The recent fandom around villains lately has been huge. The YouTube channel “How It Should Have Ended” has had the Super Hero Cafe for a while now, but recently has added the Villain Pub. There is an obvious desire to see more of these villains then we already do. At the same time not all villains rise to this level of fervor and obsession. So what makes us fall in love with a villain?
There are a lot of villains in movies, books, video games, and more, but what distinguishes some from the others. There are villains that are still good villains. They progress the story forward, they thwart the hero, but more than simply stating I am the bad guy with no more too them. At the same time there are certain things that the villains who we love have that the others do not. There motivation, character depth, and mystique all have that little something extra. First, let’s look at what makes a generally good villain and why they might not get the same sort of attention.
Villain for Villains Sake
Some good villains can be more than cardboard cutouts of the idea behind what a villain should be, but still do not reach the level of being more than just the villain. Many of there motivations seem to be purely selfish; greed, power for powers sake, revenge, etc. Most of the villains in Die Hard or Lethal Weapon are mostly forgettable because it is mostly about a selfish desire. Whatever flourish they give to that greed it comes down to the same basic idea. They are usually not too hard to understand as characters and even though they can be fleshed out pretty well they do not have staying power.
The other part of the villain is that most of the time they are there to drive the heroes story forward instead of their own. Sauron is a great example of a villain. He is a great villain, but I would not say he is beloved. He is more memorable then others and while he does have some characteristics of the beloved villains that we will describe in a little bit, he is still present to drive the story forward of the heroes. With such an epic cast of heroes as in Lord of the Rings you need a large villain and Sauron fits that bill. At the same time he really does create the larger motivation for the hero versus being story in and off himself in some ways.
Now the first thing that you need for a character to potentially be beloved is they need to have depth. If they fill like a cardboard cutout of a character then there is not enough there for people to get their brains around. You need to have something there to be talked about and reviewed for there to be anything to remember. We remember those villains who give us more than just the generic evil. They have a history that leads them to the point they are now. Magneto is someone who has amazing depth to his character. He is not evil for evils sake and his history strongly informs his actions. This creates an interesting view and analysis of who Magneto is and what he will do. We love him in part because we can understand the path that has brought him to this point even when it is not fully explained to us.
The other part that is important for a villain to reach the status of beloved is a complex motivation. His motivation cannot be simple or purely selfish. There can be selfish elements to it, but it has to go beyond that somehow. It could be a motive that we cannot understand or it could have layers that you have to peel back to see everything that is going on. Loki has become practically renowned. I am not sure that they could ever kill him off because he is just too good. His motivation is incredible complex though. He still has a family connection to his father and mother. He wants to show that he has the ability be a ruler, but does not just want to subjugate the people he rules. At the same time he does want to destroy the image of his brother Thor. There are a lot of motivations at play happening all at once that means that the actions taken by Loki are never are simple as they appear.
A third and key element to a villain rising to the level of beloved is mystique. There has to be something we cannot entirely put our finger on because we need to want to know more. Most people love a mystery, they love to try and figure out what is going on. When a villain has a quality that is a mystery it simply makes them more interesting. The Joker is the perfect example of a character that is a mystery. He was obviously something before he went crazy, but what is really important is who his now and honestly no one really knows. The reason he takes certain actions is almost unexplainable and yet we love him for it. He has an unpredictability that keeps us guessing what he will do next.
It does really come down to one important point and that is to have the villain to be a fully realized person. We have to be able to think of them as complete and whole characters not concepts or characterizations. Really if you look at this list a beloved villain is just the other side of a beloved hero. They both need to have all of these characteristics in order to be truly beloved. The hero is a little bit easier though because they are the hero. The villain we should want to not succeed, so for us to love the villain it creates a complex relationship with the story being told and the hero they are facing. In the end this can make the story a more interesting experience and even make the villain outshine the hero at times.