Because a good bad guy is the author’s best friend
Nothing can make your hero more heroic that pitting him against a worthy adversary—so why are many villains mustache twirling buffoons? Here’s my brief list of the attributes of a good villain, and how to use those attributes to make people cheer for your hero.
A good villain must be ACTIVE:
Writers often complain that they have trouble making the middle of their novel exciting. A villain who acts, instead of simply sitting around thinking evil thoughts, is the best possible cure for a sagging middle-book. First, the villain should have his own credible, well-thought-out goal. Then he needs a logical plan to achieve it. And when he acts on this plan, it should require the villain to do things that will bring his nefarious plot to the attention of the hero. Trying to figure out who the villain is, what he’s doing, and how to thwart him, gives your hero plenty to do in the middle of the book. And once the hero’s efforts come to the villain’s notice, the villain can try to stop, mislead, and remove/kill the hero, which produces even more drama and action.
This villainous list doesn’t just apply to action/adventure stories. The vain girl who is trying to steal the high school heroine’s true love can write the heroine’s phone number on stalls in the boy’s restroom, and plant drugs in the heroine’s car and then make an anonymous tip to the police right before the prom. The boss who’s trying to stop the hero from forming a union can cancel the hero’s vacation, frame him for negligence so he can fire him, or even hire thugs to beat him up. The jealous bunny can feed the heroine bunny’s beautiful hat to a goat right before the Easter pageant, or dip all her colored eggs in ink.
A good villain must be SMART.
When the author has the villain do something stupid so the hero can defeat him, it not only makes the villain look stupid, it makes the hero look weak. (The author looks lazy, too.) And fake brains don’t count. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell the reader that your villain is the most brilliant mad scientist who ever created a world-destroying megaweapon—if your villain acts stupidly, then he’s stupid. I recently read a novel where the heroine “played on the villain’s ego” by “challenging him” to hunt her in the woods. When the villain accepted the challenge I wrote both of them off as idiots. By the time the heroine had dragged several people (who had no woodland skills) out to the woods with her to act as villain-fodder I was plotting out exactly what the villain should do to render the heroine complete defenseless—and really hoping he’d do it, because she deserved to lose! This is not the state of mind in which you want your reader going into the climax. I don’t care if your villain has an ego the size of Mount Everest, or is totally obsessed with his evil goal, he should never act like an idiot. Not because villains in real life never act like idiots—they frequently do. But because the moment you paint your villain as a fool, you cheapen your hero. The smarter your villain is, the better your hero looks when he wins.
A good villain must be SENSIBLY MOTIVATED, AND NO WORSE THAN HE HAS TO BE TO ACHIEVE HIS GOAL.
This may be a personal prejudice on my part, because there are plenty of fictional villains who are mindlessly evil sadists that are bad just for the sake of being bad. But for me, these villains lessen the impact of any piece of fiction they inhabit because they’re not credible in most scenarios. If you’re writing a mystery or thriller whose main focus is how the mind of a serial killer works, then you can use this kind of villain effectively. But in any book where the psychology of a sociopath isn’t the main focus of the story…they just aren’t believable. And the more sadistic and ruthless they are, the less credible they get. The villain who accepted the heroine’s challenge to hunt her in the woods was a sadist to end all sadists, for no reason except that he was evil, very evil, evil incarnate… Yawn.
A credible villain can be motivated by anything from simple greed to self-preservation, from patriotism to revenge, from religious fervor to ambition to romantic love. In short, anything that can motivate any normal person can also motive your villain. And if your villain does nothing worse than he has to in order to achieve his goals, he becomes even more believable. One of the best villains I’ve encountered recently was the bad guy in the first National Treasure movie who. When he was stealing the Declaration of Independence, this villain armed his men with stun guns…because murder is a much more serious charge than robbery, and there was no reason to kill anybody. He was also smart enough that beating him was a real challenge.
Finally, a note on villains and POV. A number of novels I’ve read lately spend a lot of time in the villain’s point of view. This may be another prejudice on my part, or I may be influenced by the fact that I write mostly YA fiction where limited viewpoints are more common—but for me as a reader, time spent in the villain’s point of view is wasted because I don’t bond with them. The author shouldn’t even want me to bond with them! I’m reading a book because I want to hang out with the hero, and being in the villain’s head is usually boring at best, and icky at worst. I can also be a sign of lazy writing, because it takes more work to reveal the plot through the hero’s eyes than to simply drop in on the villain and have him tell the reader all about it. Some writers reveal the villain’s plot in an effort to create suspense despite a slow beginning—the hero doesn’t know it yet, but evil lurks… This too is easier, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as starting the story in the right place, and letting the reader experience the hero’s shock and dismay as he slowly realizes that all these horrible happenings aren’t mere chance. That there’s a villain on the loose.