5/7/14

Why I Hate Cheap Villains

Pick your favorite medium - books, film, TV.  They all have heroes, antiheroes, main characters, and supporting casts.  And all of their stories have a villain of some kind, even if it's the hero's own mind or a ghost or the weather.

But just as all heroes aren't created equal, villains run from impervious to flimsy, hitting every mark in between.

What's a cheap villain?  I'm sure you've noticed them before.  They lack the depth that real people have, relying on one or two traits to get by.  Sleazy lawyer.  Power-hungry magician.  Obnoxious boss.

Every word they say is a cliche instead of the vibrant way most people talk.  "You're gonna get what's coming to you."  "I deserve to rule the world."  "I'm the boss around here."

Cheap villains have one focus: getting what they want, which is usually a pretty simple thing.  I want to win every case, right or wrong, to make lots of money.  I want to be all powerful so no one can stop me.  I want all my employees to do my work so I can be lazy and goof off on the internet.

But why should I care?  What does a cheap villain hurt, anyway?  It's easy - cheap villains don't need strong, mature, complex heroes to beat them.  The most sniveling, clueless hero can beat a weak villain with a little luck and decent timing.

What makes a good villain?  Let's go to a book, movie, and TV franchise almost everybody knows: Star Wars.  Darth Vader is still, three decades after the original movie trilogy, one of the most iconic and classic villains.  Why?  He has all the makings of a villain - power, ruthlessness, quick decision making - plus depth and complexity.  He wasn't always evil.  His audible breathing and black shiny mask weren't things he chose - they were products of a painful, traumatic rebirth.  The fact that the hero, Luke Skywalker, has the chance to appeal to Darth Vader's emotions and lighter past is huge.  Could Luke have defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor as a fresh-faced kid right off his aunt and uncle's farm?  No - he has to face his own dark thoughts, learn to master the use of the force, and take on great responsibility in order to stand toe to toe with these villains.  Not to mention the Emperor's love of shooting pain-inducing lightning from his hands.

Let's take that theory to books.  One of the scariest things for most people is uncertainty, and unpredictability makes some of the best villains.  In Marcus Sakey's The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes, the boundless Bennett can and will find any way to show up precisely when you don't want him to - including in the middle of a bikini wax.  Good villains are master manipulators like the trusted father figure in Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram.  Scary villains aren't always the ones who torture you on purpose.  Sometimes, they're the ones who kidnap the wrong teenager and leave her to die like in Ouida Sebestyen's The Girl in the Box.  Successful villains make you love their charm even while they murder and lie like in John Berendt's nonfiction novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  What all convincing villains have in common, including everyone I've listed here, is that they believe they're the hero of the story and their actions are justified.

Strong villains demand strong heroes to beat them - Spiderman against the Green Goblin, Katniss Everdeen vs those who run the Hunger Games, Sherlock Holmes matching wits with Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler.

In the end, I just like good characters.  Let steel sharpen steel.  What do you think?

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