Most, if not all members of the geek community have a favorite villain. The Joker, Loki, Darth Vader, and Ramsay Bolton are just a few evildoers that have gathered a huge following across the fandoms. We’ve come a long way in the field of villainy; not too long ago the villain of a story was usually just a mustachioed bad guy whose purpose was to be thwarted by the story’s strapping hero whilst twirling his evil mustache. Recently though, we’ve begun to experience a change. Villains are being humanized, and that, without a doubt, makes for a better story.
First of all, what even is a villain in the morally gray worlds of pop culture? In storytelling, villains traditionally serve the purpose of representing something that the artists wants you to hate; when you get down to it, villains are essentially just symbols. they can represent corporate greed, over-extension of power, violation of rights, or even something as trivial as getting in the way of the protagonist getting laid.
There are a few different ingredients in villain soup: goals, motives, means, and qualities. Their goals are what they want to achieve. Most of the time it involves gaining more power, for themselves or for something higher. Their means are how they go about their goals. These compound the villainy, as the means often include awful things like blackmail, murder, and manipulation. The motives and the attributes, on the other hand, are the two things that can humanize a villain. Their motive for doing something evil can actually, in some cases, be quite noble. Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender simply wants to regain his honor in the eyes of his father. Loki (Marvel canon; mythological Loki is the worst) is tired of being treated as an outsider and wants to claim what he perceives is his birthright. These motives can be a bit twisted, but we can still identify with them. Understanding why a villain is doing something makes us empathize with them. With their qualities, the villain can be an evil-to-the-core type who eats babies and burns things, but can still still be admired by the masses because of their other qualities. Take Ramsay Bolton as an example (Warning: mild Game of Thrones spoilers ahead). It can be pretty universally agreed that he’s the worst. However, he’s one of my favorite Game of Thrones characters! He’s a violent psychopath, sure, but we as an audience can’t help but be drawn to his charisma and intelligence. He’s the kind of character that we hate to love, and that makes him an excellent villain.
Why worry about making good villains in the first place? We made them one-dimensional and flat for a centuries, and it worked out pretty well! The reason we need relatable villains lies in the purpose of storytelling itself.
Storytelling is the art of emotion. The best stories are those that make us weep, or leave feeling changed. The more emotional clout a story has, the better it is (usually). Feeling conflicted about a villain adds so much to a story’s impact. Villains for the longest time had only a few qualities other than “evil”. In mythology we get characters like Satan or the Titans or the Ice Giants, who exist only to ruin the lives of humans. Even up to the end of the 20th century we saw villains where they had a gimmick (think the Joker or the Penguin from the 1960’s Batman) and a role, and not much else as far as personality goes. The shift that occurred at the end of the 20th century was an incredibly important one. Empathizing with villains is now a staple of storytelling, and I think that it’s improved our stories for the better.