(I wrote this, then realized it would probably be the first of an eventual series on villains. Here goes.)
Everyone loves good villains. They can be fun -- or horrifying -- but one thing good villains always are is memorable. It’s easy to write poor villains, as well. How can you tell the difference?
In high school, when I started writing fantasy, I always paid special attention to the bad guy scenes. Several years ago I found copies of several things I had written back then and went over them. While most of it was quite horrible, the scenes where the bad guy was doing something cool were fairly well written! I was retroactively proud of myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t writing anything that any sane person would call worthwhile. The villains were extraordinarily cliché. One had stone gray skin, smooth, hairless, and unbroken. As he broke forth from the rocky ground, powerful arms cracking and boulders the size of horses, seers and witchwomen thousands of miles away cried out in prophetic horror. Another wore a deep red velvet cloak that hid all but his face completely from view. His eyes shown an eldritch red, the effects of his looking first-hand into the Far Abyss itself.
Neither of these would be entirely unusable as a villain now, regardless of the cliché. And the scenes weren’t written that poorly, either. (Though as I mentioned in a previous post, this was likely because of how cool these scenes were, so they were naturally easy to write.) They don’t really seem that memorable, though. Why do you think this is so?
The problem is, neither of these villains have much personality. The gray giant was an ancient evil, powerful by nature, and was driven to destroy and conquer because that was his nature. He was subjugation, the incarnation of ancient dark magics, and he would conquer. He could only be stopped by brute force: armies and magic stronger than the ones he could raise. A macguffin would likely be needed to defeat him. The cloaked man was once mortal, or might even still be. He was the quintessential power-hungry mage. He had tasted power, and he would not rest until he had all of it. Nothing, not morals nor even the desire to keep himself human, would stop him. A macguffin would still be useful here, but it might also be possible for the villain to come into sudden doubt near the climax of his plan, a hesitation which would cost him his life. (This doubt would, of course, be planted by the sheer goodness and selflishness of the hero.)
The best villains are usually ones that evoke strong emotions in the reader. Often, the story will try to make the reader loathe the villain. The evil king who delights in torture (extra points if you make him fat), the dark lord who watches in satisfaction as his whispers slowly tear the skin off the hero’s loved ones – these make the reader long for the villain to be destroyed. They root for the hero not simply because they want the good guys to win, but they also specifically want the bad guys to lose.
Other times, the writer wishes to create sympathy, or even empathy for the villain.* I think this creates a stronger character than simply making him despicable. Perhaps he is a powerful general who has come to hate war, and believes that once he has conquered the world, there will finally be peace. Perhaps an ex-priest who now detests God, and all he stands for, because of the horrible things that the church has forced him to do. You can go darker than that, easily, but I could list examples for another thousand words. That’s not what this post is about.
The main point here is that the readers really need to care about the villain. If you can make them love the bad guy, that’s great! It’s often good as well if you can get them to absolutely loathe the villain. Very occasionally, I’ll come across a story where the “villain” is absolutely unrelatable, and it’s almost like the good guys are fighting a force of nature itself rather than an actual bad guy. This can work, but it’s more of a man vs. nature conflict than anything else. If you want your story to have a villain, then you need to make that villain real. Even if you are trying to make a villain that the readers will absolutely hate, give them a way to understand him a little bit, at least. Give the villain a real personality, not just a plot-based function. Give him emotions and thoughts, even if you never show those thoughts directly.
Having a real, thinking antagonist also tends to make the story as a whole better. Nothing points out plot-holes like a villain who refuses to do what you want him to do because he’s not that stupid.
*Sympathy connotes a feeling of sorry or pity for the other party. You feel bad for them, even if you don’t understand them. Empathy implies that you DO understand the other person; you understand their emotions and experience them yourself.