds with the protagonist. Villainy, when characters are drawn in shades of gray rather than in black and white, tends to be subjective, a matter of perspective. That, to me, is when a story is most fun. When the only thing it would take to transform the villain into a hero, is to retell the story from his/her perspective.

Selah Janel:  In a lot of ways, I think if you change the point of view, a lot of villains would come across as heroes in their own minds. They don’t necessarily think they’re doing the wrong thing. Look at Loki in the Thor movies – at any time he thinks he’s completely justified in his actions because of his heritage and because he thinks his birthright is stolen from him. Jareth in Labyrinth is just doing what his role says to do—he’s doing his job, from taking Toby to putting up obstacles for Sarah to come up against. The vampires in Lost Boys are being played by the head vampire in a lot of ways. Because Max wants Lucy and presumably gives the order to bring her sons into the club, as it were, they’re just doing what they do, and end up being killed off because the kids decide to fight back.  Sure, you’re going to have the evil for evil’s sake villains, but usually those are dependent on certain types of genres. The good villains don’t necessarily see themselves as in the wrong, and it’s that conflict that really makes their battles against a hero worth watching. The best villains are ones where you can take a step back and actually start to sympathize or empathize with.

Matthew Saunders: I think the best villains are those who either do the wrong things for the right reasons or the right things for the wrong reasons. I think a hero and a villain can have the same noble goal, but its the motivations and the means to get there that make the difference.

Misty Massey:  I’ve always loved a scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, in which Indiana Jones’ nemesis, René Belloch explains to him, “You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.”

Eden Royce:  A villain is someone who desires to take something that doesn’t belong to him (or her) and acts on it. We’ve all wanted something another person has (ice cream, book collection, whatever) but most of us don’t act on the urge to take that item. Villains do act on those urges and feel they are entitled.

All good villains are multi-faceted. No one is 100% evil. All it would take to change the villain into the hero for me is to act on that one deeply imbedded urge to help someone less fortunate.




1 comment to Party Talk: What Makes A Villain?

  • Razziecat

    “The best villains are ones where you can take a step back and actually start to sympathize or empathize with.”

    Yes, this! There are the type of villains I try to write. They’re so much more interesting when you have a little bit of sympathy for them and they make you think, “If he/she would only…” 😉

    Great post!