Writing a “good” bad guy isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most important parts of writing genre fiction. Now I understand that not every novel will have a primary bad guy, and the antagonist isn’t required to be a character in the book. But if a villain isn’t the primary antagonist, it can in a minor role as another source of conflict to keep your story moving.
What makes a good villain? It’s a question that has been asked and discussed by most writers, including Scott and me in our podcast episode 15, What Makes a Good Villain?
It’s often the motive of the villain which makes him interesting. You know, being evil just for the sake of being evil is boring. A lot of writers will say the best villains are convinced they are the true good guy. On the surface, that sounds good. But when I think about some of my favorite villains, that is rarely the case.
So just for fun, I thought I’d list some of my favorite bad guys, and share what I believe their motive for being bad is.
The Stand by Stephen King is my favorite novel and one of the more interesting aspects was the lead antagonist, Randall Flagg. Flagg, of course, went on to make appearances on several of King’s other books as well, and part of what kept him interesting was the mystique surrounding him. (Sadly that mystique was destroyed in the later Dark Tower books, but that’s a story for another day.)
His Motive? Power. At least in The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon. And even though he’s in more of a servitude role in the Dark Tower series, his demise comes due to his secret desire to kill the Crimson King and take the tower for himself. In none of his appearances would I ever say that he felt like the “good guy” in his own story.
While The Stand is my favorite stand-alone novel, Dragonlance Legends is my favorite series. It’s the sequel trilogy to Chronicles, and has a larger focus on a good-guy-turned-bad-guy mage named Raistlin. What makes Raistlin one of the best bad guys to me is partly because I felt like I could relate to him when I was a depressed kid in high school, and partly because his actions are so believable.
His Motive? He’s not evil for the sake of being evil, he turns evil in part for revenge, and in part for his quest for power/godhood.
Fun facts about Raistlin: 1) He was voiced by Kiefer Sutherland in the animated movie and 2) It was while reading Legends that I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
Jason isn’t my favorite movie villain just because he’s my namesake. He’s my favorite because he’s awesome. He’s tough. He’s mean. He’s nearly indestructible, and has the uncanny ability to continue returning from the dead. What’s not to like?
His motive? Revenge. Both for the death of his mother, and also for his childhood trauma. Teenagers hanging around in the woods having sex have really caused him a lot of harm in the early years. So he makes them pay. Again and again and again….
And speaking of a nearly indestructible villain, who doesn’t love the Borg? “Resistance is Futile” right? The cube ship flying cybernetic bad guys who want nothing more than to assimilate every worthy species they come in contact with.
Their motive? Conquest. They don’t see things in terms of good and evil, only necessity. And by necessity, they conquer everything they run into.
It would be wrong to close out this post without mentioning every wrestling fans’ favorite villain, The Nature Boy Ric Flair. Nobody did “bag” better than Slick Ric. The biggest limos, the fanciest robes, the most expensive watches…the “Naitch” had ’em all. Not only would he pin your shoulders to the mat (usually after many illegal shenanigans), but he’d humiliate you in the mic later, and take your girl in the process. And he sold out arena all over the world in the eighties and nineties as wrestling fans hoped to watch their hometown hero take down the hated world champion.
His motive? To be the best. To keep the title. To get the girl.
The common motive?
So those are my five favorite villains. And you’ll notice that in all five case, their “evil” is motivated by power or revenge. In none of those cases are they convinced that they are really the good guy. I would say that they feel completely justified by their actions, but overall (with the exception of the Borg) they know that they are on the wrong side of the moral argument; they just don’t care.
And to me, a villain who is willing to do pure evil for a selfish goal is way more interesting than a villain who believes he is the good guy.
Closing note: I did leave one bad guy off the list, and that’s John Kramer (Jigsaw) from the Saw series. I love those movies, and I love his character. This is a case where the villain does believe he is simply “doing the right thing” and it works well. But to me, as the movies progress, you like him more and more, and do start seeing things from his point of view. So much so, that in my opinion, he makes the switch from antagonist to protagonist. And then he’s no longer the villain.
Who are some of your favorite villains? What makes them tick and what are their motives? Leave a comment and let us know!