What makes a great villain?

What makes a great villain?

By

Published January 16, 2014

By now I’m sure we’ve all see season 3 of Sherlock, or at least those of us in the UK have.  Season 3 introduced Charles Augustus Magnussen a very different kind of villain from Moriarty but in many ways far more sinister and evil.  So what makes a great villain, what qualities do they have that makes the reader love and hate them.

Let’s compare the two big villains from Sherlock.

Charles Augustus Magnussen

Charles Augustus Magnussen

“There’s nothing to be done, I’m not a villain; I have no evil plan, I’m a business man, acquiring assets.

  • A ruthless businessman.
  • Emotionless.
  • Exploits the weakness of others.
  • Master manipulator.
  • Uses pressure to force people act as he wants.
  •  Has mental abilities similar to that of Sherlock Holmes.

Driving factor – Magnussen is driven by a need to control to have power over other people and expand is influence.  He knows how to play the game and ensures he never goes too far.

Archetype – The Antithesis

Magnussen is both the same as Sherlock and the very opposite of him. They are the same in many ways both brilliant, both with incredible minds who know what makes people tick. But where Sherlock is white Magnussen is black.  Sherlock lacks the capacity to express his emotions while Magnussen has abandoned his.  Magnussen exploits the weak and desperate while Sherlock chooses to defend them.

James Moriarty

James Moriarty

You need me, or you’re nothing. Because we’re just alike, you and I. Except you’re boring. You’re on the side of the angels”

  • Unstable but never irrational
  • Uses his brilliant intellect and skills to organize crime around the world.
  • Willing to go to any lengths.
  • Utilize tricky and deceit.
  • Plays an opponent’s strengths against them
  • Wants an equal, an audience, someone to recognize his brilliance.

Driving Factor – Moriarty is driven by a desire to see how far he go and get away with it.  He mocks the ordinary people who he finds dull and uninteresting.

Archetype – The Trickster

Moriarty is a twisted caricature of Sherlock.  His features are exaggerated and his goals reversed but at their core Moriarty and Sherlock are the same.  Except Moriarty chose crime and Sherlock chose the law. They could swap places and be as effective at each other’s lives as the other was. They could be friends as easily as they could be enemies.

Both of these villains are similar to two of the most famous comic book villains Lex Luther and the Joker.

Lex Luther

Lex Luthor

  • Ruthless Businessman
  • Cares nothing for other people
  • One of the smartest people alive
  • Always puts himself first
  • Use technology, and influence to fuel his every growing desire for power.
  •  Hates to lose and never forgives

Archetype – The Antithesis

Lex Luther is the opposite of Superman in every way.  Superman has strength and invulnerability while Lex only has the limitless power of his own intellect.  Superman is repressed and holds himself back while Lex never lets anything get in his way and exploits anything and anyone it takes to achieve his ends.

The Joker

The Joker

  • Completely and utterly insane.  Or is he?
  • Driven by nothing more than his own malicious delight.
  • Takes pleasure in causing pain and suffering to others.
  • Wants to spread chaos and mayhem simply because he can.
  • Brilliant and sadistic.
  • Cares more about the game than winning.

Archetype – the Nemesis

Like some of the best villains the hero creates his own nemesis.  Batman in many incarnations is responsible for the creation of the Joker. And ultimately what the Joke wants above all else is to make Batman like him.  He may try and kill batman, he may bring death and destruction to all those around him.  But he never really wants to see batman dead at least as long as batman provides him with amusement.  Where batmen is driven by the need to control the world around him the joker desires to bring it all down around him.  In fact in one book the joker gains unlimited power but the one thing he can’t do is kill batman.

In all four cases the villains all share a common base.  They have qualities that are either the same or the opposite of the hero. The hero and villain are tied together they share different facets of the same abilities or where one is weak the other is strong.

Other Famous Villains

Voldemort 

Lord Voldemort

The Antithesis – Harry Potter and Voldemort are two sides of the same coin.  They have a similar abilities and backgrounds. They are both secretive and are reluctant to trust their friends.  But where Harry sees strength Voldemort sees weakness.  Voldemort is ultimately destroyed by his own fear and desire to control fate.

Gul Dukat

Gul Dukat

The Antithesis – Benjamin Sisko and Gul Dukat are both officers in their respective militaries with strong family bonds and a desire to be loved and respected by the Bajorans.  But Gul Dukat is ruthless and untrustworthy. Despite all the lies and claims of kindness he cares for no one but himself and desires only the adoration and respect that he feels he has been denied.  While Sisko reluctant bares the responsibility that is forced on him, Gul Dukat craves it.  He will betray anyone if it will grant him the recognition and power he feels he deserves.

 Khan Noonien Singh

 Khan Noonien Singh

The Nemesis – Khan the most famous villain in startrek the original series.   He hates Kirk and will do whatever it takes to make him suffer.  Even though they met only briefly and for Kirk it was a minor encounter is set Khan on an unalterable course.  They are both leaders and commanders.  But Khan is stronger, smarter, and far more dangerous than Kirk will ever be.  But it is Khan’s inexperience and obsession that allows Kirk to defeat him.

Mr Hyde

Mr Hyde

The Nemesis. In many ways Mr Hyde is the classic Nemesis he is created by Dr Jeckle in an attempt to gain control. But Hyde is everything Jeckle hates about himself and everything he wants to be.

There is another class of villain which I call the Fear.  These are villains who anthropomorphise the fear of the main character or audience. They are forces of nature. They are supernatural beings who live in the shadows. And sometimes they are just people with power who can destroy they main character just because.

The Fear Villains

Nurse Ratched

Nurse Ratched

Dracula

Dracula

Of course there are other villains and antagonists in stories some terrifying, some ruthless, some forgettable, some memorable but a great villain needs more than that.  A great villain needs a personal connection with the hero.  The villain needs to drink from the same well as the hero. They need to take the heroes strengths and make them his own even if it a distorted version of those strengths. Being just evil isn’t enough.

 Creating a Villain

When it comes to creating a villain you should first look to your protagonist.  Look at what makes them special and interesting. Then takes the qualities and twist them into a more sinister version.  Make the antagonist into everything the protagonist is not.

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