Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Villainry 101 by tiakall
Okay, villains, welcome to your class on How To Not Suck. As villains, you have an important place in the story: you represent a conflict, you drive the plot, and of course, you're characters too, so you aren't allowed to fall flat any more than the heroes are. A flat, cliche villain can really sap the sparkle out of a story, so you've got an important job to uphold.
Now, I realize you're busy what with the whole big, socially-unacceptable goals and hero-quashing, so we'll keep this short and sweet, mmkay? Oh, and you parody villains who are obvious mockeries of the bad villain stereotype, you're excused. Here are some traits to keep in mind and some traits to avoid:
Villains don't consider themselves evil. If they really thought that what they were doing was wrong, would they be doing it? (About the only exception is the line of thought of "it's wrong but I have to do it anyway".) Most villains will have some sort of justification for what they're doing and why they're supposed to be doing it, even if those reasons are somewhat twisted, such as "Humanity sucks and needs to be eliminated". But if your non-parody villain is tromping around in his gaudy cape actively referring to himself as an "evil overlord" or some other such thing, he's probably landed himself in the middle of Cliche Land.
Villains need motivation. Let's face it, the heroes have it easy: the villain usually provides a motivation for them. But what motivates a villain? There are obviously the classics of power for the sake of power and so on, but taking over the world just for the sake of taking over the world's been done goodness knows how many times. Defining a clear and possibly unusual motivation can really help steer the direction of your villain and give them a clear personality. For example, what can we do with the goal of taking over the world?
"I'm taking over the world because I can do it better than any of these buffoons. I can stop war and poverty."
"I'm taking over the world because I want to hand it over to my child and fulfill their dream."
"I'm taking over the world because I want everyone to know who I am so my name doesn't vanish."
"I'm taking over the world because it challenges me intellectually and I want to see if the world can stop me."
"I'm taking over the world because I need the resources to complete my REAL goal."
Power, love, and religion are all popular motivations, but they don't have to be the only ones. They can even be good motivations ("I'm taking over the world to SAVE the world") with lousy methods.
Villains aren't stupid. Because if they are, they probably wouldn't have gotten to the point to be any danger to the heroes anyway. Easy openings and obvious mistakes on the villain's part are far too easy to include, and therefore far too common. It also makes things too easy on the hero: if anyone could just waltz up to the fortress and gain entry, why does the hero have to be the one to do it? Yes, it means you have to get a little creative and come up with some unusual oversight that can give your heroes a solution, but readers will appreciate that creativity a whole lot more.
Villains aren't "crazy". Hollywood "crazy" seems to consist of a villain raging rampant destruction just because he can. This sort of goes in line with the 'isn't stupid' because that sort of nonsense will often be shut down by someone long before your heroes come onto the scene. That's not to say tha villains can't actually be crazy: for example, the Joker from Dark Knight is an excellent example of a sociopath. If you really want your villains to have an actual mental illness, it requires a lot of research to pull off effectively. Most of the time, though, "crazy" is going to be more along the lines of "has socially unacceptable world views", for example a blatant disregard for human life. And that sort of "crazy" (and really, most forms of mental illness as well) are going to know better than to run around making fools of themselves with "WHEE! DESTRUCTION!" Chaotic Stupid should not be an option.
Villains aren't always jerks. Not to say that they can't be, but a villain really does not need to go around kicking puppies just to prove how badass they are. They can love puppies, or even just be indifferent to them. Charming or popular villains can be especially effective in screwing around with the heroes and giving you plot opportunities. The heroes can't exactly run up to the guy in public and throttle him if the public loves him. And it's perfectly all right if the readers actually like your villain. Being a jerk tends to be a cheap way of flagging "oh, hey, here's the villain, see how evil he is". Not being a jerk means your heroes are going to have to reason exactly why they've got to stop him.
And finally, villains don't have to be black and white. Your villain does not have to be the epitome of evil with no likeable characteristics and the polar opposite of your brave and beautiful heroes whose only purpose is to stop the villain. I find that the more blurred the line between good and evil is, the more developed it makes both your villain and your heroes. Remember that your villains are people too, and as such they are allowed to have likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, and the audience's sympathy. Likewise, your heroes are allowed to make poor choices and perhaps even do evil things in order to reach their goal. All of this will make a story both more believable and more complex (and therefore more interesting and unique).
Now go forth, and perform your villainry!