I’ve been thinking this week about villains and about what Clive Barker—author behind the Hellraiser stories—once said, that stories are only as good as their villains. As I think back on some of the villains I remember most, I think Clive might have been on to something. The villains who really stick out in my mind include some real classics: The Joker (Batman), Brady Hartsfield (Mr. Mercedes), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Annie Wilkes (Misery), Norman Bates (Psycho), Voldemort (Harry Potter), Scar (The Lion King), Saruman (Lord of the Rings), Khan (Star Trek), and President Snow (The Hunger Games).
The most fascinating characters for me are the ones who demonstrate genuine motivation for the things they do. Think for a moment about your own life. Don’t you truly believe that the personal issues you have to deal with are the most important problems in your world? And you’re absolutely right for thinking that way because, for you, they are. Now take a step back, and understand that everybody feels that way, that their problems are the most important issues going on in the world.
Now carry that same idea over to your story world and the characters inside it. Whether you’re dealing with the hero or the villain or the sidekick or the love interest or the comedy relief or just a temporary walk-on, every character should believe that his issues are the most important ones, and that he’s the true hero of the story. This is especially true for your villain, who believes with all his heart that his needs are the most important needs in the story, and that everything he does to satisfy those needs is the absolute right thing to do. In fact, in the villain’s mind, it’s the hero who is the evil one, the one who must be stopped, because the hero is standing in the way of the villain reaching his goal. And when it comes to reaching our goals or meeting our needs, doesn’t it just infuriate us when someone purposely stands in our way? Doesn’t it always feel like the old geezer in the car ahead of you is driving that slow on purpose, just to piss you off? How dare he! Doesn’t he understand people have places to go and more important things to do with their lives?
To further clarify this idea, let’s look at an example. I’m a total Star Wars geek, have been ever since that Saturday morning in 1977 when I first saw The Millenium Falcon flying across my television screen. So let’s use Darth Vader. Vader didn’t start out as the bad guy. He didn’t wake up one morning and put on his helmet and say to himself, “Let’s go hack down a bunch of little kids today.” In those early days, he was just innocent little pod racing Anakin Skywalker, remember? Then he grew up and fell in love with Padme. And what could be more natural or noble than love? So then Anakin and Padme get married, and then they get pregnant. The only problem is that personal attachments are forbidden under the Jedi code. The Jedi are expected to sacrifice the one to serve the needs of the many. So Anakin has to keep his relationship with Padme a secret, lest the Jedi Council find out and give him the boot.
One night Anakin has a dream, and in this dream he sees Padme die while giving birth to their baby. He believes it’s a vision of the future, and so he goes to speak with Yoda about it. Yoda tells Anakin that death is a natural part of life, and it’s not the Jedi way to disrupt the natural order of the universe. But Anakin loves Padme! He doesn’t want to lose her! If he listens to Yoda, his wife will die, and that’s just not an option. This isn’t the advice he was hoping for, so he goes off to find another way. He speaks with Chancellor Palpatine, who tells Anakin that it is possible to save Padme’s life, but only through the powers of the Dark Side.
Anakin is motivated by good intentions: he loves his wife and wants to save her from dying. It’s a noble cause, one worth fighting for. And he does. Driven by his fear of losing his wife, Anakin does whatever it takes to try and save her. Unfortunately, his actions are contrary to the ways of the Jedi because now he’s sacrificing the needs of the many to accommodate the needs of the one. (Apologies to all you Star Trek fans, but a universe axom is a universal axom!) Why does he do this? Because in Anakin’s mind, his own personal needs are the greatest needs in the whole galaxy. Instead of acting selflessly like a Jedi, he acts selfishly, then rationalizes his behavior because it’s serving his greatest needs. He tried doing the right thing in the beginning—he went to the Jedi first—but they refused to help him. So now he feels he has no other choice. Any other course of action will lead to Padme’s death, and that’s just not going to happen.
We may not agree with everything Anakin does as a result, but we can at least understand why he does it. Maybe we even pity him a little. In my opinion, that’s what makes Darth Vader such an excellent villain, because we can empathize with him. Despite the other questionably goofy characters Lucas created in the prequels, he nailed Vader’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force and created one of the most memorable and convincing villains of all time.
You may be saying to yourself, “But if everyone thinks he’s doing the right thing, how is the hero any better than the villain?” A fair enough question, and here’s the answer: given any set of circumstances and options, the hero will always choose to do what’s right, while the villain will always chooses to do what’s necessary. Heroes understand they always have a choice, and they also understand that every choice has a consequence. They carefully weigh their options and think about the consequences of their actions before deciding what to do next. Villains, on the other hand, are victims who feel like they no longer have a choice. They tried doing things the “sociably acceptable” way before, and it just never worked out for them. The only option they have now is doing whatever it takes to reach their goals, regardless of the consequences that follow.
Your villain’s history and background is a vital component in determining how he will act and why. As you develop your characters, carefully consider what is driving their motivations and goals. Remember that every character feels like he’s doing the right thing based on his own needs and circumstances; every character is the hero of his own story. Keeping this in mind will help you create much stronger and more memorable characters—especially villains.