Words: 1856 Approximate Reading Time: 13-17 minutes
Many of the prominent stories we encounter in the world or which have been handed down to us involve a struggle between a hero and a villain. The hero is a representative of the good values that we are supposed to uphold, and the villain a symbol of a bad values we are meant to reject.
Of course, villains can also be mere antagonists: characters that oppose the hero for reasons that may not be “evil,” but which nevertheless we must disagree with. In a technical sense, villainy is supposed to be aligned with evil, compared to the broader term “antagonist” which exists opposite the protagonist, but the technical terms are not of much relevance to us. Whenever we see or hear the term “villain,” we think of “the bad guy,” and so the precise meanings are going to be lost in the jumble.
However, I bring this all up because there is often a pull to sympathize with the villain. Sometimes a villain reflects a fundamentally human drive that we can recognize in ourselves or others that makes them feel real. Sometimes a villain is just fun or funny, and we find their behavior fascinating in one way or another. And sometimes a villain just serves as a representative of rebellion that appeals to us as people who want to forge our own paths.
So I want to explore the idea of villainy by way of the question “what makes a good villain?”
To which the answer is going to be “it depends.”
But by stepping back and looking at a few basic principles, we might be able to pull forth some useful ways of analyzing and constructing compelling villains.
A Compelling Villain?
To step back for a moment, what do I mean by “compelling”?
Let’s use this term simply as an opposite for “boring.” A boring or dull villain is one that feels not merely predictable, but almost overused. Their design, dialogue, motivations, actions, are all things we’ve seen so many times before.
An excellent example is the use of a culture or nation as a villain. These antagonists exist within various military shooters, and their primary role is the same: to make the enemies that the player is killing relatively faceless Others. If the opposition has some kind of Leader that plays only a minor role within the narrative and all we interact with are the rank and file soldiers, then we have a rather dull villain on our hands.
By comparison, imagine that we place the focus of the story on a particular figure. Someone that has clear motivations and an imposing presence. That kind of character is someone that we want to pay attention to, if for no other reason than the story is making us pay attention to them. It is the fact that we as the audience feel a pull to care about them in some way that makes them compelling.
Purpose, Tone, Identifiability, and Clarity
So I want to try to use four concepts to help navigate this topic.
First, let’s talk about purpose. When I say purpose, I mean “what is the objective of the story that we are experiencing?” Is the story’s goal to present a nuanced picture of how we perceive good and evil, or is the story’s goal to celebrate the triumph of good over evil? Both stories will involve a similar conflict, but will portray their villains in radically different ways.
For example, if the goal is a nuanced presentation, you want your villain to feel realistic. They should have goals and motivations that the audience can connect to and understand. This might result in what we call a “sympathetic villain,” though does not need to. Even things like the lust for power and wealth can be realistic as long as the actions that correspond to that desire don’t cross over into the comical. A villain exploiting people for wealth feels real. A villain nuking a city for wealth is far more awful…but feels dumb. The former is – or at least can be – compelling. The latter is so over-the-top that it reverts back around to being dull.
Second, let’s examine tone. Some stories are serious, some are lighthearted. Those different tones set the stage for how characters should behave, and you need your villains to behave accordingly. When there is a serious disconnect, a villain becomes so unbelievable that they lose any notion of being compelling.
Let me use the following juxtaposition as an example. The villains of Far Cry 3 and 4 – Vas and Pagan Min – both behave in rather lighthearted ways. They both will sometimes joke around with the main character, behave as though there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing, and overall seem as though they’re enjoying themselves. Since these two games are generally pretty serious in their tone, we might think this is a disconnect. But, since we also see these characters engaging in cruel actions, their cruelty gets juxtaposed with that lightheartedness – their cruelty seems worse because it’s being performed by this character. And so the disconnect goes away.
By comparison, imagine instead we had a villain in the same games that was not only lighthearted, but inept. Take away the cruel actions, and instead we find Vas and Pagan Min bumbling around, struggling to keep their soldiers in order, and so on. If the example means anything to you, imagine replacing them with Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. In this example, the villain’s comedic tone does feel like too much of a shift from the rest of the story. The villain just doesn’t fit, and so becomes dull as a consequence.
Third, let’s talk about identifiability. To be identifiable as a villain means that it is clear who the “bad guy” is. There is no ambiguity. Such identifiability is not actually a prerequisite for all narratives, and actually it’s best to think of it as something important for “simpler” narratives. If you’re doing a nuanced presentation of good vs. evil, a clearly identifiable villain may work against you. But if you’re story is more a celebration of the good, then identifiability is important.
Think of the Star Wars movies, as an example. These movies have clearly identifiable villains – the Empire, and the figureheads represented by characters like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. These villain characters aren’t actually that complex when you dig down into their motivations and behaviors. But what makes them compelling is that they stick out so clearly in our minds – they strike an imposing presence, and we very clearly know what they’re doing and why. They are ironically interesting not because they are deep characters that invite a lot of digging and analysis, but because all of the blanks in our mind are automatically filled in.
A related aspect of identifiability is a clear indication of who the villain is. To go back to the Far Cry examples, one of the things that help to make those villains so compelling is how much the player is reminded of them. The villains constantly interact with the player character, so they always feel there. By comparison, there are a handful of games where a villain is introduced late in the game and is only interacted with briefly. Plenty of examples exist, but I would like to point to Omikron: The Nomad Soul, where the big villain of the game is one that primarily exists in dialogue, and that introduction itself occurs a good ways into the game. By the time you actually fight that final boss, the fight doesn’t really mean anything to you as the player. So being able to identify the villain visually and connect them to particular actions is important for making them seem worth remembering.
Lastly, there’s clarity. Clarity is an aspect tied to the nature of the villain’s motivations and behavior. In order to sympathize with or find interest in a villain’s actions, we need to be able to understand those actions. Why are they doing something? And moreover, the connection between the motivation and action needs to make sense.
As an example of this going wrong, my mind often goes to Heavy Rain. I’ll note at the moment that this will involve some spoilers, so I suggest stopping if you’d like to experience the story for yourself.
Heavy Rain’s villain is the Origami Killer: someone who is kidnapping kids and drowning them. We find out that the killer is an ex-cop who lived through a significant trauma: his witnessed his brother die by drowning in a large pipe because his father refused to help. Decades later, after witnessing a man attempt to save his own son, the villain decides that he wants to test other fathers to see if they really care for their children. The tests are all incredibly dangerous, and many of the fathers die trying to help…which is strange because the actual traumatic event is about the father not caring enough to do something as simple as go outside.
It is this disconnect between motivation and action that makes the villain hard to properly understand. We can, of course, construct a narrative around all of this to make sense of it…but the fact we have to do so is what creates a problem. A compelling villain is one where that narrative exists for us. If there is something deeper to a character’s motivation, there is at least enough on the surface for us to make sense of, such that we want to do the necessary digging. When what is on the surface doesn’t make much sense, why should we want to actively work to make sense of it?
I have laid out some basic ideas for thinking about what makes a villain compelling. I don’t really offer these as tips for creators, because I think most creators have likely gone through formal and informal training that should be sufficient to know the differences. But my hope is that this might prove useful as a starting point for how we as consumers of stories perceive and understand and categorize villains in the stories we consume.
I have spent all of this effort talking about compelling villains, and it may seem to be the case that all good media must have a compelling villain.
This conclusion is wrong.
I will offer one final example. Spec Ops: The Line. This game involves the kind of boring villain I had described initially: faceless soldiers. While the character of John Konrad is presented as an antagonist, this is a bit…less clear. Konrad does not actually directly oppose the player character, and the most antagonistic thing he does is taunt the main character. The real “primary” antagonist of the game is the soldiers themselves. And yet, that lack of clarity and dull villain is really the point of the game’s theming.
So it’s entirely possible for a game to have no strong villain and still be good or even excellent. But it is still useful for us to analyze compelling and boring villains within games and stories to get a better sense of when things go right and wrong.