Back when the Roman Empire was a somewhat smaller world-consuming juggernaut than was it before the zenith of its rise, its main rival was nation called Carthage. History teachers have been known speak of a Carthaginian named Hannibal who herded elephants over the Alps in a valiant effort to destroy as much of the Roman army as possible. These teachers tend to focus more on Hannibal’s elephants than the fact that, well, he lost! The Romans just sidestepped the large, lumbering elephants and shot the Carthaginians with missiles.
So if history is written by the winners, why did Rome immortalize Hannibal as a brilliant strategist rather than the resource-wasting, not-winner he was?
Smarter people than I am speculate the amended story made the history books because Rome understood the power of a well-told war story. There is little glory for the hero who defeats a lame-ass villain with one punch.
So in order to make Rome look fierce in the eyes of posterity, they had to make Carthage look fierce as well.
While revisionist history is a sad, sad thing for lots of reasons, the storytelling principle employed by the Romans to make themselves look good is pretty solid. In order to get heroic deeds from our heroes, we need to give them truly villainous villains.
To that end, here are 5 things to bear in mind when conjuring your main character’s arch nemesis on the typewritten page:
1. Motivation – This is where authors get to humanize their villains via tragic backstory, good intentions gone twisted, or… no, I guess those are the 2 biggies. In farce, the villain need be nothing more than an obstacle for the hero to overcome. Comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and The Great Muppet Caper (I would totally go to see that double feature) go so far as to give the villain a chance to explain the motivation behind his dastardly deeds, and he proudly excuses them all in saying “I’m a villain!” While that might be how the hero sees it, a villain’s villainy is generally just a tool by which he aims to achieve a goal. For instance, Captain Hook not just a mean old man who kills small boys for fun. He seeks vengeance because a while back, a sadistic delinquent cut off his hand and fed it to a crocodile. Knowing why an antagonist is what he is doesn’t make him less antagonizing, but it makes his actions seem way more believable than a villain whose evil only exists to serve the plot.
2. Charm – For my money, the best villains do not bellow and do not lose control. They are smooth-talking con men or women with style, finesse, and all the best lines. Then, around 2/3 of the way through the adventure, they do something truly cruel to a character who is precious to you, and you hate them so very much. The betrayal feels far deeper because they made you love them in the first half of the story.
3. Good points – You don’t have give your villain a cornucopia of positive attributes, but a few here and there will make him seem way more real to your readers. Does the his evil have boundaries? Is he volunteer firefighter or an advocate against child prostitution when he’s not committing genocide? And how does he see himself? Cartoonishly villain-esque as he now seems to anyone but himself and his mama, Adolf Hitler did not see himself as Lex Luthor on crack. He saw himself as Superman fighting for truth, justice, and the Aryan Way.
4. Intelligence – few things are more disappointing than if the villain is hopelessly out-classed by the hero. The best / worst example I can think of is King Stephan from the Maleficent movie a while back. There was a multitude of things wrong with that movie, but as far as characters were concerned, every one of them could be distilled down into a 2-word, “Adjective Noun” combo:
Stephan = Angry King
Aurora = Happy Princess
Phillip = Naive Prince
Flora / Fauna / Merryweather = Ditsy Nanny
Maleficent was an “Adjective Noun” combo as well, but it was one that left lots of room for expansion. As a writer or an actor, you can do a lot within the bounds of “Scorned Fairy.” Not so much with “Angry King.” To keep your characters from coming down with “Adjective Noun-itis,” it pays to make your villains smart and amazing, or it’s not satisfying when the hero defeats them.
*Pro tip: As much as it pains us cram the complicated characters we love into “Adjective Noun” combos (like “Confused Runaway = Huckleberry Finn” or “Brooding heir = Hamlet”), its actually awesome practice for when the time comes to condense our own characters for elevator pitches, agent inquiries, or book cover summaries.
5. Depth – Is your villain interesting enough that he / she / it / they could have their own book? While you need never explore a world where up is down, good is bad, and your hero switches places with his dreaded adversary Freaky Friday style, it’s nice to have well-developed enough adversaries that you could. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the first half of the book is whiny narration rife with self-pity on the part of the title character. It’s a long, damn time before we get to hear the monster’s perspective on why he’s stalking his creator and killing the folks Frankenstein loves. When the monster explains the hell he’s been through since his creator abandon him, it gets real hard to see Dr. Frankenstein as less monstrous than his tormentor. If we’d seen the plot unfold from the moment the monster awakes as a confused newborn in a 9 foot body, whose father runs screaming at the sight of him, Dr. Frankenstein starts to look suspiciously like the real villain, here.
In summary, a hero is only as good as his or her villain, and the most interesting villains are the ones are the ones who bear traits that make them relatable to us or the hero in some way.
Also, Alps and Elephants don’t get along (someone write that children’s book, please. I will twelve kinds of buy a copy).