The Ones You Love To Hate – Villains

It has been said that without conflict, there is no story.

Cinderella met the Prince and lived happily ever after.
Romeo and Juliet fell in love and lived happily ever after.
Luke Skywalker lived with his Uncle and Aunty and lived happily ever after. 
Clark Kent met Lois Lane and lived happily ever after.
I love the fact that as much as we apparently long for the happy endings, these stories fall flat without the conflict that delays it, or even prevents it completely: Romeo and Juliet never got their happy ending, and Clark Kent seems destined to battle Lex Luthor or some other super villain until the end of time.
The fact is that every protagonist needs an antagonist, something that stands in the way of their happy ending. Sometimes this can be something internal; maybe a battle with addiction as in a Scanner Darkly, or with self-doubt and lack of self-confidence, as in Bridget Jones Diary. Sometimes this can be against nature, against the elements, as in The Day After Tomorrow and Twister. But often, the antagonist takes physical form as a villain, a person who thwarts our heroes efforts.
One of the prime roles of the antagonist, more specifically than providing obstacles, is to provide a measuring stick for our protagonist. Until our hero faces and struggles against a foe, we have no idea what his strengths are, and to reveal a great hero we need a great villain. If Tony Stark aka Iron Man battles with a someone who’s been dropping litter in the park, so what? No, to see what he’s really made of, we need a villain who can push him to his limits. We need someone who makes our hero struggle. We need a villain who for all intents and purposes is superior to our hero, allowing our protagonist to grow as he overcomes insurmountable odds.

Now that we’ve identified the importance of a great villain, there are two important things to remember when creating worthy opponents for our heroes.

Motivation – Just as our heroes must have a motivation, have an objective, so must our villains. We’ve come a long way from the nefarious gentlemen tying young ladies to train tracks and twirling their mustaches for no apparent reason. We expect something more. Most of them don’t even think of themselves as a villain. In their minds, they are the hero of their tale, and are simply doing what they have to do. Even if we don’t agree with their motivations, it is essential that we understand why the villain acts the way he does. Sometimes we may even be able to sympathise with them.
In Othello, Iago is driven by jealousy of the man who has it all, the prestige and adoration of everyone. We may not condone his actions, but we understand his motivation.
In Batman Begins, Ra’s al Ghul shares a similar motivation to Batman, although his methods differ critically. He see’s the corruption in Gotham and wants to bring it to an end, by whatever means necessary.
In The Matrix, Agent Smith, an AI construct, isn’t just simply following orders when he tries to destroy the resistance. Having sent the other agents out, he confesses to Morpheus that he can’t wait to leave this place, that he can’t stand it, and he fears that he has been infected by the humans.
In the story I’m currently redrafting, the antagonist is seeking revenge for something that he holds the protagonist responsible for (to find out what you’ll just have to read it when it’s released ;))

Along with believable motivation, it is also important to imbue our villains with qualities, attributes that make them worthy opponents.
In the stories of Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty is a criminal mastermind, an intellectual giant who seems to stand alone as an equal to Holmes, with none of the moral restrictions that are imposed on Holmes.
In Dark Knight Rises we have a completely different villain in Bane. He possess great strength, succeeding in physically breaking the Batman. On top of this, he is also revealed to be fiercely loyal, having watched over Talia al Ghul for most of her life.

Villains are important, at least as important as our heroes. If writers can remember to create fully fleshed out antagonists, with believable motivation and strong characteristics, then they will have memorable villains, and memorable stories as a result.

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