Quick, what image popped into your mind when you read this title? Voldemort? The White Witch? Cercei Lannister?
I’m not going to lie—the image that popped into my head was Snidely Whiplash from the Dudley Do-Right cartoon. Yes, I was a child in the sixties. However, that instant image was soon followed by more serious villains. Although, sometimes a villain can be a faceless entity such as, the Visigoths or the Klingons; generally I think we can all accept that most works of fiction must contain at least one villain. So what are the characteristics of a truly great villain?
Some villains are purely evil. The White Witch, in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is ruthless, cruel and sadistic–evil personified. Perhaps Voldemort falls into this category too. Even though he is fully human, there is little humanity left in him by the end. On occasion, a faceless entity can land in this camp. Authors of Highland romance frequently paint the English in this light, although that can begin to stretch credibility. I think, outside of fantasy, it is difficult to create this kind of villain believably.
Occasionally one meets the damaged villain, one who does horrible things or commits absolute atrocities. Characters such as Hannibal Lecter or pretty much any “unidentified subject” on Criminal Minds fit this category. Generally these villains are seriously mentally ill and as such raise conflicting emotions of disgust and pity. I generally don’t enjoy encountering these villains in romance, although they exist.
In genres where pure evil or serious mental illness is hard to swallow, a more convincing villain is, frankly, a normal person. Someone who is so motivated by his or her own self-interest that greed, pride, envy or one of the other deadly sins guide their actions. Cercei Lannister, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Darth Vader and even Gru in Despicable Me can be lumped into this category. Sometimes this kind of villain can even garner the reader’s sympathy especially if they aren’t wholly bad. After all, cute little Anakin Skywalker is inside Darth Vader and Gru just wants to make his mother proud. I rather like it when a collective enemy winds up here as well. The fact is, faceless entities are actually comprised of people and sometimes good can be found in the vilest places.
So how does one handle a perfect villain? In my opinion, pure evil must be destroyed as happens to both the White Queen and Voldemort. Damaged villains too must be contained in some way, if not destroyed outright. However, there are many more options for the ordinary villain. Often they have simply gone too far and must be destroyed for me to gain closure. Sometimes they remain as lingering threats, only to wreak havoc again later. Occasionally, under the right circumstances they can be redeemed, like Darth Vader and Gru.
Who is your perfect villain and were you satisfied with what ultimately happened to that character?